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re:Virals 150

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

 
     river mouth
     the kingfisher opens 
     its own 
          — Lovette Carter, Yanty’s Butterfly: A Haiku Nook Anthology (2016) 

Mark Gilbert empathises:

Like last week’s haiku, I read this as being elliptical in the sense that the end of line 3 can run on and continue with the beginning of line 1, making the poem never-ending and timeless. It suggests that the image occurs frequently across the world but is rarely captured by humans.

Also, I felt it resonated beyond the scene of a bird skimming its beak across water by implying that the writer was herself open-mouthed at observing this scene. Paradoxically, the minimal description–and lack of adjectives–allows us to empathise with her feelings as the observer.

My experience of visiting the Norfolk Broads is that you never know when a kingfisher is going to flash across your vision–and usually it is gone before you even start to think “what was that?” This haiku captures that sense of surprise and awe.

Nicholas Klacsanzky takes in the grandeur:

I think this is a fine example of the aesthetic blurring of two things. Though the river is large and the kingfisher is small, the kingfisher takes on epic imagery. Through the association with the river, we might believe that the kingfisher is a river in itself.

The many “o” sounds in the haiku lend to the idea and image of an open mouth. In addition, I like the indentation of the last two lines to show the separate, yet grand nature of the kingfisher. A striking haiku with direct depth.

Lucy Whitehead finds multiplicity:

This haiku on first reading seemed to be quite simple, but as I reread it several layers emerged. First of all, there is the obvious connection that is being made between the mouth of the river and the kingfisher’s mouth, evoking a deep interconnectedness between different aspects of nature, one alive and one not, and implying the inseparability of life from its environment. But then whilst looking up “kingfisher song” on YouTube I noticed, behind the exquisite voice of the kingfisher, the noise of a river. So for me the river’s mouth suggests two different readings–both the mouth of the river where the kingfisher is located in the haiku and the voice of the river itself. The haiku thus forces us to compare the kingfisher opening its mouth with the river’s mouth in two ways: the song flows from the kingfisher’s mouth as the water of the river flows into the ocean; but also the river opens its ‘mouth’ in song as well.

Of course, the kingfisher could also be fishing. If the kingfisher is fishing, then the river too takes on a predatory quality. Alternatively, it could be read as highlighting a contrast between the kingfisher taking in fish and the river spewing out water into the sea. There is a lot of tension in this ambiguity as well as in the ambiguity of what the kingfisher is actually about to do with its mouth.

Another reading that occurred to me was what if the kingfisher was silent: what would that mean? Is the river mouth polluted? It calls to mind the ‘voice of nature,’ the fact that the kingfisher can’t tell us how it feels about the growing pollution of our rivers and oceans. It can open its mouth but it has no voice in that regard. The ‘mouth’ of the river itself has no voice either.

The haiku is poised both at the place where the river flows into the sea and at the moment before the kingfisher sings or catches its prey: both liminal states. There is tremendous energy and potential in that liminal place, both in space and time, adding to the tension in the haiku.

I love the simplicity and economy of the language. The assonance of the ‘i’ sounds makes this haiku rather lyrical and songlike, potentially reflecting its subject matter (although a song is only ever implied), especially as they are beautifully balanced with one at the start of the first line, two in the middle of the second, and one at the start of the third. The alliteration of the ‘o’ sounds also adds to this, with one in the second line and one in the third line; the ‘ou’ in the first line is close enough to partially echo it. The v-shape of the ‘i’ sound pattern is echoed by the v-shape of the ‘o’ sounds. The symmetry of the vowel sounds both vertically within themselves and horizontally with each other makes this a very balanced poem. The repetition of ‘er’ sounds contributes to the lyrical quality and also heightens the comparison between the kingfisher and the river. There’s also a repetition of ‘th’ sounds and ‘n’ sounds. There are many sounds that echo each other as the kingfisher echoes the river.

It seems a deceptively simple but finely crafted and very tight haiku with great depth and expressiveness. It has a beautiful and evocative interplay of meanings. However we read one part affects the way we read the other—the parts are interrelated. It can be read in many ways and it seems to elicit this multiplicity of readings almost effortlessly.

