Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!:
A Theme from in Praise of Olde Haiku, With Many More Poems and Fine Elaboration

Robin D. Gill

Paraverse Press 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004 http://dannyreviews.com/
Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! is a collection of a thousand haiku about sea cucumbers (namako), given both in Japanese and in translation, with extensive commentary. It ranges from the works of classical masters such as Issa and Basho down to contemporary poems taken from the Internet, along with a few of Gill's own.

An introduction places namako in Japanese culture, defends the use of "sea slug" for what are actually sea cucumbers rather than nudibranchs, surveys their taxonomy, and touches on some issues in defining and translating haiku. The bulk of the book divides up the haiku by aspects of sea slugs: frozen, featureless, protean, do-nothing, agnostic, mystic, scatological, helpless, meek, ugly, lubricious, just-so, tasty, slippery, chewy, drinking, silent, melancholy, stuporous, nebulous, and cold, with a large "sundry sea slugs" chapter for everything else.

The haiku are presented in Japanese, in script and romanized, followed by a word-for-word translation and one or more free translations. The commentary provides cultural background needed to understand the poems, discusses the translations, and wanders polymathically to related topics — everything from marine biology to advertising.

This may seem like a bizarrely narrow scope for a book, but it makes surprising sense. A near-exhaustive collection on one subject offers a more informative view of haiku than highlight selections. And while the quality varies, obviously, many fine poems are included.

Here are two of the nine translations of a haiku of Ranetsu (1690) Gill gives

hardly kosher
so my monks,
do you think it unclean
to eat sea slug?
stuck up
this sea slug
is it too beastly for
proper monks?
and a haiku by Gij├┤ (1741)
a few drinks
and i am a sea slug
out of water

The combination of a literal translation with multiple translations, along with discussion of the problems faced, offers fascinating insights into the difficulties of Japanese to English translation and of poetry translation more generally. Readers with some knowledge of Japanese will obviously get more out of this, but it's presented in such a way that English-only readers can follow it without being frustrated.

And Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! offers a different perspective on Japanese culture, with insights into history, literature, mythology, food, and more. These take the form of scattered details rather than substantial analysis, but they are given context by the haiku they help explain.

"'Mountain' and 'ocean' are formal antonyms in Japan, where one may still be asked whether one plans to vacation in the former or the latter."

Gill's tone is relaxed and informal and he doesn't take himself too seriously or struggle for academic respectability, but he is still precise in his own way, and insanely erudite.

Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! has been self-published, which always rings warning bells, but it's an attractive and well laid out volume. Self-publishing authors should avoid "innovative" formats like the plague, but this is an exception: the layout with centred haiku and two-column footnotes works effectively, with only minor problems. (Gill includes a few rants about the limitations of Microsoft Word for such a design.)

All told, it's an original undertaking carried out with style. I was originally interested in Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! because my girlfriend is keen on both sea slugs and haiku, but I have ended up reading more than half of it and am still dipping into the remainder regularly.

June 2004

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- details at Paraverse Press
Related reviews:
- books about Japan + Japanese history
- more Japanese literature
- more poetry
%T Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!
%S A Theme from in Praise of Olde Haiku, With Many More Poems and Fine Elaboration
%A Gill, Robin D.
%I Paraverse Press
%D 2003
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0974261807
%P 480pp