Sarah Lutz

Alexis Rotella and Masajo Suzuki
Two Haiku Poets On Love

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

A Comparison: Alexis Rotella and Masajo Suzuki's Haiku

Haiku poetry, a concise, usually three-lined poem that found its roots in Japan, has had a tumultuous history. Much like every other art genre, haiku has undergone changes in form and stricture as society has grown and ideas behind defining literature have risen and fallen with different time periods. While the traditional haiku adheres strictly to a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and often uses nature imagery with a feeling of a "removed self" to capture a haiku "moment;" more contemporary authors have completely abandoned these rules. They often disregard the syllable pattern all together and draw their personal emotion or "self" into the haiku moment. Two authors who have been instrumental in leading other haiku poets into new realms of writing tradition and creation are Masajo Suzuki and Alexis Rotella.

Masajo Suzuki, while technically a contemporary writer because she is still alive, is a ninety-five year old woman residing in Japan. Alexis Rotella is a contemporary American author who pursues New Age philosophies of spiritual healing and works as an acupuncturist and a Colorpuncturist. These two women have had immensely different backgrounds, living lives that have no seeming parallel, aside from their small over lapping of time. However, these two women do share the bond of haiku; and within that, they have both been noted as highly individualistic and daring writers. Masajo Suzuki had a scandalous life in Japan, being in and out of marriages and had publicly known affairs while still married to other men. Much of her haiku revolves around her love life and is bold and passionate, capturing images of love and loss that many others would let go unnoted.

Similarly, Alexis Rotella writes with a unique perspective that allows her into the "psychology" of the moment. She takes her readers into the heart of the moment, examining the motivations, intentions and emotions that allowed the moment to occur. Because they are both women writers, and generally outnumbered in their field, it is interesting to look to them as role models within their cultures and for the two generations they each represent. Taking into consideration the differences in their culture and backgrounds, Suzuki and Rotella have a surprising amount of similarity in their writing, particularly in their dealings with lover relationships. While at times Suzuki’s dated perspective causes differences in perspective, and while Rotella tends to sometimes possess an American cynicism that is part of her identity as an American writer, the two women often capture similar moments and portray them in strikingly related ways. It seems that their insight into the core of human relationships bridges the cultural and generation gap that could so easily cause problems in interpretation and understanding.

In the following two poems, both Rotella and Suzuki capture an idea of longing and intense emotions with similar images. The poems parallel each other in a surprising way.

Clutching a fist of hair
from my brush
I watch him sleep

(Rotella 173 the Haiku Anthology)

longing for him
I warm a green acorn
in my hand

(Suzuki 37 Love Haiku)

Here, both writers use the image of holding tightly onto an object in order to, perhaps, divert or lessen the emotion overwhelming them. While Alexis’s imagery is more vague, the idea of "longing" implied by the use of the verb "clutching" in the first line and the final picture of a woman "watching a man sleep," it is nonetheless as powerful as the straightforward image presented by Suzuki. Suzuki resorts to giving her reader the emotion-word, but deepens the straightforward image by offering the reader the idea of "warmth," as she cradles the acorn in her hands. Both poems give the speaker/author a voice as the pronoun "I" is used. While some haiku critics could argue that this drawing of the "self" into the moment limits the reader-interpretation capabilities; here, Masajo and Alexis both use the idea of "self" well. They allow readers to feel as though they are the "I" and are personally involved in the moment. Both authors excellently portray a feeling of tension and urgency in the speakers’ voice, using the image of holding something tightly to display the physical aspect of their desire. They have both captured a moment that could have gone easily dismissed, and have done so in strikingly similar ways.

The next matching pair of poems comment of the end of a relationship, specifically divorce. Again, Suzuki’s poem is more straightforward than Rotella’s psychological approach to the situation, and yet, both authors are able to capture the discomfort of the situation and the sadness that comes with losing someone to whom you were once so dedicated.

