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Started by Jim Kacian, February 14, 2011, 10:19:32 PM

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Jim Kacian

Today's Per Diem poem is by Fay Aoyagi:

August cicadas
could I carry an ocean
in one suitcase

This haiku seems to court the explicitly poetic—that is to say, it does not rely (as many haiku do) on "real experience" for the sensory stimulation to make us appreciate what's going on. But it does still rely on shared experience—everyone will have some reaction to the word "ocean" and how it's used here. This is an excellent example of what is generally termed a "keyword." In this instance it's not doing the work of a kigo (as it often does, but this poem already has one) but is still the central impetus to what we make of the experience of the poem. How does its sense—or nonsense, I'm sure some will argue—make the poem work for you? Or does it? And what do you make of the juxtaposition of cicadas and a suitcase full of possible ocean?


I had to think about this for a few minutes.  I suppose the poet is comparing the sound of cicadas, which comes in waves, to the ocean, the waves coming visibly and audibly. It's not possible to put the ocean in a suitcase, nor is it possible to put the sound of cicadas in one either, but the poet asks the question anyway.



The first thing that occurs to me, Jim, is that this is a haiku where the famous/infamous '4th line', the author's name, strongly influences how we read the haiku. How would we read it if the author's name was Mary Smith or Bob Jones? Knowing that it's written by a Japanese immigrant to the USA adds more than is actually in the poem. Yet still, 'suitcase' would still suggest travel and for many people who live close to an ocean, 'ocean' carries the suggestion of 'home'.

'Ocean', to me, is a resonant keyword. My 'home' ocean is the Pacific, the one I grew up near and often out on (and feel quite protective about) , and others close to me are the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean, but all of the oceans are joined...there is really only one. We know, too, that life began in the ocean, it has been called 'mother'.

Whilst cicadas are quite familiar to me, right in my backyard, from late Spring (if it's a hot Spring) to mid-autumn, I have no associations whatsoever between cicadas and the ocean. The most common is the 'Greengrocer', with a triangular face mask, jewelled and enamled and beautifully veined wings. I have accidentally unearthed them in the 'grub' stage (and reburied them before birds arrived), watched them perform precise 'over the shoulder' surgery on themselves to saw a slit in the 'pupa case' , picked dry grass stems with the empty shell still clinging, but it's the sound that identifies cicadas for me...the loudest noise in the whole insect world, eardrum-piercing.

cicada husk. . .
also clinging
to a straw

- Stylus, July 2006

after bushfires the one cicada end of summer

- Presence #39, Sept. 2009

'August cicadas', of course, immediately signals 'Northern Hemisphere', late Summer. August was named after Augustus Caesar, Julian Caesar's grandson, but I doubt that that has any significance in this poem. A 'false inference' I could make here is the historical kerfuffle about the naming of August with the shrill voices of the senators being likened to cicadas, but it's irrelevant to this poem.

I have no problem with a suitcase full of ocean..impossible of course, literally... but not emotionally.

(We discussed Keiji Minato's

tenimotsu wa rekka uran to natsu no umi

In my luggage                                         
depleted uranium                                     
and the summer sea     

on Periplum #1

That's funny, I was certain that there was a lot more discussion of that poem...must be somewhere else. I distinctly remember saying that 'luggage' is literally 'that which one lugs around', a personal burden if it is 'hand luggage' as I was told it was in Keji's ku)

A reading that occurs to me which might draw 'cicadas' (of any late-Spring to early -Autumn month) and 'suitcase' together is that a cicada, finishing the pupa stage and emerging as an adult, has to 'unpack' itself from a 'case', which it then leaves behind. Here in this haiku, the question seems to be a reluctance to leave the 'case' behind and more whether something internal and important to one's sense of origin ( 'ocean') might be left behind in the process of the metamorphosis into the adult, winged stage.

August cicadas
could I carry an ocean
in one suitcase

- Lorin


Hello, all,

Jim, I believe you are right when you say that everyone will have some reaction to the word "ocean" -- whether it derives from first-hand experience or not.  My ocean is the north Atlantic, the rugged Bay of Fundy, but oddly what I see in this haiku is more the ocean my pal Lorin knows, warmer, calmer, more beneficent.  "Ocean."  It is indeed a resonant word.

I like this haiku, although the mention of the "fourth line" concept is making me wonder if I would like it as much if "Mary Smith" had written it.  There is just no way of knowing.

The surface meaning I took from this was quite prosaic.  Because much of the Maine coast is a summer colony, the first thing that arose in my mind was the idea of the end of summer, the poet packing up and going back to the city or wherever, fancifully wanting to take the ocean with her as a souvenir of happy, carefree times.  Going deeper, the ocean as the place where life originated and the cicada as a symbol of rebirth vibrate together quite effectively.  Beyond that, this haiku strikes me at a place where words just don't go.  I feel I get something from it that I can't put into coherent thought, some kind of feeling which is actually quite satisfying, if a little mysterious.

I rather like mysterious imagery as long as I can sense a deliberate intention and pattern behind it, even if I can't catch hold of it.  It's randomness disguising as mystery that doesn't work for me.  I feel the mysterious elements in this haiku are well-designed.  I like it.

"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro

Don Baird

The leap from "August cicadas" and "an ocean in a suitcase" is astounding ... not something readily found in nature!  :) 

I just returned from San Diego ... on the beachfront, over looking the ocean ... walking on the sand ... watching the seagulls ... unfortunately I was not well for the week I was there ... but still, right?  I would definitely (in a literal way if possible) pack up the ocean and bring it home with me.  I don't think the cicadas would replace the sound of the waves that well, so I would prefer to pack up the ocean, only.  Possibly, I could just take one of the smallest waves?  I would think ...

in a bottle
the to and fro
of waves

I love this poem and, honestly, am at a (rare) loss of words.  I believe the poem is felt/experienced more than read:  it's appealing to the right brain as much, if not more, than the left ... a grand space to be.

