Yorick in Moscow

Gravestones behind a hedge

(Artwork by Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)

The cemetery is full of trees. How do they dig the graves? You couldn’t get a backhoe between the trunks. Are there still gravediggers here, men with shovels making dark jokes about the things they unearth in the course of their work? I think about dying here and what it would be like to lie with my head against one set of roots and my feet against another. With a rock over my chest that told everyone my foreign name. People would walk back and forth over me, murmuring, in a tongue not my own, the first and last years I was alive. For decades I would dream my life, until the gravediggers retrieved me, held me up to the light, let the sun shine through my skull.

last frost
my footprint melted
into the soil

Contemporary Haibun Online, July 2011

Across the Haikuverse, No. 5: Too Much Homework Edition

Dear Fellow Travelers,

Some weeks the Haikuverse seems to stir up a lot of Deep Thoughts in me, but not this week. This week I was too busy for Thinking Deeply. (I can hear you sighing in relief. Stop that.)

So what have I got for you? Well, a lot of really great haiku (other people’s, natch), snatched out of the ether during moments stolen from homework, fiction writing, Thanksgiving dinner, and sleep. For some reason, most of them seem to relate to one of two themes: astronomical phenomena or snow.

(It’s snowing in a lot of places these days, apparently. So interesting, the sense you can get of world weather patterns by following the world’s daily haiku output.)

Anyway. To start off our journey … here are some of my favorite responses to a polite request that The Haiku Foundation’s Facebook page recently made of its followers: “Please share a haiku inspired by the onset of cold weather.” (They frequently make interesting requests like this. You should go over and oblige them occasionally. It’s nice to share.)

premières gelées blanches -
une envie soudaine
de carrot cake
.
…first white frosts -
…a sudden urge
for a carrot cake

– Vincent Hoarau

first snow
she pockets a large carrot
for later use

– Laura Sherman

(Yes, two carrot haiku, right next to each other. It freaked me out too.)

 

closure…
a ring around
the moon

– George O Hawkins

 

listening to myself
on the walk home
fresh snow

– Michael Rehling

 

Twitter was all cold this week too. And for some reason (okay, maybe my foreign-language fetish), it seemed very polyglot.

First of all, my Twitter friend Polona Oblak, or one cloud, whose username is cirrusdream, overheard me raving in a tweet about how much I liked foreign-language haiku and generously offered to translate some of her haiku into Slovenian, her first language. (Great quotation from Polona: “the problem is, although i’m not a native english speaker, my muse appears to be.”)

There are SO many things I love about this — first of all the fact that Slovenian is a Slavic language, so I can actually semi-follow what’s going on here. (All Slavic languages are alike, but some are more alike than others. [Whoa -- Tolstoy/Orwell mashup! Didn't see that coming.])

Secondly the fact that in Slovenian, this haiku is so highly alliterative and even rhymes a little. English haiku needs more of that. Remind me to do some of that some time soon.

first chill
a spider weaves its web
under a neon light
.
prvi mraz
pajek plete mrežo
pod neonsko lučjo

– Polona Oblak (cirrusdream)

Then, I believe the very same day, I had the incredibly thrilling experience of discovering a Twitterer who writes haiku in Esperanto. Not just any haiku. Good haiku. (Excuse me: hajko.) I am still in shock that there is a person like this in the world. I like the world better now.

pelas norda vent’ unuopajn neĝerojn… sonoriladon

.

north wind drives snowflakes one by one… a bell rings and rings.

– Steven D. Brewer (limako)

David Serjeant, over at distant lightning, had a great snow moment this week too. I caught a whiff of Issa drifting from this haiku. (I’m very sensitive to that scent.)

midnight snowfall
my neighbour
coughing away

– David Serjeant

I caught even more of a whiff of Issa, maybe even something more like a deliberate (and extremely successful) tribute, coming from Elissa’s recent snow haiku, “who’s counting,” at the haiku diary:

Watching the first one,
two, three . . . four, five, six . . . seven
snowflakes fall outside.

— Elissa

(And okay … I got a little sidetracked here. I have a huge weakness, for some reason, for haiku with numbers in them. In fact, one of my favorites among my own haiku is still this one that I wrote way back in, like, the first week I ever wrote haiku. I went looking for more information about these number-haiku things and ended up, naturally enough, on Gabi Greve’s territory, reading this amazing essay-full-of-inspiring-examples. I have to read it again, when I can spend more time on it.)

