March 11: Family Haiku

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I didn’t have anything today. I wanted to post but I just was … empty. I was sick of my voice. Didn’t feel like talking anymore.

Then I looked around at my family and suddenly thought, These are the voices I want to hear instead. So we went out for pizza and I took a notebook and I solicited phrases from them. Phrases about what had happened to them this week and about the first signs of spring. We talked about stuff and I kept writing things down. Lots of scribbling and dead ends.

We got home and I looked at the scribbles and I put some things together and read everyone a haiku I had assembled from the pieces they gave me. I made sure they approved of them. And here they are.

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_______________________________

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My mom (visiting from New England, where are stone walls all over the place, including her back yard):


snow melting
my stone wall
reappears

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My husband (spent last weekend cleaning frantically to prepare for my mom’s visit; has terrible teeth):


spring cleaning
the last tooth
capped

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My son (claims he told me a long time ago that he needs new boots):


slush
new holes
in my old boots

_______________________________

So what’s your family up to these days? Anything worth writing home about?

March 9: What I Lost (Haibun)

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“If you want to see Dad before he dies, come now,” my sister tells me. “You can’t believe the pain he’s in.” I hang up, make the flight reservations and pack. Then, jittery with nervous energy, I note that there’s just time for me to go for a quick run before I need to leave for the airport.

I put my cell phone in my pocket before I set off, in case my sister has anything else to tell me.

childhood summers —
he combs my tangled hair
painlessly

The sidewalks are coated with ice. I try to run carefully. But a cardinal darts from a branch hanging across the walk, a flash of red that pulls my attention into the sky. Suddenly, I’m on my back, pain in every part of me, afraid, for just a minute, to try to move.

But I force myself to my feet and set off running again, even faster now, despite the ice, because of the ice. I’m young, I’m strong, no cancer will ever worm its way into me and break my bones from the inside out. I’m about to get on a plane and rise thirty-five thousand feet in the air and descend, alive, a thousand miles away.

Nothing else can ever hurt me.

deep inside
the snowbank —
a cell phone rings

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_______________________________

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First published in Notes from the Gean 2:4, March 2011

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NaHaiWriMo, Week 2

8    winter shadows the color of winter hats
9    spinning in circles trying to reason with the galaxy
10    cold archive room Abe Lincoln’s ordinary horse
11    chocolate sauce dipping a toe in a sun-warmed puddle
12    lark silver bullet entering my airspace
13    clouds of the world checking their immigration status
14    oil slick nebula in embryo

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___________________

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I seem to be doing very weird things with these. I guess that’s kind of the point of this endeavor. Well, I kind of see it as the point. Experimenting, risking seeming stupid or incompetent in hopes that you’ll occasionally hit upon something interesting or worthwhile. I’ve had to force myself to be very brave and non-self-censoring this month. I keep imagining people thinking to themselves, “God, she’s gone off the deep end, hasn’t she?” Wandering away shaking their heads. Wondering if they really want to come back.

It’s interesting, though, because whenever I start to feel guilty about inflicting some trite gobbledygook on you people, it will turn out that people actually like the stuff I thought was trite gobbledygook. I mean, people with good taste, better taste than I have. I’m starting to wonder if I actually have the slightest idea what I’m doing here … Stop nodding your heads so vigorously.

Halfway through. I guess I’ll make it.

See Me There: Kuniharu Shimizu and Me (Times Two)

An inspiring story of faith, hope, and survival! Tune in to hear one woman’s testimony of how her lousy day was transformed by the power of Art …

So I was having kind of a blah day yesterday, feeling sorry for myself for no good reason (I like to do this, instead of, you know, drinking or something — everyone needs a vice). Hadn’t slept well the night before. Came home from a kind of wearying family event (love my family, but it was a five-year-old’s birthday party, enough said) and passed out on the couch for a two-hour nap without even checking my email (I normally check my email ninety-seven times a day). Had weird dreams of birds flying around and people speaking strange languages. Woke up feeling remarkably refreshed. Immediately checked my email.

The name of the sender of one of the messages was in Japanese characters. Intriguing. The name of the sender in English, when said message was opened, turned out to be Kuniharu Shimizu. Kuniharu is one of my favorite haiga artists and is the proprietor of one of my favorite blogs, see haiku here. A few days ago, I sent him some of my haiku because he had mentioned on his blog that he was sick of looking around himself for haiku to illustrate and wanted people to send him some. He replied thanking me for sending them but letting me know that he had a large backlog of haiku to work on so it would probably be a while before he decided on these.

But YESTERDAY (he wrote me to say) he posted his haiga of one of my haiku on his site! Me! Mine! My haiku! Kuniharu Shimizu! [Incomprehensible joyful babbling.] So much for feeling sorry for myself. It TOTALLY made my day, even before I actually looked at the haiga and realized how unbelievably beautiful it was.

