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re:Virals 120

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

     half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and
          — David Boyer, Bones 14

Danny Blackwell takes his time:

An enigmatic haiku. While a lot of the more experimental haiku may be criticized for not being haikooey enough, this poem references season, has a clear cut, and is written in one line: all of which are the hallmarks of a Japanese haiku. It defies an easy reading, but the complications placed on the reader are inviting. Autumn colors are easy to imagine, but “half autumn color”? I particularly like the use of “and” at the end, giving us a sense of interruption—a sense that a lot of what a haiku often points to is outside the poem itself. I have seen this technique used before, but with the last word circling around and being completed by the first half that precedes the full stop. (Period.) In this case our saccadic eye movements find no easy conclusion in sight, no matter how many times we scan back and forth. In doing so, however, one cannot help notice the rhyme of “hand,” “land,” and “and.” A thought-provoking poem that warrants time.

Clayton Beach walks the line:

This ku is rife with a sense of the liminal; it is not full autumn color that greets us, but half. This sense of the in-between, unfinished and incomplete carries through to the end. The speaker says “come take my hand,” a warm, intimate invitation, but then the latter half gives us the location, “the ghost land” and the invitation breaks off into an unfinished fragment. Is the speaker meant to be a spirit from the past, their invitation coming in fragments, is this ghost land a literal place? Or is it merely a dramatic hyperbole of the desolation we feel in Autumn as summer slips away and the life seems to be leaching from the landscape around us?

I chose this ku for discussion this week because it is a great example of the sense of play with kire (cutting) that I advocated in last week’s commentary on Chiyo-ni. Even though it is presented in a single line, this ku provides us with two clear indications of cutting.

The first, a period, is perhaps the most severe method of cutting we have available to us in the English language. This provides a full stop, and we are left pondering the kigo, “half autumn color.” The period prevents us from any temptation to elide the cut and fuse the two parts of the ku, for a comma, semi-colon, ellipsis or even nothing at all might imply that the speaker was addressing the autumn color:

half autumn color, come take my hand in the ghost land and

Here, personifying autumn takes away the literal implication of an actual ghost land, making the landscape a more metaphorical journey of seasonal desolation. But the period separates the concepts, inviting juxtaposition but refusing a blending of disparate parts.

The second cut is an unfinished sentence. As I mentioned regarding the kireji “kana,” leaving an implication of an unfinished, longer poem is a haiku technique that is seldom used in the English language. Here, it is quite effective, we are left to supply our own activity or conclusion to the invitation. Is it “Come take my hand in the ghost land and we will gather asphodel?” or “Come take my hand in the ghost land and we will hold each other once again,” whatever it is that most resonates with the reader will become the heart of the poem. Here, the unsaid is the most important part of the ku, the most personal, a hushed secret between a literary specter and the reader.

Whose ghost does it bring to mind, what unfinished business might they have with us? This is a haiku of negative space, of the unseen, unsaid and demonstrates the strength of indeterminacy in poetry. It is a wonderful demonstration of the use of punctuation in English language haiku to provide a sense of cutting, and of haiku moving beyond a simple juxtaposition into a poetry of multiple cuts and negative space.

Alan Summer’s lets the genie out of the bottle:

The intriguing haikai “piece” makes more sense syntactically if you read the other three lines in the Bones journal issue.

Arthur C. Clarke after six thousand years cicada
     half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and
those selves abandoned walk the dry shores of Mars
     the game where we break each others fingers in spring

True the overall syntax is not as natural as that of a straight piece of prose, creative fiction or non-fiction, and it is most definitely poetry, beguiling and beautiful.

Haiku could be said to be a middle of a spoken sentence where the eavesdropper has just a few words to guess the beginning and ending of a conversation. I would love to be witness to someone attempting to decipher this as an eavesdropper or a poet.

The piece as prose is fascinating, and the opening line whether intended as a standalone contemporary haiku, or the first line of the sequence, continues to enrapture me in its use of consonance and assonance and other poetic devices. We seem to have two sentences in an attempt at a normal grammar construction except for the deliberate omission of a period after ‘spring’.

I feel it neatly defies a definition of haikai poetry or rather which genre or ‘sub-genre’. The fact of the matter, perhaps, is that once Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902) used the hardly known or used term of ‘haiku’ to forge something, around the 1870s, that might last hopefully into the 20th Century, it was always going to be the genie in the bottle. First of all the bottle, plus genie, would drift the sea currents just as a message in a bottle is surmised to do, be it urban myth or no. Secondly, once that bottle hit land, and many ‘lands’ at that, the genie was always going to finally escape. Two world wars, and numerous other global conflicts forcing social change, and the genie has skipped around both Japan and almost every other country in the world. Many poets, along with that genie, have taken what Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) said about the earlier ‘hokku’ and various haikai verses, and followed his entreaty to heart, that of (paraphrasing)
“do not copy me like two halves of a melon.”

