Shared Water: a renku (with notes)

Shared Water: A summer kasen renku by Steve Mitchell and Melissa Allen
June-July 2010

General notes: When Steve and I set out to write a seasonal renku we realized it would be a little odd because, since he is living in Arizona and I in Wisconsin, our experiences of the seasons (and of the environment in general) are completely different. We decided to take that difference as a very loose, general theme for the renku.



1.

balmy blue lakes
shimmering dry heat
shared water

Note:  As the invited guest, I had the honor of writing the hokku.  I tried to keep with the tradition of referencing the host (the idea of shared water being her generosity with her knowledge and research of haiku).  I also wanted to set the stage, explaining our different geographies.

2.

organic milk on the strawberries
the shortcake dissolves

Note: I really liked Steve’s hokku (the first verse of the renku), especially once I got over reading it as three nonrelated lines — when I realized that “shared water” was both a literal reference to the water situation in “dry heat” Arizona and also a very clever, gracious way of referring to our shared enterprise and its theme (also suggested in the first two lines), I was impressed. So now I was faced with making my very first renku link. John Carley says that the function of the wakiku or second verse of a renku “is to closely support, amplify and complement the hokku.” I decided I wanted to echo the idea of dry vs. wet that Steve raises in the hokku, but obviously without mentioning water, and also say something about summer in Wisconsin. Wet strawberries and milk (this is the Dairy State, after all) on top of dry shortcake biscuits seemed like a perfect fit. Especially since I’d been eating them nonstop for the last week.


3.

copper strands
entwine the land
quaint bitumen

Note:  Okay, well here I got a bit ambitious – too ambitious! I was struck by the aspect of the cake dissolving.  In keeping with the introduction, as a means of showing our renku as an internet collaboration, I tried to show how the Internet has dissolved the geographical distances of our vast country, at least as far as information transfer is concerned.  The copper strands are the stranded, twisted wires which comprise data cables.  Quaint bitumen is an, admittedly, opaque way of declaring asphalt roads to be old fashioned.   This link fought me the most and I probably should’ve abandoned it for a new idea but, I like the sounds of the words . . . so, at least there’s that.

4.

bright socks on her needles
she watches the people on the bus watch her

Note: Oh, how confused I was when I read Steve’s verse … I wasn’t sure whether the copper strands were meant to be literal or figurative, and where the bitumen came in I had no idea (and why was it “quaint”? Great adjective … but applied to coal or something coal-like??). I just wasn’t getting the picture. I emailed Steve in desperation and he gave me a few clues, but I never really got it. I decided to just go with the associations his words raised for me, in particular the word “entwined” which made me think of weaving or knitting … then I threw some bright colors in there to go with the copper. And I thought we needed some machines to balance out all the nature imagery we’d had so far, and some people, so I hopped on a bus with my knitting.


5.

playing parlor games
unmindful as the moon peeks
through the drapes

Note:  For having no idea what I was on about, I think Melissa linked to my previous verse really well.   Anyhow, this verse was the last of my introductory verses and it also needed to be a moon verse.  The parlor games, to my mind, represent collaboration on the renku.  Having the moon peek in, seemed a good way to link. Also, I really wanted to spell parlor ‘parlour’ but, hey, this is America.

6.

bleached plastic pumpkins
holding a seance on the lawn

7.

stalking through frosty grass
the cat leaps
on the tail of a leaf

Note: I loved Steve’s moon verse … such a great image of the moon (probably full and amazing-looking) peering in at the oblivious people. I had had an image in mind already of some bleached plastic pumpkins, and when I realized how much like moons they looked I knew it was perfect for this link. I also liked the echo of the seance and the parlor-game-players. For my second verse I kept the action out on the lawn, covered with frost this time, and haunted only by a lone cat (in Halloween black? you can decide) hunting a fallen leaf.


8.

the young boy makes a muscle
dad gives a low whistle

Note:  The cat attacking a leaf called perfectly to mind the seriousness with which cats play.  I wanted to capture that idea and bring it back indoors, so I had the young boy making a muscle, a little boy’s muscle, with all the earnestness of an attacking cat.  It was a misc. or love link, according to the summer kasen form, so I added the father’s encouraging whistle of admiration.

9.

biology class picture
the children divided
by sex

Note: I admit that to get this link I spent some trolling through a bunch of my unpublished, needing-to-be-revised haiku looking for material. I had always liked this image but couldn’t get the words quite right —still not sure I have, but it seemed to work here next to the young boy showing off his maturity — the kids having spent the whole year studying the facts of life and still too shy to sit next to someone of the opposite sex. It also fits in somewhat with the optional “love” theme in this verse.


10.

anonymous in the dark
feral peafowl invade the trees

Note:  ‘divided by sex’ made me think of peacocks and peahens as they are most definitely, appearance-wise, divided by sex.  I originally had them making calls in the dark, mating calls, but I was afraid it might link back too much to the father’s low whistle, so I just made them anonymous in the dark.  There’s a Phoenix neighborhood which really does have an infestation of feral peafowl, by the way.