Discussing divorce
he strokes
the lace tablecloth

(Rotella 173 the Haiku Anthology)

luck with husbands
is something that eludes me—
autumn kimono

(Suzuki 36 Love Haiku)

Rotella’s poem captures the discomfort of the situation as she juxtaposes the image of the delicate lace tablecloth and the harsh issue of divorce. In the same manner, the image of a burly/masculine man as he gently "strokes" the soft, lacy cloth highlights the sadness and awkwardness of the situation for the reader. Suzuki’s poem is less metaphorical, as she comes out and directly tells her reader of her problems in marriage. Her straightforwardness heightens the sadness of her thought, and she follows it with the traditional Japanese seasonal reference of "autumn kimono." Here, the image of "autumn" gives readers a cool, crisp picture, in which the foliage is dying away. This image adds to the sensation of loss she establishes in the first two lines of her haiku. Both authors have captured the uneasiness and sadness of divorce, but in different ways. Suzuki uses her traditional methods, involving the Japanese tradition of "season words" to paint a picture for her readers. Rotella, in a more contemporary manner and using her unique style of psychological perspective, gives readers a poem that allows more individual reader-interpretation, and yet still gets to the core emotions of the moment.

The next matching haiku pair incorporate a small taste of humor within the context of the relationship. While both poems deal with the serious issue of lying to a loved one, both authors manage to draw attention to the lighter side of the lie: Rotella through cynicism and Suzuki through humor and slight irony.

I tell him I’m not looking
for a prince.

(Rotella 169 the Haiku Anthology)

sweet rice dumplings—
even to my love
a little white lie

(Suzuki 69 Love Haiku)

Although the scenarios presented in these two haiku are very different (Rotella’s being a more serious, profound lie and Suzuki’s being a more superficial one), the idea of the ease at which most people are able to lie even to those they care for most is constant in both "moments." Rotella uses her cynical nature in combination with a "psychological" look into why women so easily lie to themselves and to the men in their lives in order to stay in destructive relationships and avoid loneliness. Her commentary is both serious and allows the reader to have a moment of self-disclosure and perhaps laugh at the truth of the haiku. Suzuki’s is similar in that it finds the humor of the situation while still commenting of the ease with which so many of us are able to lie. In her comments on the haiku, Suzuki describes the lie in her haiku to be, "the cute fib of a woman"(Suzuki 69). It is obvious that Suzuki is commenting on a less serious offense than Rotella, but both capture the core of the moment suing their own individualistic methods of presentation.

The next set of haiku display Rotella and Masajo’s difference in approaches and perspectives to certain haiku moments. While in the following two poems, the prevailing idea is the same, the means the authors use to take the reader to that moment are entirely different.

Trying to forget him
the potatoes.

(Rotella 172 the Haiku Anthology)

I detest the man
yet I long for him
willow leaves falling

(Suzuki 38 Love Haiku)

In Alexis’ poem, the idea of her still longing to be with the man and her anger at this remaining emotion is made implicit though the woman’s action of violently attacking her dinner. Rotella puts a trademark cynical humor in the emotion of the situation, inviting readers to both recognize themselves in the moment and to laugh at the ridiculousness of their behavior. Under this cynicism, however, remains the true emotion of the moment: a woman who has lost someone she cares for and is struggling to overcome the strong emotions she still feels for the man that is no longer a part of her life. Masajo’s poem is, again, more straightforward than Rotella’s, and, in this case, she uses that straightforwardness to draw readers directly to the emotion of the moment: the woman’s struggle. In this haiku, there is no humor to poke fun at and mask the pain of the situation, there is simply raw emotion. The difference in approach of these two haiku is partially related to the differences in the women’s backgrounds. As an American, Rotella’s poetry tends to have that brash, cynical perspective, whereas Suzuki’s more traditional Japanese perspective, involving use of the signature seasonal element, is more obvious in the emotion, rather than covering it with humor or irony.

The following pair of haiku are not as specifically related as the previous have been. However, they both capture a sense of peace that comes with being totally in

Waterlilies …
in a moment he’ll ask me
what I’m thinking.

