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
streets of childhood another memory resurfaces — Rachel Sutcliffe, Failed Haiku 32
Marion Clarke has happy memories:
I imagine the first line of this haiku will transport most readers to the streets of a particular town or city that was important during childhood. I only have to take a certain shortcut though a housing estate en route to my mother’s house and an image of myself and my siblings playing ballgames appears; if I walk along the promenade and look over the sea wall there we are again, looking for eels and crabs in the rockpools; and if I cross the road and walk up Queen Street, I often see the ten year old me hurrying through the park to school. A haiku that brings back very happy memories.
Alan Summers reminisces:
I remember returning to my childhood city of Bristol after years of living in Australia. Everything had changed, in such a short time. Of course I checked a combination of familiar streets, from both recent years, and my time as a young adult. But I also travelled the roads and streets that I grew up in, and lived with as a child, and had the greatest impact on my internal geography. Could I see anything resurface after being buried in redevelopment, and new shop fronts etc…? A little, but then that inner geography kicked in, here and there, filling in spaces.
There was my first and main childhood home, and a memory of the first big snow, when I opened the front door early one morning, and there was a second door of snow and ice! And the steep hill to the shops for vital supplies, which was a major expedition, during that great snow of 1962/3 when cars could no long travel, and it was just me, a very little boy, and my mother.
“The winter of 1962–63 (also known as the Big Freeze of 1963) was one of the coldest winters on record in the United Kingdom.”
We could only do the shopping once a week, as it was too dangerous otherwise. On a late Summer, coming back decades later, it just seemed such a small hill, but then I am now over six feet tall, and could now go to similar shops and back in around thirty minutes, not half a day as then. And very wet and chilled to the very core. I actually rented a small basement apartment not too far from that hill. Back as a child it was one heck of an adventure though! Memories can slide over each other, and I played and replayed them in parallel. I haven’t thought of that memory of ‘the hill’ for many years, it just resurfaced. Of course sometimes our streets of childhood are not as accurate as we might wish. Although the older we get the more vivid they can be, and I know it was a great adventure in extreme hardship. I don’t know how we survived as our childhood home was very basic, but my parents had served in the Second World War, and that helped I guess.
Structurally speaking, regarding the small poem, we open with a line that for good or for bad reasons must surely be evoking strong and old memories for any reader. The second line makes it almost a complete poem, and it’s certainly a strong ‘collaborative’ stanza for any longer poem. It’s not quite a pivot line in my opinion but it is most definitely a bridging line, and ‘another’ following the opening line is already gearing up to an emotional response from us, the reader, even before ‘memory’.
I believe the word choices of ‘another’ and ‘resurfaces’ which act as ‘again’ words (repeated actions) continue the impact of a seemingly innocent opening line. I’ve also often found six word verses are, for some reason, really powerful. Perhaps it’s because the poem is so brutally pared back, perhaps as like an autopsy when the pulling forward and back techniques are used, to start to reveal the actual mechanics, of the body.
Not a word is wasted, and even an ‘as’ would be redundant. I do feel ‘streets of childhood’ works far better than a further “pared back” line choice such as ‘childhood streets’. Minimalism for the sake of it rarely works. A true minimalist poem is often by default a much longer poem but without all the words showing, and flashing on, and off, and back on. Those words are all there in the background, for close readers to see, and they don’t need to jostle the perfectly aligned and positioned words that say more on their own, and in their own way.
Astrid Egger also wanders these streets:
Sutcliffe’s haiku takes us back to this way of knowing, walking through childhood streets, and by staying in contact with the concrete place, another memory appears. Line 1 may be seen to connect with line 3 in that we are following the poet through the streets and walking on their surface, now with time elapsed, the original street may have been re-paved, or resurfaced. For me, this is a good example of anchoring an abstract—memory—into the present, lived experience. Streets of childhood.
Even if the streets of childhood are just re-experienced in memory, as a reader would likely do, there is enough here to suggest the connection to a place. It is her use of resurfaces that gives us a sense of motion as memories appear: had she chosen to write surfaces, the streets of childhood and their surfaces could be seen to have a more direct connection than was intended. These memories have been there before, and they surprise us again.
As this week’s winner, Alan 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!
winter sky the stop code of a crow — Cherie Hunter Day, sting medicine (2016)