11.

the third day of fever
he writes a poem
about the war

Note: This one, probably to Steve’s severe annoyance, came to me almost instantly — I saw the word “invade” in his verse and it recalled to me to a thought I had been having about a veteran writing about his war, and then I needed another image to fit in with it and a sick human being writing about a sick societal reaction seemed like it would work well. 14 minutes after he sent me his verse I was emailing him this link…


12.

those brothers interred
their silence accuses

Note:  For me, this was just a straight, run-on link.  The idea of a war tinged fever made me think of survivor guilt.  So, the verse is about the pain felt by those who’ve lived through war regarding their brothers-in-arms who are dead and buried.  I imagined it as part of the actual war poem mentioned above.  It practically wrote itself.

13.

the moon
through a row of icicles
flashes of insight

Note: … and then he snapped the next one back to me nearly as quickly, claiming he had written it while sipping 18-year-old whiskey. Suave, very suave. But since we’d now had two verses in a row that were kind of (okay, really) dark, I thought our renku could use some lightening up. The moon helped with that — shining through those icicles that look a lot like prison bars, but have an entirely different effect on the psyche.

14.

on the roads a glacial crawl —
fly away Snowbirds!

Note:  The icicles stuck in my mind and it was a bit of a problem because, around here, even in winter, there just isn’t much ice!  So I thought “What do we have here in winter?”  and the answer was “Traffic.”  Winter visitors known as Snowbirds (typically senior citizens from colder parts of the country), contribute mightily to traffic slowdowns here during the winter months.  So, I linked the icicles with the idea of winter traffic as slow moving glaciers.

15.

andante
their conversation waltzes
to the music

Note:  I’d been wanting to write a verse about music already, and the slow traffic made me think of slow music. I thought we needed a little elegance in the renku, too.

16.

light steam in his nose
hot tea hides his fortune

Note:  I imagined a conversation over coffee, steam from the cup reaching one’s nose as one sips, but I liked the notion of hot tea and using tea leaves to read the future.

17.

bright pink sweater
the unexpected shyness
of the blossom

Note: I needed a flower/spring verse here, and I’d been experimenting for a while with writing something about a flower in a pink sweater … then the “hides” in Steve’s verse made me realize that even a hot pink flower could be concealing a shy interior.

18.

iridescent hummingbird
faster than gravity

19.

the soothing cool wind
so brief
windows left open

Note:  Oops, I misread that one; I was thrown by the pink sweater.  I thought Melissa was referring to a figurative blossom, the bloom of the sudden blush on the neck and face a shy person which, in turn, led me to the bright breast and neck of the hummingbird (very common out here).  I know.  I know.  I sure did write in a lot of birds – and nary a roadrunner!  Anyhow.  So, then I had to write another spring verse and, well, springtime is almost as rare out here as ice.  Hence, the ‘so brief ‘(linking to the quickness of the hummingbird).

20.

under the microscope
the fruit flies are born and die

Note: The word “brief” in Steve’s verse made me think of the brief lives of insects, but I also wanted to bring a human being into the verse because we hadn’t had one in a while. My son had just spent a couple of months breeding fruit flies for a biology experiment, and it was hard not to feel sorry for these creatures who spent their entire lives at the disposal of human beings.

21.

(ME) gnashing ego
believes (ME) its own truth
fear (ME) and (ME) death

Note:  I had been wanting to slide a little pseudo Buddhism into the project and the idea of the cycle of life and death gave me an in.  Initially I came up with the above verse without any of the parenthetical ME’s and I though it was okay but kind of bland.  Then I imagined the ego trying to punch through the narrative, at odds with the Buddhist belief, demanding attention. And so I added all those exclamations.  The result was jarring, even to me.  It wasn’t serene.  It didn’t capture the essence of zen.  Rather, I think it captured the tumult of the ego.   Yes.

22.

half asleep, waiting for the sound
of the false teeth being brushed

Note: I am completely convinced that the only purpose of Steve’s verse was to make my life harder. Sick of the speed at which I was turning around my verses (not that I was any faster than he was) and wanting to have some more leisure time on the vacation he was on, he came up with this evil challenge to keep me busy for a few days. It’s hard to link to something so abstract, especially in a way that then moves completely away from the subject at hand (death) to avoid linking to the verse before last. I tried a number of options but none of them seemed to shift enough to please me. Finally I seized on the word “gnash” and thought, teeth! Now there’s a different subject! Take that, Mitchell!

23.

the a.c. hums
our summer lullaby
the meter spins

Note:  That was some good linking there!  I figured Melissa had linked the idea of falseness, false belief, false teeth.  Going from gnashing to false teeth works too.  So, now, into the summer and that’s where my expertise lies.  Arizonans know summer.  I moved from the idea of being half asleep to the the idea of falling asleep to the droning hum of the air conditioner.  In the summer that hum is nearly nonstop.  It’s omnipresent.  And, of course, the electric meter spins merrily.

24.

fish reeled from the river
silver-clad for the boating party

Note: “Spin” led to “reel” naturally enough, and to avoid getting back onto the subject of death I turned the fish’s arrival on the boat into a festive occasion instead of a meditation on his demise.

