The jisei, or death poem, is a tradition among zen monks and haiku poets – short poems written moments before death. Some are poignant, others surprisingly amusing. All are candid insights into the author’s last thoughts as death approached, regardless of whether or not they welcomed it.
As we walked into the Waterloo Arts gallery for Theater Ninjas’ Black Cat Lost, Obie Award-winner Erin Courtney’s play about death and our personal grappling with it, there was a table of colored paper and white pencils. We were each asked to write our death poem.
After last spring’s The Excavation, the one thing I’ve come to expect when attending a Theater Ninjas show is to be open to the experience. In their show choices and execution, the company, led by Black Cat Lost‘s director Jeremy Paul, is about taking risks. So when the blank cards were staring us in the face, we thought “why not?”
Scott and I each penned our poems privately and made our way to our seats. Sitting down in one of the church pews, I took in the sparse space around us. Sparse but calming. I liked how they framed the empty art studio with a couple of wood-and-paper screens up stage and a window curtain or small vanity mirror here and there. It wasn’t overwhelming – an open space that was clearly designed to allow for a lot of fluid movement. Zen-like.
It managed to lure me into a calm that wouldn’t last for long. Within the first ten minutes of Theatre Ninjas’ performance, I was suckerpunched.