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
the wood’s edge, that dark life of the trees, touches the hospital — Marcel Smets, From A Wide Window (1997)
Cezar Ciobîcă branches out:
The poem generates a bleak atmosphere and reminds me of the last days of my father, who died of cancer. The person who presents this touching snapshot is either a sick man in genuine need of support or someone who has visited a patient in a hospital and demonstrates that he/she is a subtle observer.
The word “edge” symbolizes an exit, an escape, a narrow path to new life, but going deeper into the poem we can see that the second verse points to an allusion of something threatening, ominous.
Metaphorically speaking, “that dark life” is nothing but the “world of shadows” that seems to claim their rights, to take possession of souls seeking their relief, healing in a hospital which is a transient place/space, something between two ramose realms–life and death–because the images presented in this ku are placed under the sign of Thanatos and bring to my mind a famous quotation from Dante’s Inferno, namely “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.”
In this sense, it is surprising, perhaps not accidental, the frequent presence of consonant “t” every time in the beginning of the lines as if suggesting a heavy, cutting breathing of a bedridden person ready to die, but not before saying “Carpe diem!”
Alan Summers finds touches of Kafka and Scorsese:
It must feel unusual for poets, from outside the tradition of haiku, to witness so many modern haiku in English denying most, if not all, punctuation of any kind. Here, despite no capital letters or a period/end stop, we do gain two lovely commas though!
A reader new to haiku will know to pause by the wood’s edge, “that dark life of the trees” and pause again before remembering again they are on the grounds of a hospital, needing respite, from a new reality about a loved one. In fact it appears that it is the author himself who had a short stay in a Brussels hospital (Belgium).
The commas are well placed to aid and abet the reader new to haiku. The stay in a hospital is real, yet the haiku has a tinge of a fairytale, or perhaps of Kafka, or even of the neo-noir psychological film entitled Shutter Island. But no, this is a hospital, not uncommon in places, which has a small wood, and green places, for those patients able to go outside and enhance their recuperation.
An expertly judged and punctuated haiku giving lots of food for thought.
Radhamani Sarma ponders the final journey:
I am very much privileged to comment upon the haiku of Marcel Smets, a haiku writer who is said, according to some sources, to have explored the theory of landscape beauty and urbanism, focussing upon their interrelations in an admirable way.
One’s immediate reaction is to recollect a poem by Robert Frost: “The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep” but with a different approach. Poets usually observe that the deepening, darkening silence of woods has an effect not only on their poetic oeuvre and creativity, but also leading us all on a philosophical journey. A casual walk through the thick green foliage, brown sturdy stems, the chirping of birds, sunrise or cool moon by your pad and pen–all these undoubtedly have a lasting effect in our livelihood of pleasant times.
Yet, here the poet connects “that dark life of the trees” to a final journey, a hint of an esoteric message from above.
All the gloomy darkness is seen penetrating the hospital ward, bed, patients fighting for life; the dark life of trees is a symbolic representation of the final journey envisaged in hospitals.
As this week’s winner, Cezar 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!
a line borrowed from another poet spring rain — Paul M., Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (2013)
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I chose this poem for Virals for its vivid evocation of the uncanny, noted by Lorin Ford. I also realized how, in this era of ‘earthing’, and ‘forest bathing’, this little poem captures a suggestion of the restful, rejuvenating quality of the forest’s stillness as viewed from a hospital window. It’s as if the dark (ie., mysterious) life of the trees, and of nature generally, was felt to be radiating empathy for the ill in the hospital, touching them with its vegetative, healing power.
Those familiar with Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling ‘The Hidden Life of Trees: How They Feel, How They Communicate’ will realize that Smets may also have intuited something of the ancient forest’s long-evolved strategy for survival, and is comparing it with mankind’s newfangled, medical techniques, and especially our drugs, so many of which ultimately derive from plant sources.
One difficulty I have with this poem is in its odd construction. I don’t believe in this case the oddness helps. Grammatically, “that dark life of the trees” characterizes the wood’s edge (as in W. C. Williams’ famous poem “that greeny flower” characterizes asphodel).
Are we to understand that the wood’s edge is where the “dark life of [ ] trees” is to be found? But the edge (where presence meets absence) is also where sunlight or moonlight is most evident. So I cannot settle into a full sense of darkness here.
Does the author mean: the wood’s edge, *where* the dark life of trees begins . . . ?
The poem does not come into focus for me. I think part of the problem is the way the word “that” acts as a distancer. The poet steps away from the immediacy of “the wood’s edge” to say something about it, then steps back in. I feel a bit jerked about. In a longer poem, I might not.
I also fail to see how ‘the wood’s edge” can touch the hospital unless touch has the less literal sense of “affects” or “draws in” or something of the sort. But by the time I get to that possibility, I already have too much to sort out, and I dwell not so much in possibility as in puzzlement.
“Grammatically, “that dark life of the trees” characterizes the wood’s edge . . . ” – Meg
Yes, if we read the commas as if they were conventional punctuation in a prose piece this is true. But if we do this, then (to be fair) we must also read the colon and the ellipses in Nick Virgilio’s much-applauded
out of the water . . .
out of itself
as if it were prose following an official normative style guide, wouldn’t we? (and these style guides do vary a bit across the English-speaking world. I know that the Australian and the USA style guides differ somewhat.)
We don’t have any ideal substitute for kireji (verbal cut markers/ ‘cutting words’) in English. In this haiku the commas seem a tad distracting, possibly misleading. Personally, I prefer to either ignore the commas in Smet’s haiku or consider them simply as line-break markers, such as the forward stroke we’d use to quote it in a single line across the page:
the wood’s edge / that dark life of the trees / touches the hospital
(Marcel Smets, From A Wide Window (1997)
It may be that the author did not want to use “the” too many times and chose “that” to vary it.
But I do find “that” misleading, even with the version you suggest (which is nonetheless helpful).
I would go this way:
the dark life of the trees
touches the hospital
the dark life of trees
touches the hospital
And just to say, maybe Virgilio’s poem would have been better without any punctuation.
The punctuation seems a bit arbitrary, and I would guess he used it simply to slow down
the reading, force the reader to
take in three separate moments adding up to one.
“Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.” / “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”
Indeed, the proximity of ‘dark’ and ‘woods’ cannot but conjure up associations with Dante’s immortal classic . (Also subsequent modern poems which refer to it, such as T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’.)
The word ‘edge’ alerts this reader to a liminal zone, a threshold place or state of awareness that transitions between one world of perception and another. Here, the animate world (“the dark life of trees”) reaches over the threshold space to the everyday human world and “touches the hospital”, connecting the two worlds.
the wood’s edge,
that dark life of the trees,
touches the hospital
— Marcel Smets, From A Wide Window (1997)
The visual image that comes to mind is literal and ordinary enough: it is night, the moon is hidden behind the woods and the shadows of trees are being cast across a lawn onto the walls and windows of a hospital. Yet those shadows are animate extensions of trees which have their own “dark life” and agency. The supernatural world crosses the threshold. Whatever the human backstory to this haiku, the perception of “that dark life of the trees” ( a kind of life hidden from us) touching the hospital takes this haiku beyond biography and into the uncanny.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ”
– – Hamlet (1.5.167-8)
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