In Japan in the middle of the 15th century, a time when the kingdom was at its most isolated and, to Japanese eyes, its most perfect, a strange tradition emerged: composing haiku as you died. Japanese culture had become obsessed with the relationship between life and art. Was it surprising that some Japanese poets would try to weave the two together? What better time than at the very moment of death? After a lifetime of study, could you be perfect in three lines? Could you reduce all your life to 17 syllables? Was there more to say than Ozui wrote as he expired in January 1783?
Still tied to this world
I cool off and lose my form.
It is the kind of day to write poems about. The summer sky bleeds from soft robin's-egg blue at the horizon to deepest azure directly above. A few clouds hover harmlessly in the still air, pulling weak shadows over the earth. It is a day to fall in love, to lie on the grass and listen to Louis Armstrong. But things pass away. Me too, nearly, in a moment. A small mistake.
I am flying at the height of those clouds, 1,000 feet, and fast out of a dive: 200 miles an hour. To amuse myself I roll upside down and pass just above the clouds, dragging my tail in the vapor. I pump the stick slightly to bump the nose up. The Extra 200, a German-built plane, is made for these aerial acrobatics the way a Porsche is made for the autobahn. I jam the stick to the left and quickly pull the wing up and around, right side up, then inverted again. The Extra can come full around in less than a second, faster than you can say roll. My shoulder and crotch belts dig into my skin as I float upside down. Sweat runs up from my chin and into my eyes.
I am going to pull through from here toward the ocean below me. Hold your hand out, palm up. Flip it over. Now arc it away from you and down: a split-S maneuver, de rigueur in competition aerobatics, the sport of precision flying. I press the nose up for a second to make sure I am level. I glance out over the wing, squinting. Is it aligned with the horizon? As I set up I notice everything: the shudder and whir of the propeller, the twitch of my rudder in the slipstream, the stink of gasoline draining from the tank. What I don't notice is that I am losing altitude. I check and recheck my alignment, inverted for a good 20 seconds, ignoring my altimeter. I am descending, unaware. I am about to start a maneuver that takes 800 feet from an altitude of 700 feet.
Pssshhh. I pop the air out of my lungs and suck in a new breath as I start the pull. Almost immediately, my eyes begin to gray out as the blood rushes from my head. The G-meter creeps past seven. In the cockpit now I weigh seven times my weight, more than 1,000 pounds. I lose sight of the horizon, and my vision squeezes into a tunnel, as if I were peering through a paper-towel tube. I tuck my chin to my chest and close the back of my throat. I suck in on my abdominal muscles, trying to trap blood in my head and heart. I grunt, I hum in pain. I am like a coma patient. My mind is alive in this useless hunk of a body. It is wonderful.
Then, in an instant, I am terrified. I have seen from the angle of the sun and the sea that I am too low. I can't tell how much I am off, but I know that even a foot is too much. Friends have died this way. Aaargh! The breath shoots out of me in a horrified burst. I don't have enough room to pull the maneuver through without putting more stress on the plane than it can handle and snapping the wings off. But I am too far along to roll the plane back upright. My options flip in front of me, shuffling cards, all bad. And then the thought comes to me, the one everyone always asks about.
If something happens up there, what will you think? Will you regret the risks you took? Will you be sad? Will you think of your family?
Here, in the last moment of my life, I am writing a death poem with my plane. Now in the air, in a moment in the water, which is coming up at me at more than 200 mph. What am I feeling? What am I thinking? I don't feel remorse or fear of death or even fear of pain. I don't think about my family or the life I am about to slam into pieces. What I feel in that moment of truth is anger. Deep anger.
S—, I think. I've just killed myself.