(Rotella 171 the Haiku Anthology)

true love –
summer cicadas play
a morning tune

(Suzuki 54 Love Haiku)

Rotella’s haiku paints a peaceful image in which readers are invited to imagine a couple as they sit somewhere in nature, silent and appreciative of the beauty around them. The last two lines of her poem send the message of the two being in love and in tune with each other’s thought and actions. The woman in the poem knows that the man is going to ask her thought. The peacefulness of the idea implies that she is touched first because she knows he’s going to ask her, and second, because he cares enough about her to be curious about her thoughts as they sit and admire the day and relish each other’s company. Suzuki’s poem also has a sense of tranquility brought about by the idea of "true love" mentioned in the first line of her poem. Again, Suzuki is the more straightforward of the two women, obviously describing the emotion of the moment in the first line. She then uses the remaining two lines of the poem to set the stage as beautiful and peaceful as the two lovers enjoy the summer morning. The differences in their background once again become evident as the women approach the idea of "tranquility in love" from differing perspectives.

The two women also address the physical act of making love between lovers in different ways within their haiku. Here, it seems Rotella and Suzuki switch roles; Rotella becoming the more straightforward and Suzuki falling into the metaphorical pattern more commonly seen in Alexis’ writing.

Lying in the wet grass,
him still beating
inside me.

(Rotella 171 the Haiku Anthology)

firefly finds his love
they settle into the grass

(Suzuki 89 Love Haiku)

Rotella, not making any excuses or covering the meaning of her haiku in anyway, depicts a moment following love making, in which the two lovers are so close they are physically joined together. The image of the two lying in the "wet grass" adds to the idea of their "connectedness," extending the bond beyond just the two of them, and including the natural world in their bond. Rotella brings a sensuality to the moment that stems from her direct word choice and her ability to paint vivid images using the human senses (i.e. "wet," "beating," etc.). Suzuki’s poem, while it paints a beautiful image of two lovers coming together, does so metaphorically, inviting the reader to infer the action based on the imagery they’re given. Coincidentally, Suzuki also chooses the image of "grass" here to connect the lovers to nature and, perhaps, to remind the reader that this physical act of love is a beautiful part of nature. The women’s backgrounds, both culturally and generation-wise, come into play in this scenario. Alexis exists in a society that encourages true and frank descriptions of making love. She is not told to repress or hide her sexual desires or behaviors in fear of being thought dirty or cheap. Suzuki was raised in a time when the opposite was true. One was not to speak frankly of sexual relationships and, especially as a woman, she was taught never to speak of her sexual desires or actions. Readers see both these women’s experiences reflect in their portrayal of these sexual situations.

The next pair is another example of the two women’s approaches to the same idea. They also display a difference in form. The reader sees Rotella branch away from the traditional form and experiment with a one-line haiku, while Suzuki holds firm with here use of the expected three lines.

In his wedding band watching the clouds pass.

(Rotella 171 the Haiku Anthology)


fireflies –
the man I trust my life with
we gaze together

(Suzuki 103 Love Haiku)

While some critics believe that one-line haiku is too sentence-esque and loses the feels of a "haiku moment," here, Rotella has managed, through her imagery with the man’s "wedding band," to capture a fully contrasting image. She depicts the man, lying in peace watching the clouds, clad in his wedding band. The image "wedding band" conjures several images for the reader: "true love," "commitment," "trust" and "faithfulness" being just a few. Rotella has captured a moment of peace in which the wife of the scenario may or may not be there along side the man. Whether she is there or not, the idea of lasting trust and commitment remain. Suzuki captures this same idea using the traditional three-line form of haiku. She once again reverts back to her role as the more emotionally direct poet, using the line, "the man I trust my life with" as basis for the peace of the moment. While Suzuki tells the reader directly that the woman is there with a man, she, too, captures a moment of peace between the two lovers.

Coming from decidedly different backgrounds, cultures, and generations, Rotella and Suzuki share a surprising number of similarities in their writing. While usually approaching moments from opposite perspectives and writing styles, they often choose to examine and write about many of the same emotions and motivations within the context of human relationships. Rotella’s style being more metaphorical, cynical and open to interpretation, her poems reflect the more contemporary movement in the haiku genre, and she has been a leader in new innovations of "psychological" haiku and new forms of haiku. Suzuki retains the traditional style of haiku, continuing to use the three-line form and the Japanese tradition of seasonal word usage to concisely relay certain images to the reader. While different on many levels, both women offer brilliant insight into the human experience with their carefully chosen words and beautifully crafted images.

—Sarah Lutz


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors