Flying Pope – 160 haiku by Ban’ya Natsuishi (2021) – A Review

Our third review for the Island to Island Initiative comes from Fujimi City of Saitama prefecture, on Honshu, the main island of Japan. Japan is the largest island country in East Asia and is around five and a half times the size of Tasmania; 377,973 square km compared to 68,401. Tasmania’s very small population of only around 572,000 is but a sprinkling in contrast to the huge population of Japan, which is around 124 million.

Image: Google Maps

Our poet is Masayuki Inui, widely known by his pen name, Ban’ya Natsuishi. Ban’ya shouldn’t be in any need of introduction to those in the haiku world as his writing has been in publications for more than 40 years. But for those who are unfamiliar, since 1992, he has been a professor at Meiji University and tirelessly travelling the world promoting and publishing haiku. He is an award winning haiku poet and president of the World Haiku Association, which he co-established with Jim Kacian and Dimitar Anakiev in 2000. In 1998, with his wife, Sayumi Kamakura, who also writes haiku, he founded 吟遊 Ginyu – Troubadour, an international haiku quarterly that is still active and very popular to this day.

In February of 2022, almost a year ago today, Ban’ya Natsuishi kindly gifted me a signed copy of 空飛ぶ法王 – 160 俳句 Flying Pope – 160 haiku. I found it intriguing and thoroughly enjoyed it but at the time only had a moment to share my enthusiasm over social media as the King River Press team were in the throes of relocating from Taiwan to England and settling in.

Recently, we were able to take a few days break from the busyness of life in London and headed off to Napoli, Italy. When packing for the trip, I thought, given Flying Pope is a trilingual collection translated from the Japanese into both English and Italian, Napoli would be the perfect setting for rereading it, refamiliarising myself with the language (that one unit at uni many years back 🙂 ) and writing this review.

Image: Napoli, Italy – Copyright King River Press 2023

Although uncertain of the true identity of the Flying Pope, I did feel like he was with me in spirit so penned a few haiku in his honour. He really seemed to enjoy catching the sights and sounds on his recent imagined stopover in Napoli:

in the splash 
of a herring gull's dive
the Flying Pope

For the Flying Pope, love from King River Press

Now, a little about the history of Ban’ya’s elusive Flying Pope. Firstly, it is important to note here that there are earlier collections of Flying Pope by Ban’ya Natsuishi starting with 161 Haiku published by Koorosha, Japan in 2008 with translations in English, and another in the same year by Cyberwit, titled Flying Pope – 127 haiku. In 2010, Ban’ya self-published a bilingual Japanese and Italian collection of 44 Flying Pope haiku that is held at Meiji University under the title of Il Papa che vola: 44 haiku. The first single Flying Pope haiku appeared around 2003 and Ban’ya has published and shared his Flying Pope haiku on many occasions; this is a small sample from The Tokyo Poetry Festival Anthology 2008. The edition under review here, Flying Pope – 160 haiku, was published in 2021 by Cyberwit, India.

The book is a little longer than A5 size, perfect bound at the spine with a glossy cover picturing a feather (is this THE Flying Pope?), and a haiga – a trilingual calligraphy and colourful map of Italy – by the author on the back. The book is 98 pages, includes a biography and a long list of some of Ban’ya Natsuishi’s phenomenal publishing achievements dating back to 1996. Flying Pope’s Italian translations are by Giovanni Borriello and the English by Ban’ya and Jim Kacian. The collection retails for US $15.

Everybody is familiar with the words pope, papa, pappa or pappas appearing as early as the 9th century in Old English, Church Latin, French and Greek and understand it to mean father, bishop or patriarch. In the modern context, Pope usually refers to the Bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church and has since the time of Saint Leo the Great (440 – 461). Saint Peter, pictured below as a winged slayer, is regarded as the first pope by the Catholic Church. Jesus is believed to have entrusted him with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Image of St Peter, Hascombe Surrey, South England by Polifilo via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading through Ban’ya’s Flying Pope it’s obvious that the observations aren’t (for the main part?) being made through or by the modern Pope. In a 2008 article, Bany’ya reveals the term Flying Pope came to him in a dream:

One day, in a dream of mine, a word “soratobu hôô (flying pope)” was said by myself. Then I began my “Flying pope” haiku writing without noticing what “Flying Pope” means. The image of “ Flying Pope” is quite clear, but it may be only a caricature of Christianity.

Writing this series of haiku, finally I found that the viewpoint of “Flying Pope” could be peculiar to our days. From the mobile viewpoint of “Flying Pope”, we can watch anything that might occur on the earth. In this century, we can acquire not fixed but mobile and imaginary viewpoints.

