Joshua Eric Williams is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Poems for 2022 for the poem:
— Rattle, Poets Respond, July 2022
Commentary from the Panel:
Every time I read this poem, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the gut. It is unsettling, as it should be. When I try to analyze how the poet achieved this effect, I am left with how the poem reveals itself. It tumbles out. The rhythm, and the placement of the line breaks, sets the reader off balance. Imagine if the poet had chosen to put the first line break after the word “silent”, with the word “after” dropped to the beginning of the second line. That’s how our brains would probably organize the lines, and we’d lose out on the toppling effect which is part of the brilliance of this poem. The middle line, “the shooting” serves as a hinge, fitting with either the first line or the last line, inviting us (or perhaps forcing us) to read the poem in different and uncomfortable ways.
In the immediate aftermath of a tragic event, there is often an eerie silence. We could interpret the silence here as a non-response to shootings — the lack of gun control, mental health strategies, and ways to prevent domestic violence. And then, the shooting stars themselves: they streak bright for a moment, and burn out, a sad metaphor for lives lost senselessly.
This haiku lends itself to several interpretations. It’s both a comment on the issue of rampant crime and mass murders that have become far too commonplace in our society today and on the cosmos after shooting stars have lit up the sky. Whether you are hearing the gunshots or watching the sky, that silence after is profound.
This simple, powerful, timely poem offers in five words so many different ways of reading, depending on where one pauses on re-reading. On the surface level, we are silent after witnessing shooting stars. We are also silent after a shooting, and all we have are stars to contemplate. In the silence, the shooting stars continue to light up the sky. We could read all of this were this a one-liner, however the line cuts give us time to really contemplate all the different meanings and the weight and metaphorical meanings of silence, of shooting, and of stars.
The disjunctive appearance of this haiku hints at its different meanings. A first reading, for me, seemed to show a quiet time after watching the shooting stars and that it could be written as a monostich:
silent after the shooting stars.
However, the poem is written in three parts:
silent after / the shooting / stars.
This phrasing suggests a shooting has occurred and it might or might not be the stars. The word silent, however, bothered me, wouldn’t silence be better? Silence, a noun, fits perfectly, while silent, an adjective does not. The only noun for silent to describe or modify is stars. Or does it describe shooting stars? It can be read as either, but if the poet’s phrasing is followed, it isn’t that shooting stars are silent, but that stars are silent.
Read in this possible way, the haiku suggests that after a shooting, the stars are silent. As if the stars have witnessed a crime and are quiet about it, won’t comment on it. The stars are a kind of stand-in for those of us who don’t talk up about a wrongdoing. Adding to the overall drama is the almost staccato sound of stressed and unstressed vowels of i, a, o, and a in lines 1, 2, and 3. An excellent haiku that opens out to multiple meanings.
Touchstone winners receive a crystal award to commemorate their selection. See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.