Skip to content

re:Virals 198

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

     stone cairns
     a faded cap drifts
          — Debbie Strange, 1st place, 2015 Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest. 

John Levy sounds out:

This haiku’s first line allows the reader many possibilities to visualize and consider regarding the stone cairns and the landscape. The cairns may be memorials or landmarks or something else entirely.

The second line provides the drifting faded cap, which for a moment (before the third line) could be up in the wind. The third line transforms the previously indeterminate landscape. Now, with the river, there are new possibilities to imagine.

Soundwise, the poem is a repeated pleasure aloud. The word “drifts” is onomatopoeic, especially in the progression of sounds in this poem. And the sound of the third line’s single word flows.

No matter how the reader imagines the landscape, there is a contrast between the stationary stones and the cap moving slowly along with the river.

How much drifts away from everyone figuratively “downriver”?

Along with the other potential readings (and visualizations of the setting) for this poem, there are different moods it may evoke. If the cairns are memorials the poem may evoke melancholy feelings associated with loss. But if the cairns are the work, say, of a person having fun balancing stones and then surprised to look up and see a faded cap floating by, then the mood could be joyful. Different imagined scenarios will allow for their own emotions accompanying them.

The poem is specific enough to evoke vivid imagery while giving readers leeway to see and interpret it from their own perspectives.

Bill Gottlieb reads fast and slow:

Well, my first thought upon reading this admired and awarded haiku was that “stone cairns” is redundant; a cairn is by definition made of stone. But—in that fast, first reading of the piece—I also felt the poem was quite beautiful: strange, mysterious, spacious, inviting; a prompt for participation; an awaiting world, for me to enter, rest and ruminate. And in that moment the poetic logic of “stone cairns” seemed obvious, even compelling: cairns are a creation of repetition, stone upon stone; and those two smooth words are rightly piled upon one another, with the rough and smooth edges of their consonants, and the varying volumes of their vowels. Next, the cut between the cairn and the faded cap is evocative—very. Whose cap is it? Why is it faded? And what’s it doing drifting in the river? Even the fact that it didn’t simply sink is startling; what kind of cap is this, anyway? And then the ending, the lovely “downriver” (which I thought might be the author’s invention, but which a search showed me was an established adjective/adverb, with a nearby sea implied) opens up the haiku from human artefacts (cairn, cap) to the width and wild and wend of nature, the primal place and process where we all live…and die, with the faded cap of our minded days drifting away. The immediacy, poignancy and originality of this haiku certainly deserve the appreciative attention it has received and is receiving.

Radhamani Sarma wonders about cairns and caps:

Thanks for giving us a Debbie Strange haiku, a winning entry in a haiku contest.
The first line says, “stone cairns”, a pause, no further move or explanation related to it. Cairns stand where they are, making us wonder what they stand for; yes, obviously, they are milestones, or land marks or signposts.

The second line “ a faded cap drifts” brings out the lightness, contrasting the stone image with that of the cap which is faded. The adjective “faded” distinctly implies the constant state of usage or worn out condition. The sign posts or landmarks, installed by hardy workers, are equally aged and durable.

The third line “down river” embodies a fluid state, where life is still there for the cap. But the overall picture is that the cap may be that of a worker, or of a soldier.
May be the power of wind is such that the cap, lying on the monument, falls off and drifts in the river bed, contrasting with the stone image.
Images of age and durability and evanescence are all culled in one.

As this week’s winner, John 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 198:

     El alacrán
     Sale de un rincón
     en medio de un paréntesis
     y de una interrogación
     The scorpion
     Coming out of its position
     in between a parenthesis
     and an inquisition
          — Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz.
          Taken from the anthology Haiku from Iberia and Beyond, edited and translated by Danny Blackwell, MONO YA MONO BOOKS (2018) 

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Thank you to Dave Read for selecting this haiku for Virals, and to George Dorsty and Tom Painting, who chose it for the Henderson Award. I offer my gratitude to John, Bill, and Radhamani for their sensitive interpretations. For those of you who have asked…
    This haiku is close to my heart. The background circumstances haunt me to this day. A young man fell to his death at the top of a waterfall we were visiting. People made cairns along the river in commemoration, and signs were posted around the site, asking us to scan the river for the clothing he was wearing at the time of the incident. As far as I know, his body was never recovered. I wrote this haiku to honour a stranger, and to remind myself of the transient nature of our lives.
    I appreciate your taking the time to read.

