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