The Wide Road Commentary

Rebecca Brown

A Narrow Road and Wide:
a response to The Wide Road by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian


Basho wrote his record of the narrow road he took as if he were a single one, a solo speaker: “I”. But he took the trip with Sora, writing poems to and about him and the things they saw and did and quoting him. He was a man and it was the l689 and he was aware of his age (45 was old back then), what with his “frosty” or “white” hair in different translations. He was thinking about death and restless. Perhaps like when he was young and his beloved friend and writing playmate, Yoshitada, had died, and he had run away to Kyoto. There he studied Zen and edited a book of poems by himself and others. He became a teacher, built a hut and saw his house burned down. His mother died. He built another hut, but even so began to travel more than be at home. He ran away from his beloveds’ deaths and threw himself to words. He walked to the end of his life. He said goodbye to writing, speaking, breathing.

His road to the interior was narrow. (Not exactly the eye of a needle, but narrow still.) He didn’t go alone, I say again, he went with Sora and they often stayed with friends. But where he also, really went, was to inside his brain and heart, as if not climbing to a mountain top but to its innards which were fire for a while then something substanceless, his nothing all, his traveling costume as if a monk (for safety) becoming less a costume than a sign.

Three centuries after Basho walked his narrow road, our women went together on a wide one and the things they saw and did and said they saw and did and said and give to us. If Basho was an old man on a measured walk through mountains, temples woods, then Harryman/Hejinian are explosive, vital, two-as-one but greater than the parts. Beloved friends, companions, buoyant weights that hold each other up and help each other ride. They balance and bounce, and hold and swing (the way you swung when you were young, a girl with arms out straight and holding tight to someone else, around, around, ‘til dizzy, spinning, gleeful, radiant, glad) and the air that moves around them moves in us.

Their wide road is fe+male (male plus) holding multitudes, inviting, flirting, welcoming. A girl gang (not a mean one – a nice one) sharing lipstick, chocolate, happy hours, tips (who’s hot and who is not, whom to avoid and whom to seek and how). Delicious secrets whispered late in a bar with cigarettes and booze. Condolences and confidences: help.

In The Narrow Road are poems by Basho and by others, moments he recorded and remembered as he knew his life was passing. About how an era after a battle the men are dead, the castle decayed and all that’s left is grass. About how he feels as weak as a leaf as speechless as a clod. About how animals know more than us. About how people still do the same work we have done forever and and ever will keep doing. About how he will miss his life and friends.


In The Wide Road there are letters between the writer friends. (You know how sometimes when you read a book, you want to be in it? Like right there next to Lily Briscoe watching her paint or not paint, trying to cheer her on or just listening to her think and crying along. Or in The Mill on the Floss you want to tell Maggie Tulliver – like in a horror movie where you want to shout to the character, “Don’t open the door!!” – “Don’t go with him! Don’t do it!” Or in the Odyssey so you can see “bright eyed Athena” in all her bright-eyed-ness. Well …uh…. so here I am trying to write my way into this book. But they invited us. So here’s some letter-writing.

Dear Carla,

Do you remember when we went shopping at that crazy little antique and weird stuff store in Ypsilanti? You had just started working there and were still exploring the neighborhood. It was a neat neighborhood. We walked down from your apartment which was funky, warm and the night before had been full of students talking. Barrett had come down for the reading too and I remember him sitting there grinning, happy for you, your world, the whole thing. There were only a couple of chairs. An older woman sat on one of them and I don’t remember the other. Most of us sat on the floor and drank and laughed. Sometimes someone or two would go out to smoke. I don’t remember if there was a moon to view, but it could have been one of Basho’s parties. Him and his drinking poet pals, him and his students and friends. I could tell your students loved you. You were making them realize they were smart. At the store the next day we bought a bunch of these weird handheld fans from an old funeral parlor. They had pictures of hallmark-y, disney-ish angels and creepy funereal monuments and horrible words of condolence. We bought them to give to people who would find them as creepy and kitsch as we did. I think you also bought a chair.

It was nice to see you and made me wish I lived closer to a some of my writer friends but I don’t. You are a friend.