(And another slight detour, this one possibly even verging on Deep Thought. This quotation, from a very famous Japanese haiku poet, got in my face when I read it on someone’s Facebook page this week — I’m sorry, Facebook person, I don’t remember who you are, but thanks for posting this! It reminded me of the essay by Aubrie Cox I wrote about a couple of weeks ago:

“The reader of a haiku is indispensable to the working of ma. This person must notice the ma and sense the kokoro of the poet. A haiku is not completed by the poet. The poet creates half of the haiku, while the remaining half must wait for…the appearance of a superior reader. Haiku is literature created jointly by the poet and the reader. A Western poem is the product of the poet alone, and thus here also the way of thinking about haiku is different.”

– Hasegawa Kai

I must say, I feel very fortunate to have had the occasional “superior reader” show up here to complete my haiku, because God knows they [my haiku, that is] need all the help they can get…)

This haiku from David Marshall, at haiku streak, is an exception to this week’s astronomy-and-snow theme, but it does seem somehow to complement Hasegawa’s words. It’s called Old Friends, and don’t tell me haiku aren’t supposed to have titles. They can if they want to. It’s a free country.

Silence that ripens,
silence that stays green, silence
fallen and sere

– David Marshall

I’ll finish up with the astronomical phenomena, since this is, after all, a voyage across the Haikuverse…

Here’s one from Terri L. French’s recent week as the featured poet on the Daily Haiku blog — I love this image:

long road trip —
Orion’s belt rests
on the dashboard

– Terri L. French

And here’s one I like a lot from the blog of extra special bitter:

November sky —
I used to remember
which planet that was

– extra special bitter

As I recently mentioned to someone, I sometimes have difficulty myself even in recalling exactly which planet we are supposed to be on, so I can relate to this sentiment. You know — keeping track of where you are can get to be a challenge when you spend as much time wandering the Haikuverse as I do …

Have a great week, and don’t get lost in space.

_______________________________

The Haikuverse in the fourth dimension:

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

No. 4

October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here –
dawn colors
over green fields

– Issa, translated by David Lanoue

It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.

It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)

And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?

Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.

Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.

This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.

Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.

my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger

 

 

 

in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010

13 Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens: Found haiku, and a poetic tribute

Make sure you make it to the bottom of this post. There is a delicious candy surprise waiting for you. Or, um, a pile of Brussels sprouts, depending on your opinion of derivative, semi-parodical poetry.

The other day somebody compared some of my work to Wallace Stevens’s. This was hugely flattering to me because, although I don’t really believe in picking favorites when it comes to poetry (or really anything else), if someone held a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite poet or else,” I would have to say (or rather, probably, shriek in desperation), “Wallace Stevens! Wallace Stevens!”

Like everyone else who knows a fair amount about both Wallace Stevens and haiku, I’d noticed the resemblance between haiku and probably his best-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (great book! read it!), quote the first stanza as an example of the influence of the haiku on early-2oth-century poetry:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I could probably go on for a while about what Stevens’s theory of poetics was and why he’s so great and everyone should love him, but you don’t really care and if you do you can go read about him on Wikipedia or even better, pick up a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind from someplace and just read his poetry until you fall over in a dead faint.

What you are really looking for here is some pseudo-haiku culled from Stevens’s work. And although I have some reservations about this exercise because I don’t think it gives all that accurate an impression of what his highly metaphorical, dense, intellectual poetry is about, I can oblige you, forthwith:

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the falling leaves
(“Domination of Black”)


the grackles crack
their throats of bone
in the smooth air
(“Banal Sojourn”)


The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
(“Ploughing on Sunday”)


The skreak and skritter
of evening gone
and grackles gone
(“Autumn Refrain”)


A bridge above the … water
And the same bridge
when the river is frozen
(“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”)


Long autumn sheens
and pittering sounds like sounds
on pattering leaves
(“Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”)


The grass in in seed.
The young birds are flying.
Yet the house is not built
(“Ghosts as Cocoons”)


Slowly the ivy
on the stones
becomes the stones
(“The Man with the Blue Guitar”)


A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter
when afternoons return
(“The Poems of Our Climate”)


a bough in the electric light…
so little to indicate
the total leaflessness
(“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”)


– All selections from Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

*

Did you make it all the way through that? Okay…as either a reward or a punishment (you decide), I am now going to inflict on you a rare example of my non-haiku poetry. It is of course haiku-ish (being modeled on a haiku-ish poem), so it’s not too terrible. I don’t think. Oh — be sure you’ve actually read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” before you read it, or the full effect will be lost on you.

