Danny Yee reviews a book with an irresistible title: Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!, by Robin Gill (Paraverse, 2003), “a collection of a thousand haiku about sea cucumbers (namako), given both in Japanese and in translation, and with extensive commentary.”
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….
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.
Kids in Micronesia used sea slugs as water pistols–by picking them out of the water, aiming, and squeezing. The Chinese appetite for sea cucumbers (and sandalwood) brought many Pacific islands into world trade networks. The bêche de mer (‘sea cucumber’) trade gave rise the name of the lingua franca of Vanuatu, Bislama. There’s definitely room for a book by Mark Kurlansky on Sea Cucumber: A Biography of the Slug that Changed the World.