As the Japanese love their folklore, myths, and science fiction, and this often appears in contemporary Japanese haiku, it feels fitting that Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is perhaps alluded to by David Boyer:

David Boyer has done this with aplomb, and I’m proud to be a co-founding editor of Bones Journal, and that it continues to bring forward challenging and non-generic work such as this.

Peter Newton finds solace:

The construction of this one-liner is sentence-like. Yet it is also spliced as if to short-circuit our usual way of reading from left to right. Quite inventive. The poem is an invitation to join the poet in his quest across the “ghost land.” The reference to autumn captures a certain natural ending to things, an ennui, but we soon realize that there are no endings or beginnings in this poem. The structure tells us so. Change is all there is. All we can do in the face of change is hold hands and move on toward whatever comes next.

I could also be reading into this poem what I want to feel in the current state of U.S. affairs– which is hope.

We find solace where we need to.

As this week’s winner, Alan Summers 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 120:

     turning crows 
     the distance smokes 
     a yellow tractor 
          — Brendon Kent
, Sonic Boom #3 (2015) 

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and

    I don’t care for the period, I can tell where the pause is without punctuation. Then, get rid of the cap. What I like about, and, at the end is that it gives the extra pause before it. I like a one line haiku with two pauses/breaks. With two breaks, it cannot be turned into a three line haiku.
    I like the, half autumn color because it the full color is not yet there, perhaps implying that they are not fully connected yet. The ghost land — they are still waiting for the clear picture of them as a couple. Again, the and, and incomplete ending for what is still to be completed by the couple.
    and . . .

  2. First of all, a problem with re:Virals, which is a feature that might generate more discussion than it does, is that like other Troutswirl features, each new posting disappears into the archives very quickly and is not all that easy to find. It gets swallowed up and is gone.

    That said, I just want to say that the technique used by Boyer here, (juxtaposing the end of one sentence with the beginning of another) has been explored quite a bit by Scott Metz. I can’t locate examples just at the moment, but I want to give Metz some deserved

    1. Hi Meg:

      Actually, re:Virals (and all other THF offerings) are completely searchable on the site, but perhaps people don’t know how to do it: at the bottom of every page there are 2 search options, and you can find all past posts on a topic by either typing the topic into the box, or by toggling the button which will display all archived posts topics, including Virals (the predecessor of re:Virals and the archival heading). We hope you’ll take full advantage of the availability of all our archived materials. Thanks for the opportunity to explain the process.

  3. I’ve only just begun to read the re:VIRALS part of the HF Blog, so I’d like to say that the comments are wonderful. Those of you who leave such thoughtful, interesting and challenging comments each offer a new way of looking at a single haiku and this has really opened my (haiku) eye to several new ways of examining a single verse. The comments for this particular one-liner also gave me insight into the issues editors face when posting several haiku together. Thank you all.

  4. One note about the presentation in Bones, they have recently switched from one ku per page to authors with more than one ku accepted having all their ku on one or two pages. So as far as i can tell this was one of four of Boyer’s ku selected for the issue, rather than a named sequence, which would have had a title and not have had the staggered formatting designed to give a separation between the ku.
    That said, editors and anthologists in the haiku world have always used their position to craft a larger work out of smaller parts, placing poems together in a way that they add context and deeper meaning through juxtaposition. So while we don’t know that Boyer had any authorial intent for these ku to flow that way, certainly the editors saw a potential there.
    It does call attention to the age old debate of how to format haiku for publication. A single haiku per page can seem a “waste” of space, and yet, when put together, almost like ions in solution, they have an affinity and start to interact with each other, forming new compounds. So if we put haiku too close together, they’re likely to be read as a sequence.
    Shiki and his group quickly went from abandoning collaborative sequence to writing single haiku, and then to experimenting with solo haiku sequence (rensaku). So for all the importance we give the single haiku in English, the Japanese have always been aware of how easily these small poems fit together for a sum greater than its constituent parts, and have seen the poems as both individual units and part of a larger context; even when written as individual ku, when placed in a publication by editor or anthologist, they do not exist in a vacuum, but take meaning from the poems around them.

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