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 downriver — 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!
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)