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re:Virals 104

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     inside a bat's ear
a rose

     opens to a star

          — Eve Luckring, Roadrunner 11:3 

Matt Katch searches for new enchantments:

Using traditional forms in writing poetry, whether it be a villanelle, a ghazal, or some other form, carries with it two considerations: the structure, which is often rigid, and any traditions as to content. Haiku writers and fans perhaps know this better than anyone. And in a realm of restrictions, we continue to search for new enchantments. Eve Luckring’s poem opens up in both distinctively literal and figurative ways, yielding an interesting approach to haiku that dances along these lines of tradition. Experiencing the hidden joys of the natural world is essentially what the majority of haiku do, and this is no exception.
First, from the literal standpoint is the action of actually looking at a bat’s ear. The initial shape of many bats’ ears is that of a rose petal. Deep down inside the ear, inside the concha, the entrance to the ear canal can resemble a star shape. Of course, one could interpret the shapes differently, as well; perhaps an inverted heart leading to a tiny cave. The point being that the choice of images to describe the ear has its significance in what it symbolizes in a more metaphorical sense — and is also meaningful with regards to the images the author did not choose.
Both a rose and a star have an enchanting quality to them. They are things commonly used as objects of beauty. The lines also each reference a different part of the natural world. The bat is an animal, the rose is a plant, and the star is a part of the greater cosmos. In keeping with the tradition of haiku often involving a human observer, this combination of animals, plants, and the universe, as well as the idea of looking directly into a bat’s ear, is itself very much a human perspective.
If taken less literally, there’s almost a surreal quality to the lines. Given the concrete nature of the images, it is not hard to imagine a rose opening up onto a universe inside a bat’s ear, like layered images in a Kubrick flick. It creates a lovely sequence whereby literally looking inside a bat’s ear, we see the real shapes morph into powerfully evocative images; a mirage of ever-expanding relationships is superimposed over but a piece of a flesh-and-blood creature — it’s actually pretty romantic, I think.
The true measure of a great haiku comes at its turn. While the final line of a haiku can elicit some sense of peace and calm, often enough it is a source of surprise or reflection. It’s the third act twist that everyone ends up talking about exiting the movie theater, and depending on how they talk about it and respond to it . . . well, that can make or break the poem. In a form that has such limited space to work with, all choices face that much more scrutiny, and of course none so much as what we will see in that final line. A bat’s ear and a rose, though impressive images, are small, but as we move down to the closing line something shockingly tremendous emerges: a star. It is a greatness concealed in a place we would not have thought to look for it. Behold both a symbol and source of wonder.
The author’s choice in using traditional imagery is also an interesting one. I think it speaks to a bit of a Modernist attitude. In the same way that, say, stone is a stand in for altar or wood is a stand in for a Christian cross, having simply a rose and not a more specific variety like an amber flush, or having a star and not a pulsar, allows for the words to be more emblematic. The words with the weight of tradition are allowed to stand as they always have, but inside a new, somewhat unexpected, environment. That is the essence of this poem: a strict adherence to traditional symbols given a unique source. While I mentioned that the last line should be treated as essential, it is the opening line that most intrigues and leads us to that somewhat old-fashioned style miracle. In a contemporary culture where novels can be sold based on the impact of their opening gambit alone, this feels entirely appropriate. It’s a marvelous way to approach the past, keeping old truths alive without sacrificing entertainment and originality.
It may seem an oxymoron to call a simple, cliché image like a star something original, but it’s not the star we need focus on — we should just let that sweep us off our feet — it’s what evoked the strong feeling when we didn’t even see it coming.

Hansha Teki seeks some reverberations here:

In poems such as this one by Luckring, it is somewhat meaningless to analyse it for ‘meaning’, but one can pay attention to the reverberations it sounds out in oneself as reader or listener.

The first line opens up layer after layer of resonance in this reader/listener. A bat’s external ear functionally aids its dependence on echolocation for navigation and, being ‘as blind as a bat’, for building up acoustic space and image of the world beyond itself. Playing on the sound of the word ‘auricle’ I think of an ‘oracle’ within, or a blind Tiresias, delivering divine communication.

As I hear the first line I seem to hear, in the background, Ariel’s song from The Tempest, joyously celebrating the interconnectedness of the observable natural world of sight and sound. The image of the cowslip’s bell, the flight on the bat’s back, overlapping the cowslip’s ear in the fairy’s song from A Midsummer Night’s Dream establish sense routes from the originating ‘bat’s ear’ image:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

A rose, acoustically imaged inside the bat’s ear as it echolocates its way around for food or nectar, opens the listener up to a poetic cosmos beyond oneself just as the bat builds up and opens up an acoustic map of its surroundings.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ― Anaïs Nin

Lorin Ford also finds Shakespeare lurking:

Roses, the flowers, open to sunlight. Bats are night creatures that rely on their sense of hearing. How does a bat know when it’s time to wake? What if there is something in a bat’s ear that opens to the evening star (Venus)? Why not call it a rose? I like Juliet’s argument: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet , Act II. Scene II.)

Whatever the technical names for the inner parts of a bat’s ear are, those parts are perfect in their function: elegant, beautiful. They are so, whatever name we might give them. Eve Luckring has given those parts the name of ‘rose’, which is a symbol of beauty. A symbol is a symbol is a symbol. (Apologies to Gertrude Stein) By an association of the workings of a bat’s ear with beauty, elegance and delicacy, the poet enables us to appreciate the perfection and interconnection of the bat’s ear with the universe as it is.

