The art of horror and survival, in 17 syllables

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The Independent Online

Yasuhiko Shigemoto is recalling the day he first saw the incinerated city of Hiroshima as a 15-year-old boy. "I walked across this bridge and even five days after the bomb, it was covered in charred bodies. I had to step over them, but there were so many I walked on someone. The river underneath was full of people too, floating like dead fish. There are no words to describe what I felt."

He looks down at the rebuilt stone bridge over the Motoyasu river, just yards from the iconic Hiroshima Dome, where foreign tourists laugh and pose for photographs in the blistering summer heat. And with that, this modest retired schoolteacher and renowned poet, now an old man of 75, turns silent.

How are artists to record unspeakable tragedy? Primo Levi described the Holocaust in the detached prose of the dispassionate novelist; the Dadaists famously responded to the carnage of the First World War by retreating into surrealism; the horrors of the current conflict in Iraq may well be remembered in the future through the internet blog.

When Shigemoto began to write, aged 55, about the Hiroshima blast, in which half of the children in his school died, he chose the shortest of literary styles: the 17-syllable haiku.

"Japanese haiku poets refused to write about Hiroshima because they thought it was too short," he says. "But I believe the shortness can be very profound. If you write well, the connotations of haiku, and the ability to stimulate the imagination, is very strong - not like a story at all."

He reaches for his poetry book to explain what he means. "My aunt lost all six of her children in the explosion, and all her life she wandered around clasping a photo album of her family. It was filthy and battered from being in her hands for so long, and she cried when she looked at it. I wrote this poem for her."

Child in a photo

Old mother murmurs his name

Hiroshima Day.

The sparing, nonjudgemental observations in the classic haiku verse of five, seven, five syllables, usually including a "seasonal" word, are snapshots of moments in time.

"People tell me that there is no message in my poems," he says. "I think that's good. I just describe what I see. I do this to heal myself, and somehow others get something from it.''

On the day the bomb fell, Shigemoto was part of a group of children who were sent to dig tunnels outside the city. He was shielded from the blast while working in the hills as his school friends, who were all killed, worked on a different detail in the city centre. He was burnt around his midriff, which was exposed when the bomb fell.

Fires raged all around and the walking wounded arrived in the countryside hours later, "like ghosts" with arms stretched out in front begging for water. "They walked like that because the dangling skin would have stuck to their bodies." One of the ghosts called his name, but he didn't recognise his classmate because he was so badly burnt. These experiences, which he calls "the most inhuman in the history of mankind", have been the motivation for most of his 160 poems.

"Like most people my age, I don't want to remember," he says. "It makes me sad and tired, but our lives are getting shorter and we have to speak out. Most people today do not know or have forgotten what happened. When I walk around this city today I see young children playing beneath the cherry blossoms. They have no idea."

Yasuhiko Shigemoto's website is at www.fureai-ch.ne.jp/~haiku/ His books, My Haiku of Hiroshima I & II, are both published by Keisuisha

THE HAIKUS OF HIROSHIMA

The sunset glow -

Hiroshima

as if still burning



Still being alive

seems to be a sin for me

Hiroshima Day



Gathering bones

on Hiroshima's burnt earth

under the blazing sun



The children hunting

a cicada - not seeing

the Atom Bomb Dome

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