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As this week’s winner, Lucy 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 150:

 
     incision
        clear
        water 
        flailing open
       
          — Eve Luckring, Roadrunner  11:3 

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Lovette Carter’s haiku came about, like so many in the anthology Yanty’s Butterfly, because of the sudden disappearance of a fellow forum member, whose body was eventually discovered. Sadly the family of the deceased did not have the funds to pay either the police officers, or the forensics department, so the cause of her death remains inconclusive.
    .
    Driven by the loss of our colleague, the then fledgling online forum, with many of the poets unknown and new to haiku, came together. The result was an anthology honouring Yanty Tjiam (1981-2015) and entitled Yanty’s Butterfly: https://jsalzer.wixsite.com/yantysbutterfly

    .

    All proceeds from Yanty’s Butterfly are donated to Yanty’s family, and to 2 charity organizations: The Hunger Project, and ActionAid.
    .
    The anthology is divided up into different approaches to haiku, including two approaches to haiku via the three line format – free verse and the syllabic approach of 5-7-5.
    .
    Here is a small selection of the monoku approach from new writers, some of whom have become better known to the wider haiku community: http://area17.blogspot.com/2016/12/travelling-single-line-of-haiku-one.html
    .
    Lovette is from the USA, but as an islander (I hail from England, and the River Avon is a powerful water presence around the cities and towns I’ve lived in) the magical kingfisher is a potent symbol.
    .
    river mouth
    the kingfisher opens
    its own
    .
    Lovette Carter
    .
    .
    If this is the ‘River Kingfisher’ that I know (Alcedo atthis) is a pygmy kingfisher, the size of a sparrow, but is emblematic of the colour, speed, and sheer presence of running/flowing water. There have been a lot of haiku about kingfishers, but this is one of the very best, and capturing the literalness as well as the mythic aspects of the bird.
    .
    Wikipedia:
    “This species has a large range, with an estimated global extent of occurrence of 10 million square kilometres (3.8 million square miles). It has a large population, including an estimated 160,000–320,000 individuals in Europe alone.”
    .
    Why the kingfisher is known as ‘the halcyon bird’:
    https://www.irishnews.com/lifestyle/2017/04/08/news/take-on-nature-why-the-kingfisher-is-known-as-the-halcyon-bird–986553/
    .
    From the Guardian newspaper article “Country diary: the much misunderstood kingfisher”:
    “Myths and misconceptions surround this diminutive bird, which can hide in plain sight despite its dazzling plumage. It’s funny how kingfishers, the boldest-coloured birds in Britain, have inspired so much confusion. The commonest example concerns their size. Many people seeing one for the first time are flabbergasted at its smallness.
    .
    Aristotle…claimed that the bird made its nest on the sea surface in a period of winter calm. Incidentally, this is where we got the phrase “halcyon days”, which is now – of course – synonymous with summer.
    .
    …there is one myth I rather like: only the righteous get to see them.”
    The Guardian, Mark Cocker (author of Birds Britannica, Crow Country, Birds and People) who said this about the haiku book of birds called “Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku ed. John Barlow and Matthew Paul:
    .
    .
    ‘This volume of haiku about birds and what it means to encounter birds in the landscape achieves the near impossible. It captures the deepest feelings and the most minute observations in the fewest words possible—a triumph of seeing, expression and poetic control.’
    —Mark Cocker, author and naturalist
    .
    I think he would have liked Lovette’s haiku as well, about this tiny bird also known as King of the Fishers, as would the BBC documentary film makers of My Halcyon River (Charlie Hamilton James and Philippa Forrester whom I’ve been lucky to have met when they first showed a clip of their forthcoming film back in the early 2000s uncovering further unknown facts about the kingfisher).
    .
    There is something magical when haiku turns to natural history, and captures some of the raw power of nature, thank you Lovette!
    .
    warm regards,
    Alan

      1. *Roadrunner*, edited by Scott Metz, was probably more responsible for opening boundaries in haiku (for ill or good, I suppose) than any other publication. The energy it generated is all but lost now, at least as far as I am concerned. Just as so-called normative haiku are endlessly repeated and imitated and re-presented in endless variations of the same thing all too often, the same thing can now be said of avant-garde or “gendai” haiku– all too often.
        *
        Anyway, Metz now publishes *is/let* to be found here:
        *
        https://isletpoetry.wordpress.com
        *
        Newly published poems by Bill Gottlieb caught my eye.

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