Clayton Beach echolocates more possible literary allusions:

I chose this ku for commentary this week because I found it both appealing on a superficial level of pure imagery and mysteriously suggestive of further depths of meaning. It has a nebulous sense of potentiality but doesn’t provide any solid answers, and yet it is not so impossibly hermeneutic as to be unintelligible or off-puttingly obscurantist.

From the most literal perspective, we have a sequential, changing morphology of images that gives a sense of constriction — the rough convolutions of the bat’s ear ridges pull into the spiral of a rose which closes into the pin-prick of a star, at the end of the poem one can even sense the star blinking out into nothingness. It is not quite a standard, parallel association, but more the technique of gradual transformation. Interestingly, there is both expansion, the tiny bat’s ear, the larger rose, the immensity of a star, and yet, a feeling of constriction and pulling into the center as we start at the edges of the ear, enter the roseate spiral and follow it to the center, a quantum state of simultaneity, where we are stretched infinitely large while entering the infinitesimally small.  

Whorls—Fibonacci spirals—are ubiquitous in both nature and art, and we find haiku poets drawn again and again to their allure. The whorl of the human ear is a common subject of haiku, it brings to my mind this ku by Kenji Ōnishi:


a little girl’s ear,

for example; a snail the color 

of cherry blossoms    

In Luckring’s ku, however, she has opted away from the obviously traditional image of the human ear to use something foreign and disconcerting: the ear of a bat. Bat’s ears come in a myriad of shapes and bring to mind the wonder of specialism through evolution, evoking changes that occur on a grand, cosmic scale, and yet also the tiny, delicate, and trembling creature that barrels through the night sky in search of insect prey. The bat’s ear also brings to mind the idea of “seeing” through hearing, a synaesthetic effect that is almost akin to seeing through the third eye, suggesting divine intelligence and otherworldly perception.

The rose, then, can be a rose-shaped part of the bat’s ear, or if taken as a new image after the cut provided by the line break, a fresh image of traditional beauty. It serves then as a pivot word (kakekotoba in Japanese theory) that allows us to take two meanings from it depending on whether it is connected to the first or third line. If we tie it into the next line, “opens to a star,” we have a surrealist image of the infinite contained in a small, delicate rose blossom — to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand” (Blake). Now our sense of smell is evoked and mingled with a sense of wonder. Yet there is also the possibility of a mental image of a rose-shaped nebula deep in space with a single star shining at the center, as T. S. Eliot wrote:

Sightless, unless

The eyes reappear,

As the perpetual star

Multifoliate rose

Of death’s twilight kingdom

The hope only

Of empty men. 

This has always been one of my favorite passages in The Hollow Men, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume Luckring intended the allusion, given the consistent sophistication of her work and how many parallels there are to it — “sightless,” as the bat of the first line, then the multifoliate rose of the second line opening into the perpetual star—this adds even more depth and mystery, a kind of religious awe and wonder to the ku, with the final star transforming into the searing eye of God high in the unforgiving, desolate sky of death’s dream kingdom. While there is heavy Christian symbolism in Eliot’s poem, we could also view the mysterious depth we find in the ku as an example of the Japanese aesthetic called yūgen.  

As all of these ideas swirl in the whorl of our mind, the inchoate will coalesce, and suddenly we connect all three images together, treating them as one, which provides a glimpse of the bat, with a roseate ear shape, darting through the evening sky when its ear toward the heavens and hears, for an instant, starlight — the music of the spheres — this creates a delicious inversion of the opening synaesthesia of “sound as sight,” which we saw from the human perspective, but now we have the bat’s perspective as it “hears” the light of a star. 

This haiku is both sensuously engaging and confusing with its multiple levels of synaesthesia, it contains worlds within worlds within worlds as infinities spring from infinities that sprout from nothing and shrink back into the void again, a shifting, mercurial mindscape — utterly masterful in its use of brevity and minimalism for maximal effect.

Nathan Sydney wonders about the batness of a bat:

If haiku is the art of imagistic juxtaposition then we must give Eve’s poem a full 10 out of 10. Here we have three images that at first seem to have no connection whatsoever, standing together to create a very puzzling impression indeed. I’ve never given much thought to the inside of a bat’s ear, but we’re probably many of us familiar with the question and famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?” and even more familiar with the question of “What’s in a name?” Does the poet wish to suggest that the mystery of a bats consciousness (a rose by any other name), whatever we wish to call it, is a mystery opening upon the very beginnings of the universe, a mystery akin to the nature of light? That no matter what clever words we have for brains and minds and neural correlates of consciousness, that ultimately the batness of a bat will be as forever out of our grasp as light from a distant star. But possibly as close as the light of our own minds? Of course the meaning could be much more concrete than that, perhaps the folds of the bat’s ears simply suggest to Eve the petals of a rose? Do those ear petals open upon the celestial singing of the spheres? Certainly we are all aware of a bats super keen powers of hearing, hearing so finely attuned that maybe they can detect the blooming of a rose or star. I must admit this haiku leaves a great big question mark for me, there’s no simple reading that I can find, but us moderns are very happy to not have everything spelled out in our poetry, to have to work a little or a lot for our revelation. If there was a haiku moment behind the genesis of this poem, it must have been a very singular one indeed!

As this week’s winner, Matt gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
re:Virals 104:

     This autumn
     I’ll be looking at the moon
     With no child on my knee.  
          — Onitsura
Translation by Donald Keene. 
Included in English and rōmaji versions in Faubion Bowers The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology with the following footnote:
"Written on the death of his eldest son at age six, in 1700."
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