In case you missed the link above, here’s the haiga:

http://seehaikuhere.blogspot.com/2011/01/haiga-476-melissa-allen-haiku.html

The haiku (which, unusually for me, is a pretty exact description of my son’s reaction to Comet Hale-Bopp back in 1997) is a rewritten version of a haiku that appeared on this blog back in June. Back then I wrote:

slash of a comet
the two-year-old’s
finger

The version I sent Kuniharu was:

comet
the slash of the two-year-old’s
finger

And I know you have already clicked on the link and gone to look at the haiga yourself so you know this already (right? right?) but he did an amazing job interpreting this haiku. I love the colors. I love the shapes. It looks like something out of  a dream. It reminds me a little of Chagall, who is one of my favorite painters. Also, I love what Kuni had to say about his inspiration for this image. It is a poem all on its own.

In my imagination, a comet is like a swallow swishing in the sky…

— Kuniharu Shimizu

So now I have resolved never to feel sorry for myself ever again. Let me know if you catch me at it.

Thanks again, Kuni san.

_____

Addendum, 1/17, 9:00 p.m.: He did it again!

http://seehaikuhere.blogspot.com/2011/01/haiga-478-melissa-allen-haiku-2.html

I love this one too. Kuni! You are spoiling me!

The haiku is another rewritten one, from this post. Originally it was:

the year’s hottest day
her dress
is made of bees

but it became

the year’s hottest day
she dreams that her dress
is made of bees

Slightly less surreal, I suppose. But surrealism and I only occasionally get along.

We’re having a snowstorm here today, the idea of dreaming about heat and bees is very appealing to me. I might have to go to bed soon and do that.

December 15: The Past is a Different Country

There is always something new to learn about yourself, I’ve found — in particular, there are always things you’ve forgotten about yourself that when you remember them, or are reminded of them, you are astounded by. In my case, I was astounded the other day when, rummaging around in an old filing cabinet, I pulled out a small sheaf of paper torn from a 2003 page-a-day diary and discovered that apparently at least once before in my life — in the first week of 2003 — I attempted to write a haiku every day for a year.

I only made it a week, so I guess it’s not surprising that this venture didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I guess it’s also not surprising that all these haiku are 5-7-5 and that none of them are much good, although a few of them are not completely terrible either. What does surprise me is that when I started writing haiku (again) back in May, I honestly thought it was the first time I’d ever seriously considered taking up the form. I mean I knew I’d written the odd haiku in the past because that’s just the kind of odd thing I’m always doing, but I’d had no idea that I’d once spent an entire cold week fixated on them.

I’m glad I didn’t remember, in a way. If I had, I might have been discouraged — “Oh, haiku. Tried that once. Didn’t work out.” It just goes to show that you never know exactly what’s changed in you and in what way you might catch fire next.

I know you’re dying to read some of these. I’ve reproduced them below exactly as I wrote them, punctuation and capitalization and similes and incredibly embarrassing diction and all.

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January first
Christmas trees like bad habits
discarded at curbs

January cold:
even the seed pods shiver.
Hand me a sweater.

 

This winter landscape
everything is different
except the stone wall

Down by the duck pond
we trace letters in the snow:
“Please don’t feed the ducks.”

 

low sun in my eyes
I walk holding my head down
shy until spring comes

 

a fir tree sideways
beneath the lilac bush —
the corpse of Christmas

 

 

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(I also must share an entertaining piece of commentary from this notebook: “I really wanted to write a haiku about how the garbage men turn the garbage cans upside down after they collect the garbage, but it turns out that’s a really difficult thing to write a haiku about.”

I’m (pretty) sure that was meant to be deadpan humor …)

Pseudohaiku: Search strings

what dives
in the water
red as a cardinal

 

 

 

usual syllables
haiku
for venus

 

 

 

haiku monastery
seen because flowers
have gone

 

 

folding knives
and pockets
in france

 

 

 

antique geisha screenprint
missing
left hands

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It’s the end of a long, draining week. I thought we (at least we here in the U.S.) could all use some entertainment, and an opportunity to take ourselves not quite as seriously as usual.

So: The thing all these haiku have in common is that, clearly, they are not haiku. They are some of the eccentric search strings that have led people to this page from Google. I like to entertain myself by trying to imagine what was going through people’s minds when they entered these searches, and by what tortured logic the search engine directed them here in a vain attempt to fulfill their information needs.

I have a large collection of other search strings, most of which do not lend themselves so easily to being converted to pseudohaiku. Some of them are quite beautiful, though. Some are thought-provoking, probably in a way their author did not intend. Some I’m thinking of using as writing prompts in the future. (“Poems about bad wolves”? Yeah, I would read a poem about bad wolves.)

Here are a few of them. Enjoy. And take a few deep breaths this weekend.

the dragonfly land on you will they bite me or sting me

garden, fog, crescent moon, and stars

full moon and sleepless nights

haiku dragon shy rock

poems about bad wolves

why are the dragonflies red

why was the moon red last night

meaning of seeing a red dragonfly

“anxiety” “rustling leaves” “simile”

snowboarding villanelles

caterpillar incense cedar sphinx

October 15: 1-5 (Geese fly), and A Short Discourse on Kigo

geese fly —
towing darkness
behind them

geese fly —
change dribbles
out of my pocket

geese fly —
this lover, too,
is cold

geese fly —
down trickles
out of our pillow

geese fly —
haiku etched
in the sky

_____________________

I wrote half a dozen more of these, but I wouldn’t inflict them on my suffering public. Fortunately I have a lot of other things to do today or I would probably sit here in a trance free-associating on flying geese all day.