Something else you need to know to fully appreciate this is that Wallace Stevens famously had a day job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.

Thirteen Ways of Looking At Wallace Stevens

I.
The view from the window
Of the poet’s office:
Thin clouds spread
Over a hazy sky.

II.
I drive down the avenues of Hartford
Looking for Wallace Stevens
Or for what he has left behind.

III.
Precision, quiddity, and fancy,
The shape of Wallace Stevens’ mind.

IV.
A man sits at a mahogany desk
Holding his pen completely still over
An empty ledger book.

V.
The black marks on an actuarial table
Look much like the black marks
On a page of poetry.

VI.
Wallace Stevens walks to work
Down streets blackbirds have flown along.

VII.
What will you pay me, Wallace Stevens,
Not to finish this poem?

VIII.
I wake from a strange dream
Through which Wallace Stevens was flying.

IX.
The shadowy quality of a day in the mountains
Spent reading Wallace Stevens.

X.
Unassimilable,
Like the thing and the image of the thing,
Like the two parts of Wallace Stevens’ life:
The doing, and the being.

XI.
Wallace Stevens leaves the office,
Carrying an umbrella,
His briefcase swinging
At the end of the arm he writes with.

XII.
The two eyes of the poet,
Seeing in two directions.

XIII.
I sit down to write a poem.
I look up, and there is Wallace Stevens.
He casts his shadow over the paper.

June 12: 1-4: Seasonal mathematics

orders of magnitude
oak saplings among
the lettuce

acute angles
the sun glares at
the swimmer’s white legs

set theory
crows mob in
bare branches

long division
hearts pasted on
a frosty window

Found haiku: Gerard Manley Hopkins

I’m still feeling under the weather from semi-collapsing at the end of a half-marathon I ran on Sunday in 88-degree weather (it’s Wisconsin, and it’s been a cold spring, so no snickering from you Southwesterners). Pretty much confined to the couch, since standing up for more than a few minutes makes me dizzy. There are worse things, I guess. I’m surrounded by all the books and magazines I put off reading all semester, not to mention the omnipresent, time-sucking Interweb.

I’m having a hard time following a train of thought even long enough to write a sub-seventeen-syllable poem, though. So at the moment I’m taking it easy on my fried brain by resorting to found haiku, mostly from prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, better known as a poet — one of my all-time favorites. The first couple haiku are from poems. The rest are from his journals, which every aspiring poet should read. The man minutely observed and described everything he saw; whole paragraphs read like poems. I can’t help thinking that if he had known about haiku, he would have tried his hand at it.

I may repeat this experiment at intervals, mining the works of other poets and prose writers for haiku-like material (full credit to the original authors, of course). I agonized briefly over whether this exercise was a) cheating, or b) meaningful, but then decided I didn’t care. I enjoy it and it’s my blog. And I do think I’m learning something from this about what writing is haiku-like and what isn’t.

I’ve taken the liberty of haiku-izing Hopkins’s words by arranging them in three lines and removing some punctuation, but otherwise these are direct quotations, with no words removed or added.

So…here’s Gerard:


the moon, dwindled and thinned

to the fringe of a fingernail

held to the candle

*

this air I gather

and I release

he lived on

*

mealy clouds

with a not

brilliant moon

*

blunt buds

of the ash, pencil buds

of the beech

*

almost think you can hear

the lisp

of the swallows’ wings

*

over the green water

of the river passing

the slums of the town

*

oaks

the organization

of this tree is difficult

*

putting my hand up

against the sky

whilst we lay on the grass

*

silver mottled clouding

and clearer;

else like yesterday

*

Basel at night!