Dear Lyn,

I have never met you in person just through your work. Which means I can’t call you friend or write a letter as a friend but only as a fan. Which I am. When I first read (and now re-read) My Life, for example, I felt grateful and a recognition that life writing from angles (“see it slant”) could be a valid endeavor. Also, that the work, like life, like ours, evolves and is kinetic.

(Speaking of Dickinson: Ever think how kinda weird it is that the guy (Basho) did the Dickinson thing (a narrow road, concise and tight, about to burst)? Whereas the girls (Carla and Lyn) did the Whitman thing (the road is wide and full of everything, the body and the earth and sex and more of everything)? Although there is that grass business in Basho, but only little bits of it, not leaves even, but sad, reluctantly reminding swoons of it. It silently reminding. Just a thought…)

I’ve never written a fan letter to a writer before. It feels a little weird.



(If the English novel began with Richardson’s Pamela, a novel in letters, written buy a guy who made his living writing model letters to teach newly literate, newly middle class Brits how to be well mannered on the page, then why not have letters in any book you want?)

Haibun, the form in which Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior was written (longish passages of autobiographical prose interspersed with haiku), evolved partly from books of commentary on poetry. Instead of putting the commentary far away like in the footnotes at the back or bottom of the page, you put them right there on the page, like you might do in a letter, the poem then the comment on the poem. Or wrote about the thing that was before the poem that happened to you to make you write and where it came from then the poem. Or when you remembered and wanted to quote a poem you love or friend.

If you go far enough east or west you come to the other place which also turns out to be, whether you know it or not, the place you and everyone started.


“then we will tell you how we got down from the mountain.” (30)

I want someone to tell me how they got up the mountain. The Psalms are full of that longing, which I have, but there it feels like all you need to do is look and want and then you can go up there. But that hasn’t worked for me. It’s like the ones who do go up do not come down and tell me. They are not bodhisattvas who remain to help us losers.

Tell me how you came down from the mountain, I want to say. Also, why. Then maybe I can know how I might ascend the way I want and need.

Or can you only tell me how you did? And I will need to find another route.

Oh, would that one could tell!

(How much of what you write is really about silence? About words not doing what you want.)


“it is in the places where things
don’t fit
together neatly

that we can best insert
our political will” (32)

Political or not, the thing must be inserted. Covert, almost. That wily female way. Because we don’t fit in exactly, neat. As Basho didn’t fit in neat to either/only prose or poetry. As we do not fit in exact. Where I don’t fit is where it’s interesting, also wounding. A sundered thing, a crammed together thing. Like Frankenstein stitches. (Mary Shelley wrote her monster after she had lost a child at birth. Been saved by being plunged in icy cold. Where motherhood and mind did not know how to mix. I’m not a mother to anyone.

We have to sneak in where we can.

This week when I was reading the part in the book about being a 12 year old girl seeing the documentary on “Papa Doc” Duvalier, he came back to Haiti. How can that happen? When you Google “papa doc” the first topic listings you get include: “genocide” “death” and “Haiti.” How can this happen?

We can slip into places where things don’t fit together neatly and so can they.

My contribution to the eradication of the world’s injustice and suffering: I turn off the news.

I go out for a walk.

(Sometimes it’s like I’m walking in, toward, interior-ly.
But other times I’m only walking away.)


Five centuries before Basho, the poet-priest Kamo-no-Chomei wrote Hojoki, subtitled in the translation I have (Stone Bridge Press, Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins) as “Visions of a Torn World”. After witnessing earthquake, floods, pestilence, the burning of Kyoto, Chomei retreated to a mountain, built a tiny hut and wrote. His world looked as miserable to him as Haiti has and does to me. As this old world does.

He thought his world was going to end. He thought his world had ended. That it, in many ways, deserved to. It wasn’t only his own death he anticipated (feared?), it was the death of everything, of roads and grass and friends and huts and mountains and of friends.

Me too sometimes.

In English you is singular and plural. I don’t if that works in Japanese.

You walk it wide or narrow, with a friend or not, alone. You walk it to a mountain, maybe climb or maybe not. You wander the interior, the land inside the border or the blood inside the skin. It is a freeway, path, a dust or mud or asphalt covered stretch. It is somebody’s skin, somebody’s words.

“we starve
as we work unnoticed
through the one
source of work” (33)

Somebodies’ words remember you: a guide.

—Rebecca Brown, Seattle, Jan 21, 2011