I don’t always use kigo in my haiku nor do I think they’re always necessary or even desirable, but whenever I start to think that they’re an artificial and burdensome construct that should just be tossed out altogether, I go read Basho and Issa and those other long-ago poets who basically created this genre. I’ve been making my way through the David Lanoue-translated Issa: Cup of Tea Poems and that guy (Issa) riffs on kigo like jazz. He takes a kigo like “night cold” or “winter rain” (pages 80 and 81, in case you’re interested) and uses it like a chord, putting it into so many different contexts and surrounding it with so many different tones that you hardly even notice the same phrase has been used in many successive ku. That’s when you start realizing that kigo can actually be the basis for creativity rather than a hindrance to it.

_____________________

Oh, and hey — don’t forget to send me haiku for my 300th post.

September 18: Giving haibun another shot

Persephone

March in Moscow — snow not melting yet. Everything I see that muddied shade of ash I call Communist Gray. My only solace the white marble and gold leaf of the metro stations — all that richness, so deep underground. I stand by the tracks closing my eyes as the breeze of the train sweeps my face. Where I come from, spring feels like this.

I wonder if he’ll miss me when I’m gone.

onion seeds
deep in my pocket
warm tickets

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Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve and I made a humorous pact to write one haibun that we didn’t hate by the fall equinox. He went and jumped the gun on me though and posted his today (you should check it out, it’s pretty good). So I said, “Fine, be that way,” and took a deep breath and posted one of the ones I’ve been working on this week.

I don’t hate it. I don’t say I like it. I think Persephone probably deserves better. But I don’t hate it.

I think this will be one of a series — I’ve already written another but the haiku part is giving me some lip so I’m having to talk sternly to it. Watch this space for more installments.

(And she may not want to be associated with this effort in any way, but thanks to Roberta Beary for her excellent example and for the inspiring and informative haibun workshop she led last weekend in Mineral Point.)

August 19: Saturdays, 11 to 5

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on the birthday of a childhood friend, of which I was reminded by Facebook but had never really forgotten


*

the dog greeted me first
she was sienna
by name and color

my friend next
and then her mother
jeans and long hair

the kitchen
and its massive fireplace
big enough to roast a pig

the house was old
and felt more like my own
than my own

the past and the present
lived there together
without argument

jazz records on the shelves
classical music on the piano
above the Chiquita Banana stickers

paintings on the walls
with tilted points of view
and flower-gaudy colors

both parents painters
two studios to peek in
and feel small and colorless

an old, gray, small cat
wandering from room to room
like a fragile ghost

books I’d never seen before
and wanted
the minute I touched them

two sets of stairs
narrow and wide
so many ways to get everywhere

but in the summer
the house was no match
for the brook

paper bags of lunch
the sienna dog
following us across the fields

I didn’t always like
the sandwiches,
or not until I tasted them

I never remembered the way
but my friend led
as if there were signposts

after sun-filled fields, the wood
sometimes brambly
dark and disconcerting

and then, after a period
of  approaching its sound
the brook

the brook
a swift, wide, cold, dark path
in a hot world

glacial rocks lined the streambed
the debate was always
shoes or no shoes

no shoes always won
despite the pain of the rocks
I was the less brave one

I whined as we walked
on the water
thrilled and aching

sneakers tied around my neck
I vowed to wear shoes next time
but I never did

I always chose the pain
over the inconvenience
of wet sneakers

to travel the road of the brook
to the paved road
took forever and no time

when we climbed out
and put our sneakers back on
the world seemed heavier

it was hard to believe
there would ever again
be adventures

we were tired of each other
and our feet hurt
and it was almost five o’clock

time to go home
where the water was a pool
with a smooth lined bottom

chlorine kept the water clear
and a filter removed
everything undesirable

only sometimes in the night
a possum drowned, or
some other unfilterable animal

my father would remove
the dead things with a pole
before we saw them

that was what it was like
at our house, that was what
it was like at my friend’s

thirty years ago
in the hills of Connecticut
ten miles apart

August 4: 1-5: Times two

I do lots of three-liners, I frequently do one-liners. But for some reason today, when I sat down to write haiku, feeling tired and hot and grumpy, the ku all split into two lines and refused to consider any other configuration. Feel free to psychoanalyze this turn of events.

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yellow warbler —
clothes line full of black clothes

the funeral —
his dog walking proudly down the street

watermelon —
in the kitchen discussing their options

new potatoes —
a boy and girl trade shy compliments

river currents —
swimming with her glasses on

Snow Country: the novel and haiku (June 30: 1-2)

I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:

“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”

— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.

I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”

I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?

There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).

“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:

“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”

— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)

Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.

There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:

“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”

— Kawabata, p. 109

(mountain autumn
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball

— MLA)

or this one:

“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”

— Kawabata, p. 163

(chrysanthemums
withering in the light
from the stars

— MLA)

The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.

Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.

Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.