with a full moon

waking the river

*

the river runs so strong

that it keeps the bridge

shaking

*

some great star

whether Capella or not

I am not sure

*

two boys came down

the mountain yodelling

we saw the snow

*

the mountain summits

are not the place

for mountain views

*

the winter was called severe

there were three spells

of frost with skating

*

the next morning

a heavy fall

of snow

*

at the beginning of March

they were felling

some of the ashes in our grove

*

ground sheeted

with taut tattered streaks

of crisp gritty snow

*

thunderstorm in the evening

first booming in gong-sounds

as at Aosta

*

I noticed the smell

of the big cedar

not just in passing

*

the comet —

I have seen it at bedtime

in the west

*

as we came home

the stars came out thick

I leaned back to look at them

*

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W.H. Gardner

May 31: 2-10: Russian memories

sun hanging low
long line for Cuban
oranges

zoo in midwinter
the boy in heavy clothes
cries, “Eagle!”

spring tram journey
high-rises hemmed in
by birch forest

frost on the window
blini
with coarse sugar

laundromat steam
the breath
of sleeping cats

sick from lack of sun
a lemon drop from
a fur-hatted woman

blooming bulbs
children play
near the famous prison

warm riverbank
smell of fish
from the store called “Ocean”

melted snow
reveals worn lettering:
Faster, Higher, Stronger

*

I’ve been wanting to try to experiment with writing haiku from very old memories. Do haiku moments need to be captured when fresh, or can you let them mellow for a while? Might the moments that you still remember after so long actually be better candidates for poetry than the fleeting glimpses of things that briefly move you today?

Twenty years ago I spent a semester in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union. It was a life-changing time in many ways — for one thing, I met my husband there. (He’s an American, in case you were wondering.) For another, it was a world so different from the one I was used to that I got used to staring at things and noticing them, which is good practice for a writer. There are still so many tiny moments of astonishment that flash across my brain from that time.

I will say, though — I don’t think most of them really fit themselves well to haiku, maybe because my mind was relentlessly prosy then. I keep wanting to write whole essays about them, describing the whole surrounding scene and pretentiously analyzing cultural differences. Or maybe it really is futile to write haiku about things that happened so long ago; maybe you need to seize on haiku moments the moment you see them.

May 23: 1-30: My father

1.

freeze after thaw
cell phone ring
makes me slip on the ice

2.

colder than yesterday
my sister’s voice
on the phone

3.

on my back on the ice
clouds torn open
reveal more clouds

4.

cell phone ring
the airport
vanishes

5.

a stranger’s car
roads darker than I’m used to
curve toward home

6.

snow on dark steps
inside
the family waits

7.

pancakes heavy
in my stomach
throwing out his painkillers

8.

the day after his death
the death of the neighbor’s dog
we sympathize

9.

cold draft in his room
the cards
we used to play with

10.

knocking with cold hands
at the wrong door
of the funeral home

11.

list of funeral expenses
scratches on
the polished table

12.

early dark
white sheet pulled away
from his surprised face

13.

snow on a low wall
choosing between
two burial places

14.

PowerPoint slides
of gravestones
chairs with hard seats

15.

stack of Sunday papers
can’t stop reading
the obituary

16.

morning fog
running up the hills
I left behind

17.

trying on dresses
my sister’s
opinion

18.

Olympic snowboarding
I blow my nose
on his handkerchiefs

19.

thin pajamas
Googling the words of
his favorite hymn

20.

steam from my mother’s tea
showing her
Facebook condolences

21.

day of the funeral
rust from the leaky
faucet

22.

unheated waiting room
one by one
we put coats back on

23.

my father’s funeral
truth
and lies

24.

standing for a hymn
memory of my head
reaching his elbow

25.

minister’s hug
his sympathy card
will regret my unbelief

26.

frost on the windowpane
unfamiliar
relatives

27.

their sympathy
taste of
sweet red punch

28.

snow in the cemetery
wrong kind
of shoes

29.

fresh snow on his car
another
dead battery

30.

my inheritance
a car to drive
a thousand miles home

*

My father died in February. I’d made no effort whatsoever to write about his death before. Or speak about it, really. Or think about it, come to think about it.

Something about haiku makes it easier, by forcing you to remember and concentrate on the tiny physical details of the experience. Writing these has been like compiling a mental photo album of the week of his death. It’s allowed both distance and immediacy. I approach the experience, come close enough to touch it, then draw back quickly, as soon as I start to feel it burn.