    1. That’s beautiful, Debbie! Like the stone cairns, your heartfelt haiku is now a lasting tribute, too.
      Thank you for sharing. Vicki

    2. Dear Debbie,
      Greetings. Tears trickled down on reading your explanation, see it did not strike me. A fitting monument or tribute to the young man.
      with regards

    3. You’re welcome Debbie. Here are my thoughts on your poem:

      Through mountain ranges and along river valleys, stone cairns are often used as markers. They provide those who built them the assurance that, as they return from their journeys, they are taking the right route back home. Yet they also give new travelers the comfort of knowing this path has been explored before. Cairns are motionless, remain in one place and can be a source of stability and guidance for those who venture more deeply into the natural world. Although made of inanimate objects, stone cairns fulfill a uniquely human purpose.

      Debbie Strange’s excellent haiku opens with the image of stability the stone cairns provide. However, she radically shifts the direction of the poem with her phrase “a faded cap drifts / downriver”. Here, the stillness of the cairns is juxtaposed with the motion of the drifting cap. Readers are left to wonder how the cap came to appear on the river. Was it simply blown off its wearer’s head by the wind? Did a friend toss the cap into the water as a prank, not suspecting it would be lost to the currents? Or did something more cryptic occur? Did a traveler, unaware of the river’s strength, venture into the water and drown with only his “faded cap” left to speak to his passing? Whatever event led to the cap drifting on the river, it is the juxtaposition of stillness and motion that enriches this haiku and gives it its imaginative strength.

  2. I can see many meanings for Debbie Strange’s expressively simple poem and many more after reading the very insightful commentary. I learned to think a little more about resonance.

    John Levy’s reading to go further: “new possibilities to imagine” and “How much drifts away from everyone figuratively “downriver”” is very beautiful. His observance of: “The word “drifts” is onomatopoeic” gives me new breadth for words. To add, I like Debbie’s use of alliteration in the “d”s, her poem is nice to read.

    Bill Gottlieb’s thoughtful awareness reveals newness for me too: “from human artefacts (cairn, cap) to the width and wild and wend of nature, the primal place and process where we all live…and die, with the faded cap of our minded days drifting away.”

    I especially relate to Radhamani Sarma’s reflective words: “The sign posts or landmarks, installed by hardy workers, are equally aged and durable.” and more: “But the overall picture is that the cap may be that of a worker, or of a soldier.” and lastly: “Images of age and durability and evanescence are all culled in one.” I really like those words!

    As always, I learned a lot from re:Virals. Thank you!

    1. Dear Vicki,
      Greetings, Your insightful comments, appreciating our take, always a source of inspiration and encouragement.
      Kudos to you.
      with regards

  3. I told myself that my next commentary on re:Virals would be a positive one.
    If you are not a fan of broken promises or negative reviews, you may wish
    to skip what I have to say.
    This poem seems to me to be built on a series of cliches. Something made of stone, something
    faded, something drifting. Haiku poeticisms– nothing vivid, but everything designed to allow
    the reader to slip into a comfortable and all too familiar zone. Juxtaposing stillness with motion,
    hardness with softness, the durable with the perishable– all good things if done freshly, which for
    one things means: with subtlety.
    John Wills published a poem over thirty years ago which does something of what “stone cairns”
    seems to want to do. It remains fresh and alive:
    just beneath the boat
    it’s dawn

    1. As anyone who has posted here knows, it is not possible to edit or amend posts.
      Were it possible, I might have changed my post above, or deleted it entirely. Strange’s
      haiku is probably better than I first believed it to be. I find myself impatient with
      what sometimes seems the easy road to haiku: evoking the melancholy of all things
      aged or aging– old ponds, old dogs; stone buddhas and grandmothers. While I might wish for
      a less “poetic” word than *faded* here, overall, the haiku merits more attention than I first gave it.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Meg. I’m sorry this haiku didn’t quite resonate with you. I’ve included background information at the top of this feed if you’re interested.
        I agree that “faded”, can be a troublesome word!

  4. Here is John Levy’s quote, admirably new in its take and approach

    “soundwise, the poem is a repeated pleasure aloud. The word “drifts” is onomatopoeic, especially in the progression of sounds in this poem. And the sound of the third line’s single word flows.”

    sound structure mentioned makes us re read into the lines

  5. I see the cairns of fitted stones as in the river. Pretty massive, sometimes tapered. These were built in large rivers (Maine in my experience). The cap is like a ball cap, floats in the moving river, past the immovable cairn. The tension of the haiku is the seeming permanence of stones and the flow of river water… inevitably to the sea.
    These cairns were constructed for several reasons… as a means to anchor big logs or chains to pen up and collect log drives in the river. These drives are a thing of the past, now outlawed for environmental reasons and superseded by log trucks moving the trees to mills.
    AND — the cairns’ purpose maybe to divert ice floes which can clog the river or damage bridges. This is a seasonal thing in all northern rivers, there is time of “ice out.” Spring thaw. Characteristic of the Northern areas where even rivers freeze.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top