25.

dressed for dinner
“Where’s your new brooch?”
she pins it on

Note:  I went from the festivity on the boat to a dinner party and couldn’t resist the minor pun of ‘dressed for dinner’ (as in the fish prepared for consumption).  This was a love link and I imagined many variations of the wife/girlfriend wearing a piece of jewelry she didn’t like.  Initially I had in mind she liked it (because it was a gift) and wore it even though it didn’t match her outfit.   But that idea was too unwieldy so I left it more vague.  When I decided to add the line of dialog, it became even more ambiguous, which was fine.  I wasn’t at all certain about the legality of quoted speech in a haiku, but it’s not like they can throw me in haiku jail.  Can they?

26.

cuttings from the jade plant
he returns her Polaroids

Note: Somehow this relationship Steve referenced in his verse didn’t seem like it was going anywhere to me. That brooch — obviously she didn’t like it and was only wearing it to please him. It probably pricked her when she put it on. Which made me think of other sharp things … and a scene from farther on in their relationship.

27.

the oak tree
with enduring scars
carved initials

Note:  Now I wanted to move back outside and somehow link to the idea of the Polaroids.  An oak tree with initials carved on it, enduring as a reminder of past love, fit the bill.


28.

Moscow beer line —
passing the communal cup

Note: All this love (or lack thereof) we’d been writing about — it was starting to make me feel like I needed a drink. And where better to go when you need a drink than Russia … where togetherness has a whole different meaning (or at least it did twenty years ago when I was there last).

29.

moonlit haze
I think I hailed this cab
it looks amber

Note:  I’ve never been to Russia, but I’ve been to Greece and I was reminded of the late night cab rides, back to base, after much communal drinking.  This verse was, alas, largely autobiographical.

30.

goosebumps on her arms
he rushes through the painting

31.

cold autumn rain
she counts the money
one more time

Note: I needed 2 autumn verses and once again I started looking through my backlog for something I could use … the painting verse was something I’d been fiddling with for quite a while and I liked the way the goosebumps reminded me of the moon from Steve’s verse. Then it seemed to me that the renku could use a little money (who couldn’t?) and something about the cold and melancholy of autumn elicited that pitiful “one more time” …

32.

fragile sand dollars
half-buried by the surf

Note:  Money reminded me of the many sand dollars my wife and son found along Pacific Beach on our vacation to San Diego.  It doesn’t quite fit thematically with my Southwestern geography, but it’s close.

33.

the oily sea
punishment from the gods
for digging too deep

Note: I’d been wanting to fit in something about the Gulf oill spill (not sure why, just that it was so much on my and everyone’s mind and I wanted something that would place the renku in time) and Steve gave me a great entree with his surf verse.

34.

wool coats forgotten
a reprieve from the frost

Note:  I had a hard time with this one. How do I link a spring verse to the Gulf oil spill, especially when I don’t directly have much to say about spring? I fudged again on the geography (we don’t often wear wool coats or have much frost in the Phoenix area) but I felt I could at least link with the idea of a reprieve, in contrast to the above punishment.


35.

damp violets underfoot
trying to imagine
cactus flowers

Note:  I needed spring and flowers, and here at the end I wanted to bring the renku back around to our informal theme of the differences between our home states.

36.

the riverbed mesquite
imagining water

Note:  I saw where Melissa was going so I tried to do the same.  I deliberately went back to water even though it’s a minor repetition.

12 thoughts on “Shared Water: a renku (with notes)

  1. Hey! Wish I had time to read them all in detail right now, but I loved the insight into the process. (But re: the last note from Steve I’m noticing now – I’ve been taught that it’s ok, sometimes desired, for the ageku to echo the hokku in some way)

  2. alee9 says:

    Glad I got here. This renga to me felt like shooting the rapids that ended in the pool beneath the waterfall. Thanks, Melissa and Steve!

  3. I enjoyed reading your kasen renku and the commentaries concerning the linking. I’m part of two different renku groups here in the Boston area. One is called; “the immature green heron” with partners Karen Klein and Judson Evans and the other is called: “renkubluz” with partners Paul David Mena and Brett Peruzzi. Both groups meet four or five times throughout the year. We usually pick a theme for our links i.e. last night the renkubluz group developed our customary blues format (24 links) with theme of Charlies Parker, the great innovative jazz alto saxophonist who revolutionized the art form into what we know it historically as bebop. We are all somewhat trained in music, though we make our living in other areas. Actually I’m a retired professional educator, whereas Paul and Brett are computer engineers in their respective fields.

    In our other group are: Karen Klein is a retired professor of literature from Brandeis Univ. and a sculptor, and Judson Evans is Head of the Liberal Arts Department at the Boston Conservatory.

    • Thanks so much, Raffael. I know and greatly admire your haiku so I’m flattered you enjoyed this. I’m jealous of the opportunity to participate in renku groups with live human beings! Not enough haiku poets in my neck of the woods to do such a thing.

      Are any of you by any chance going to be at the Haiku Circle in June? I’m thinking of coming (I’m originally from New England and still have family in the area so I could combine visits).

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