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
turning crows the distance smokes a yellow tractor — Brendon Kent , Sonic Boom #3 (2015)
Jacob Salzer recalls Steinbeck:
I’ve read that crows are very intelligent. They fact they are turning in this haiku seems to imply that they are turning away from humans, and/or perhaps some form of environmental destruction via the tractor. The 2nd line “the distance smokes” seems to remind us of a dangerous gap that exists between some humans and the earth, and what happens when some people leave behind significant scars, and ignore the damage that has been done. The word “smokes” adds another layer, as it seems to imply a lack of clear understanding, or a distorted point of view.
This haiku also reminds me of Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and how the tractors in that novel replaced farmers, and traditional farming methods, as the industry and banks forced farmers and their families off their land. And yet, the man in the tractor, who has no real connection to the earth, stands his ground, and speaks of the tractor as a means to make a living, to feed his family. So, we have this paradox of a tractor symbolizing productivity, and wealth—it is a means to feed a family—and yet it is simultaneously completely destroying people’s way of life, and forcing families to leave a place they once called home. The tractor is providing jobs, and feeding some people, but it is also forcing others into long-distance travel, sickness, and ultimately starvation, and even death. Thus, the tractor could simultaneously be seen as a symbol of both power, and corruption.
Could the smoke be from a forest fire? Or perhaps it’s coming from the tractor itself? Is the tractor being swallowed by its own flames? There is some mystery to this haiku, drawing the reader in, yet it’s grounded in vivid imagery with the crows, and the stark, yellow tractor, and the smoke.
From another angle, I see the smoke is not coming from the tractor itself, or from perhaps a dense fog, or smoke from flames, etc., but is rather coming from the mind of a human. In other words, it seems thoughts are like smoke. In that regard, the distance in the mind seems to signify reaching the edge of understanding. It is the edge of the English Language. It is the edge between the known and the unknown.
Here is an old poem of mine that was conjured up by reading Brendon’s haiku:"Wandering Eyes" How far can we look from where we stand? here and now through these wandering eyes can they escape their own reflection? blending with grey skies waiting for clear eyes to see past the transient rain falling into a vast blue sea the observation of another world reveals a new one through a new pair of eyes you may see yourself in motion but only in your wandering eyes who knows what a dreamer might see
David Jacobs is a satisfied reader:
The near perfect juxtaposition between creature and object in this poem reminded me of William Carlos Williams’s famous ‘red wheelbarrow’:So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
Like Williams’s, Kent’s poem moves to its conclusion with a similar fluidity of expression, the colour of the tractor as important to its structure as well as to any meaning the reader might impart.
The originality of the second and third lines leaves the reader nowhere to go but to his or her own imagination, but what better place to be? Whether the tractor itself is alight or something around it or beyond, or the colour is created by some trick of sunlight or haze, or is simply as it is, everything is satisfyingly left in the reader’s hands.
And then we come back to the ‘turning crows’ on which the final lines are dependent for their ultimate strength and which, chronologically, first drew the author to the scene he eventually described.
Bob Aspey gets corvine:
On my route to work I pass two colonies of corvids. In truth, I don’t know the difference between a crow and a rook, except that I think rooks congregate in crowds. So the colonies are probably rookeries, but to me all those big, black birds are crows.
As the days wax and wane, so at different times I pass the birds at dawn or dusk, just as they leave or return to their nests – a clattering swirl of argumentative neighbours. As well as having their own daily rhythms, the crows are attuned to the seasonal work of the local farmers. So, as they plough and sow and harvest, their tractors and combines are followed by crowds of black dots, searching the ground for whatever has been turned up as the earth is disturbed. Occasionally the birds are startled and rise as a dark cloud, cawing, complaining to one another.
This was the image evoked for me by Kent’s haiku: a tractor moving across a field, followed by a cloud of black dots as if the tractor is turning up the crows themselves, the crows using the tractor to find food, just as the farmer is using it as a tool to grow our food.
As this week’s winner, Bob 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!
All the time I pray to Buddha I keep on killing mosquitoes — Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa (ed. R Hass, The Ecco Press, 1994)