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In 1974, I immigrated to France from the United States to begin a career as an avant-garde theater actor. Eventually I became a professional storyteller, and found my true calling.
But during all my training and searching, it was always words that fascinated me—words that were said, words that were sung, words that were mimed, words that were sculpted . . . words words words!
During that first summer in Burgundy 1974, one day I was out walking in the fields with some friends and we saw some people knocking down walnuts from a tree with a long pole. My friends said that they were “gaul-ing” nuts. The French verb is “gauler” and the only way you can translate it is with a complete descriptive sentence: “to-knock-down-fruits-or-nuts-from-a-tree-with-a-long-pole,” There is no shorter way of translating it into English. And yet the French have this unique verb “gauler” that is about as concise as you can get! As concise as a haiku—
And I could probably lead you to the very spot where the verb “gauler” entered into my vocabulary . . .
That same summer I was touring western France and one day was speaking with another friend who was “ravauder-ing” a fishing net. You might translate this verb “ravauder” as simply to mend. But as it is applied here, it specifically refers to “painstakingly-reworking-each-of-the-knots-in-the-mesh-of-a-fishing-net.”
Again an extraordinary and precise image in a single word that in English requires a small paragraph of explanation.
Well that in part is how and especially why haiku appeals to me. And even though I don’t speak Japanese, “gauler” and “ravauder” can approach a bit the intricately fine references that, for example, season words from a saijiki can resonate. And I’d like to tell here the story of how I wrote one haiku with this spirit in mind.
a country wedding
a manure cart passes by
smell of bride’s perfume
It is again a question here of a memory from from the Burgundian countryside. I was strolling down a dirt road on a sunny day when I smelled the manure from what I took to be recently fertilized fields. Nothing special about that. Then suddenly I noticed whiffs of a very sweet smelling perfume. Now that was unusual because there were really no flowers, just wheat fields and the like.
When I turned around I saw a wedding march approaching with the bride in her flowing white gown. But there was also a simple, country cart passing by transporting manure fertilizer. The effect was immediate. And so the sprouting of this haiku.
What struck me almost immediately was—what happens actually in the “interval” between my smelling the pungent odor of the manure and my remarking the delicate scent of the perfume? It was a interesting if not wonderful contradiction.
manure – bride – perfume
These words are the bare bones of the haiku as I see it. I then fleshed it out some for the setting and placed it in a specific geography. It was, I think, the simultaneity of it all that really impressed me: the rustic countryside with its raw smells; the sophisticated fragrance of a perfume seemingly out of context and then the vision of the young bride that brings it all into focus. An astonishing slice of life there for the taking.
(By the way I got a thumbs up on this one from James Hackett.)
—Sam Yada Cannarozzi