Banya Natsuishi, 2008

Could it be after the said dream, a Flying Pope imaginary friend positioned itself on Ban’ya’s shoulder or in his pocket, taking notes and creating these haiku as a commentary on everyday happenings and whatever thoughts and emotions came to mind? As it stands, the reader, and maybe even Ban’ya himself, may never fully understand the Flying Pope’s true origins but as in the world of every skilled haijin, this collection appears to have almost written itself, travelling like a medium through the author via haiku and then onto the page, just like magic.

Now moving onto the text. Flying Pope – 160 haiku is a unique collection of haiku that shares the repetition, rhythm and carrier phrase pattern of many favourite childhood story books. Whilst reading along, you will inevitably find yourself at times taken back to something dear, familiar and adventurous; perhaps some of the English language classics by Dr Seuss or Eric Carle, snippets of superhero comics and movies, fairy and folk stories.

The collection of 160 haiku is an endearing, thought provoking and sometimes surprising journey of what appears to be escapades of a fictional character or set of characters under the pen name Flying Pope. I’m a little shy to admit it, but moving further along the Flying Pope’s journey I entered a superhero companion-like state, finding myself looking forward to the next moment in an unpredictable, yet safe wonderland that transcends time, place, culture and religion.

Image: Cover scan of a Wow comic nº 38. 1941 art by Jack Binder Fawcett Comics, uploaded by Chordboard via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, now let’s set off on our haiku adventure with some highly imaginative and offbeat commentary. In the opening haiku the Flying Pope leaves his homeland behind and spectacularly enters the worldly realm via a waterfall. He misses home and after fasting for a week becomes very hungry for homecooked wild boar, but instead is left sneaking sprinkles of stardust. Whilst being visible only to children and animals, the Flying Pope realises he doesn’t have the best superpowers but possesses the ability to swim underwater and may have even visited Basho’s old pond.

Falling from a waterfall
in the sky
the Pope begins to fly

The Flying Pope
winks sometimes 
to angels

Out of an old pond
the Pope 
flies in the sky 

Flying Pope
much more whiter than 
sheep-flock clouds

Given my wild imagination and background in folklore studies, the first thing that comes to mind from the Flying Pope’s entry via a waterfall is it’s many references in folk stories, myths, legends and global art. 浮世絵 Ukiyo-e fans would recognise the image below from the 歌舞伎 kabuki play 箱根霊験躄仇討 Hakone Reigen no Adauchi of the ghost of 初花 Hatsuhana, the faithful wife of warrior 飯沼勝五郎 Iinuma Katsugoro (c. 1590) who spent 100 days praying to a deity under a waterfall for her husband’s recovery from a serious illness. The story goes that Hatsuhana either took her own life or was killed by the same man who also took the life of her mother and Katsugoro’s brother – 佐藤郷助 Satu Gosuke. Hatsuhana’s husband recovered and then sought revenge in their honour.

Image: Ukiyo-e prints by Utagawa Family 主に歌川一門の画集『俳優似顔東錦絵』より1865 国立国会図書館デジタルコレクション via Wikimedia Commons

Another folk story comes from the world’s tallest man-made waterfall, the Roman built Cascata della Marmore in Italy that dates back to 271 BC. Legend has it the ancient Roman protector goddess Juno created the waterfall from the body of the beautiful and graceful nymph, Nera, daughter of mountain god Appennino. Juno took Nera to the top of Mount Vettore and turned her into a waterfall as punishment for her forbidden relationship with a local shepherd named Velino. Upon learning from a seer of this tragedy, Velino jumped from the cliff into the waterfall and drowned in what is now the river Nera. The Cascata della Marmore is a symbol of their eternal love for each other. In Greek mythology, Juno is known as daughter of Saturn and wife of Jupiter. She is the queen of goddesses, a symbol of love, marriage and relationships and is still very much revered to this day.

Image: Juno watching Jupiter and Io, from ‘The Loves of the Gods’ print, Giulio Bonasone (MET) via Wikimedia Commons

Now, back to the Flying Pope but still on the subject of the water, which is well-known for its amazing physical and emotional healing qualities. After his visit to Basho’s old pond, the Flying Pope heads North into a blinding sun, is stuck by a thousand needles and cops a wound to his little finger. From above he spots French surrealist and voyance poet, Arthur Rimbaud before stopping off for confession, winning the Nobel Prize, getting lost and heading back to the sea.

To the white hill
the Pope on a flight 
after his own confessions

Flying Pope
encounters in the sky
the previous Pope

The Flying Pope's 
best friend: an octopus 
at the bottom of the sea

Flying Pope
loves an island
like a red bean

Some sad and challenging scenes are passed by Flying Pope on his journey, which is quite a rollercoaster ride, but he never lets it overcome him. At one stage his heart stopped, he was in a coma, had only one lung, and part of him died but still, he flies on. There’s something very therapeutic, reassuring and healing about the perceptive, insightful, resilient and whimsical nature of the Flying Pope; how he rides through each haiku moment and then carries on his merry way through life.

