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Life of Issa
by James Roderick Burns


HAIKU POETS, THOUGHT Master Issa, were rather peculiar animals: poised, ink-brush on

hand, beside lake and chestnut tree, moon-viewing platform, dusty summer road. Blossom-

brief, delicate as wind-blown reeds – ever seeking a life of resonant loneliness.


And yet!


Here squats the priest in a pristine winter field; here, houseflies make love when the poet

leaves the room!



Motherless at three, step-mothered at seven, catapulted by fifteen from mountain village to

capital. But from this barrel of ashes he drew feathers, a beak, shaky wings. At twenty, a

workshop apprentice, he leapt the rungs far past his master, burst into sun with glittering




Helping monks with their verses was pleasant enough, but beyond the door was a pepper-tree,

and beyond the pepper-tree, the world. Surely cuckoo and craggy shore were calling!


He packed a satchel with two paper-robes, a fine lice-comb, then walked into the first of

seven travelling summers.



"Rice, master?"

"My horse will recross the plain."

"The shrine? This way."

All along, lawyers fought over his father’s house.

No matter.

The peony, mild-pink, emerged from its green corona. Hot-spring monkeys knocked off caps

of snow.

Barely had he returned when the village pricked his skin. Only a poem could relieve such
    In my home
    even the fleas aren’t afraid
    to bite a big man


Split-houses still had room for growth: a wife, daughter, bursting like seed-pods with life.

Second fruit, third – each sweeter, briefer, than the last. At five decades’ close he married

again, lost again; married over. At six, burned through timbers, paper walls, like a breeze-

lofted ember.


In the end, only thoughts: anthology strokes, charcoal-sketchbooks, twenty thousand

dragonflies lifting out of sight.



At last – light.

    In a flash

    the lake is filled

    with fireworks!

James Roderick Burns is the author of one flash fiction collection, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and five collections of short-form poetry (most recently Crows at Dusk, Red Moon Press, 2023). A collection of four novellas, The Unregulated Heart, is forthcoming in summer 2024. His stories have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he serves as Staff Reader in Poetry for Ploughshares. His newsletter ‘A Bunch of Fives’ offers one free, published story a fortnight ( He can be found on Twitter: @JamesRoderickB

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