May 31: 2-10: Russian memories

sun hanging low
long line for Cuban

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

spring tram journey
high-rises hemmed in
by birch forest

frost on the window
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.

2 thoughts on “May 31: 2-10: Russian memories

  1. You have a good memory! For the most part, these work quite well. I think that we place unnecessary restrictions on haiku– restrictions that don’t necessarily have historical precedent. The ‘haiku moment’ can be a memory, even an imagined experience; for example, Yosa Buson often wrote haiku about things that clearly hadn’t happened to him. I’m quoting this one from memory:

    how ridiculous
    that Kamakura warrior
    with his fan

    The Kamakura period was well before Buson was born, so he probably imagined this scene.

    • Thanks, James, glad some of them worked for you. Yeah — in part this experiment was prompted by an essay of Haruo Shirane (MUST get around to writing about that) in which he demolishes a number of haiku myths, including the one about haiku needing to come from personal experience. My next step will be writing haiku based on art, books, history, imagination — I really want to see what happens to this form when you stretch it, pound on it, turn it inside out (or return it to its roots, depending on how you look at it).

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