Pushing aside
electric waves of malice
the Pope flies

Playing a cello
Flying Pope

Foxes and sheep
in the university - 
the Pope flies

Flying Pope
many times many times
crunches sand

For those who read and/or write haiku as therapy or as a spiritual or mindfulness practice, I would also recommend reading this fantastic review of Flying Pope on Pegusus Literary by Edward Levinson.

Going back now into some folk stories and fairy tales. Cinderella makes a debut on the Flying Pope’s journey. He dropped a shoe onto the nightless city, which she must have picked up and then the Flying Pope decided to follow her for a while. Two haiku include hairy caterpillars; which one could also inject their own meaning into and have a bit of fun with. What’s great about this collection is you can turn it into your very own Choose Your Own Adventure storytime.

A handful of haiku within the collection subtly suggest references to one of my favourite folktales based on the 16th century Chinese classic Journey to the West 西遊記 – the story of the Monkey King 孫悟空 who protected a monk (Xuan Zang 602-664) on a pilgrimage from China to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures. Like the Flying Pope, he is also immortal and possesses superpowers, such as flying and spawning. His hairs can also transform into duplicates of himself, different people, animals and objects.

Image: Monkey King spawning warriors from hairs. 悟空吹毛/尉与姥 (1839–1892) 主に月岡芳年の画集『あづまにしきゑ』より Ukiyo-e prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. 国立国会図書館 via Wikimedia Commons

According to legend, the Monkey King was born at The Mountain of Flowers and Fruit – Mount Huaguo 花果山 from a magical stone egg. There he joins the large monkey population and one day challenges the other monkeys that whichever one can rush through Mount Huaguo’s great waterfall and come back will be crowned the king of the monkeys. Monkey King takes on the challenge himself, makes it through to a cave and then invites the other monkeys to join him.

He rules over the monkeys for many years but then after the death of one of his monkey friends, Monkey King is faced with the sad and frightening realisation of death and makes it his lifelong mission to achieve immortality. He disguises himself and leaves his island home on a journey of discovery. Travelling about and living among humans, the Monkey King discovers their many imperfections. His journey was a long and challenging one where he acquired a lot of knowledge and useful tools which made his journey that bit easier. Thankfully in the end, the Monkey King does indeed reach enlightenment.

Flying Pope
in his head
a huge waterfall

The Fying Pope's 
limestone caves

In the sky
of a paradisaical homeland 
the Flying Pope multiplies
A monkey jumps into a waterfall 1864 12th lunar month Tsukioka Yoshitoshi Sumida Ryōko Fukushimaya Tashichi Woodblock print (nishiki-e) ink and color on paper. Commons image via Minneapolis Institute of Art

Spawning coral -
in the sky
the Pope flying

How many hair roots
have disappeared?
Flying Pope

Flying Pope 
just frozen
over the Tienanmun Gate

As discussed in this interesting review by Paul Miller in Modern Haiku (2010), there are a few haiku in this collection that are so obscure they could throw one even more off course on their journey with their little friend, the Flying Pope. But given the mastermind of Ban’ya Natsuishi and the eccentricity and unpredictability of the Flying Pope, one would think this is completely expected. I agree with Paul, it’s really not hard to feel sorry for the Flying Pope. With his limited superpowers, he relentlessly travels the world observing and experiencing things he has no control over. Many readers would empathise with the Flying Pope character as this is something that we as humans have to deal with on a daily basis; there are some things that we can change and others that are beyond our human or even superhuman capabilities.

The Flying Pope
cannot edit
even the night sky

The Flying Pope
casts his shadow
on the White House

Tsunami toward an old woman
deeply asleep
the Pope flying

Flying Pope
his falling tear
becomes a pearl

Ban’ya’s Flying Pope collections are the work of genius; a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the world of haiku. If you are on the search for a poetry collection that is adventurous, daring and unpredictable, that taps into the emotions and explores multiple layers of meaning, then this one is for you. It has certainly left me wanting for more and ignited the wonder and excitement that I escaped into during my childhood and when reading to my siblings, students and my own children.

You can purchase Flying Pope – 160 haiku and Ban’ya Natsuishi’s other fantastic collections from the publisher, Cyberwit, or through Amazon.

Postscript: Right at the end of writing this, I came across this very fitting review of WITNESS TO HOPE: The Biography of Pope John Paul II titled, “The Flying Pope” by Jon Meacham, published in The New York Times November 14, 1999. Perhaps Ban’ya’s Flying Pope and THE Pope have a little more in common than we realise.

By Jodie Hawthorne (Founder of King River Press)