Thanks for posting, Jim.  I enjoyed the read ... the pondering ... and the feeling.


I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter


I may be all wet...  :-\  (sorry... ocean pun)

But... isn't this just sneaking in a metaphor?  Maybe, this better discussed in THF "metaphor" subject, but, one of the many attractions I have for Japanese haiku (which I try to carry over to ELH) is the non-use of metaphor.  If you will, I look at metaphor as a wonderful (easy to overuse) technique in longer poems.  Japanese haiku avoids it for the sake (not the drink) of clean lines (applies to painting, poetry, and performing arts).

Yet, if I play a bit with the poem in my mind, I of course see the clever and "sound" connections between cicada and ocean and suitcase... piercing-roar-shell containment. 

So, I have two aspects that wrankle: metaphor and clever-ness (I admit that one of my demons is "clever-ness").  All due respects to a wonderful poet, Fay Aoyagi.

I reserve the right to say "nevermind" if indeed I am all "wet".  ;D


o, I think that there's quite a lot of metaphor in both Japanese haiku and EL haiku, Dennis, and that the whole point is that it's implied rather than explicit...'sneaked in'  ;D is one way of putting it, and fair enough. It's part of a writer's craft.

(dunno about 'piercing roar' through... the cicadas are going strong every evening here now that the weather is warming up again, and nobody could mistake that shrilling for an ocean sound, not from any distance)

- Lorin

Peter Yovu

I sometimes find FA's use of questions off-putting, because they seem contrived— a conjurance to distract from what is really happening. I thought that way about this poem at first, probably unfairly (automatically), but then the question came to me as a kind of koan—what is the sound (or weight) of one ocean clapped into a suitcase? The answer—August cicadas. The koan view may be somewhat substantiated by the conceptual "an ocean' rather than "the" or "this" ocean.

Seen that way, the "leap" goes beyond mataphor. Metaphor implies "being carried"—a "leap" may involve letting go of all conveyance; it may lead to transformation--out of such ideas as "ocean" and into the sea of reality.  I hope we can discuss this in the next Sailing, coming soon to a forum near you. Do oceans have plugs?

If FA intended the question to be just that, a simple question, I think in this case a question mark would help, because many of us have fairly sharp antennae when it comes to ambiguity. Without the question mark, "could I carry the ocean in one suitcase" might imply a conditional idea: "could I carry the ocean in one suitcase...if the suitcase were big enough? ". Or it could imply the sense "could I carry the ocean... I would. But I can't". Well, I guess ambiquarians will plead: yes, they're all implied, they enrich the poem, leave them alone. Okay, okay.

All this said, it does not seem likely to me that FA intended to present a koan, as such. But no matter. It is unlikely (or at least I hope so) that she has any idea what she's doing.



Most of know metaphor carries a punch in poetry, and is one of the most important vehicles. 

Haiku does carry metaphor either indirectly, or as a deliberate ploy.

Fay's haiku reads to me as a wish for a suitcase to be able to contain the ocean so she can freely move from San Francisco to Japan.

I can relate to that because I'm a Brit with strong emotional ties with Queensland, and with Western Australia where my blood mom and sister exist.  I only knew of their existance last year.

The cicadas is a powerful symbol for Japan, and for me in Queensland, so it would act as a catalyst for visiting the other place where cicadas were second nature in background sound.



Hello, all,

I thought this was a most interesting article on what Fay Aoyagi is doing, or was recently doing:

(Thank you, David L.  I learned a lot from reading this.)

Peter!  Did you really mean to say that it's "unlikely that [FA] has any idea what she's doing"?  Or did you mean it's unlikely that she has no idea what she's doing?  Just curious.

"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro

Peter Yovu

Following Alan's post... It could well be that what I am doing in bringing the whole realm of "koan" into this, is just entertaining myself, or making more of the poem than is intended, or perhaps there. I've been accused of that before.  It is the Rorschach element...

Alan, and others-- if you believe this is a good poem, what makes it so?

Peter Yovu

Following cat's post.  Okay-- I meant what I said. I'd rather not explain, but I will. Just this once. It follows the sense of "koan" which is a device-- a question such as "what is the sound of one hand clapping" meant to take the student out of the conceptual realm (the realm of ideas and representations) and into the... real. Now leave me alone, I need to think.


"Or it could imply the sense "could I carry the ocean... I would. " - Peter

I think that's a stretch, Peter. It's an archaic usage and from what I've seen of Fay's writing in English, she's not up to archaic usages yet. Nor do I find anything koan-like in this ku. I agree with you that it should have a question mark at the end of L3.

"Fay's haiku reads to me as a wish for a suitcase to be able to contain the ocean so she can freely move from San Francisco to Japan." - Alan

Yes, but it only reads that way because we know so much about the author... my point precisely when I queried how the poem would be read if it was by an unknown 'Mary Smith'.

- Lorin

Peter Yovu

Okay, I've thought about it. I think the koan stuff I wrote is a lot of self-serving bull. Fun writing about, but that's it.

I'm left then, where I started. I believe a weakness of FA is being too cute.

A poem of hers I absolutely love is this one:

in the bar mirror
my Guardian Angel
makes a face

It strikes me as honest and sharp and playful. "August cicadas' is playful, I'll give it that.


in the bar hotel
my Guardian Angel
makes a face

...shouldn't that be 'hotel bar'? What's a 'bar hotel'? (Am I about to be barred?  :-X )

- Lorin

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