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re:Virals 208

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:

old map
the whole country
one color
     — Jim Kacian, Cranach City Anthology; Border Lands (2007) 

Radhamani Sarma explores the topography of ambiance:

This week’s haiku with the image of “old map” in the first line has a far reaching ambiance. “Old map” need not necessarily be only a symbol of geography or topography—with rivers, mountain ranges, schools and universities and check posts. The emphatic “old map” not only signifies age, corrosion, and decadence, but the other side delving into its past glory etc. In “one color,” there is stability, renewing the past.

It becomes imperative to quote Jim kacian’s observations:

“Haiku, in all its various guises, offers something to people that they must have: a way to speak of the things they value, large and small, in their lives, in ways that are communicable to others. Other forms of art require considerable grounding in theories and techniques, but haiku are simple and clean. This is not to say they are easy to create:”

Rich Schilling ponders if a map were just a map:

Does anyone really use maps anymore? My family tried using a TripTik once and ended up using the GPS instead. But maps are important. We use them on our phones constantly. They tell us where we are, where we have been, places we dream of going. So the map in this poem is one color. Just one? These days it would be impossible to agree on one color to represent, let’s say the US. Red or blue? You know that wouldn’t be agreed on. Maybe a muted color like gray. People like shades of gray, don’t they? But that’s not aesthetically pleasing and not a very good color to represent a country. Maybe just black ink with white paper. How could black and white not work together? Never mind the color. That would obviously be a difficult decision to make. But I want to believe this is an optimistic poem about when people long ago had a map it meant something besides borders, statistics, and Republican or Democrat. It just meant an opportunity to go somewhere else, no matter who was there. 

Pravat Kumar Padhy admires the simplicity and elegance:

The haiku by Jim has a total of 10 syllables manifested in the schematic pattern of 2-5-3. It contains two images, the “fragment” (old map) and the “phrase” (the whole country/ one color) with a gentle pause in between (cutting). The juxtaposition explores the poetic imagination in universality and brotherhood  through the image of ‘color’. The poet expresses his self-realization by embellishing the belief of oneness through the creative use of ‘color’.
The monochromatic color of ‘old map’ in the top line is skillfully juxtaposed with zen-feeling of oneness as implied in the middle line and lower line. Interestingly, the vertical axis of the haiku extends to a different dimension in time implying the prevalence of harmony among the people of the country. The haiku finally culminates with an aesthetic expression of cohesion. Interestingly, the poet has not used any verb in the haiku and thus it renders a placid articulation.

Jim has artfully used assonance as a literary element. Here the vowel “o” sound repeats between syllables of the ku and crafts a subtle resonance. The haiku, in its simplicity, expresses the compassionate feeling of togetherness using ‘color’ as an element with poetic elegance.

Jacob Salzer looks for unity:

I wonder what country Jim is looking at on the map, but I like how Jim leaves it open to the reader, we could be looking at any country. 

When I first read this haiku, I saw the U.S. If it’s the USA, this gives us a flashback of what the U.S. looked like before invisible borders were established to become divided states, before the land became conquered by European settlers. In many ways, I see America as the Divided States of America vs. the United States of America. Divisions between the land and people has been ongoing since the U.S. was established, with the ensuing conflict and violence between Europeans and the Native American people, and further back still, the violence between Native American tribes. In this sense, I see this haiku as a kind of doorway into history. 

The visual of a country being one color gives me two feelings: one is a “divide and conquer” mentality with a limited viewpoint, that says: “my way or the highway.” It seems a divided mind creates a divided world. The other feeling is one of unity and wholeness. 

The Great Seal of the United States of America is E Pluribus Unum, a latin phrase that means: Out of Many, One. This is a powerful principle in words, but means absolutely nothing unless it is actually lived and put into action. 

Cezar Ciobîcă finds the darker shadow:

First of all, the poem, an eminently visual one, highlights the deep atmosphere of wabi-sabi.

It is clear that the adjective “old” shows that the map in question is a yellowed one and therefore the other colors have faded. This transformation of the whole country into one color seems to be perceived as a sentence: time erodes everything and nothing can annihilate him.

Reading this poem, one can feel in his nostrils the smell of dust in the wind which makes us imagine it is about a territory that dried up because of years of drought.

On the other hand, because of the situation created, we are told that the narrator is confused, disappointed, and that resignation would be the only survival solution.

Historically speaking, it can be speculated that this “one color” refers to a majority population that eventually managed to dominate the minority or, why not, to one Party, that means totalitarianism (monotony, uniformity, absence of diversity…)

At the phonetic level, it is observed that the vowel appears six times, which makes me think that this sound symbolizes in this context a closed circle from which one cannot leave out…

In conclusion, emanating an air of intrigue, this poem invites the reader to find out more layers of meaning and to reshape a map that hides forgotten stories…

Clayton Beach finds criticism and social conscience:

In today’s charged atmosphere of political hyper-partisanship, where fraught language is carefully used to signal political/tribal allegiances, values, and identity, a single slogan can act as a dog whistle or even a Shibboleth, allowing one to see what confirms their views and to know who is wearing the “right” colored shirt.

This ku exits our tumultuous time at first, through nostalgia and displacement, echoing Basho’s “old pond,” we have “old map.” Taken on its own, with a cut from space/time, we see visions of crumbling maps of long dead cities or tropical islands with buried treasure, any kind of literary/imaginary or museum artifact—free of any authorial exactitude or external politicization (the map is not the territory). In this sense, the author has carefully anchored the poem to haiku tradition in using allusive language, a fragment-and-phrase structure and playing with cutting and space. We are meant to truly ponder the “old map” on its own before delving into the second part of the poem.

However, with the second line, a sense of place is established and the base section is a single phrase that requires one to read on from the second to the third line, on to “one color.” This last phrase ends up being our Shibboleth: with the way we read and interpret the poem telling us more about ourselves than it speaks of the poet himself. The poem re-enters our current time and place and forces us to re-orient ourselves according to the political compass, drawing us into our own current “map” of our sociogeography.

The strength of this ku is that is could likely be interpreted as being relevant to any time frame, having a certain unspecified timelessness that means it could have been placed in Cold War era East Berlin just as well as post-Soviet Russia, always changing meaning by location—and yet it also feels solidly moored to our current time, even particularly relevant to contemporary American politics. This is of course unsurprising due to its authorship and time of publication.

For many Americans, a feeling of nostalgia for a time when we were not “divided as a country” is implied by our most instantaneous and superficial reading of this poem, leaving us with a slight sadness that times are so polarized now, with the idea that we used to all get along better as a nation at one time. However, a quick reminiscence on American history reveals this to be a rather rosy-glassed vision that ignores centuries of deep racial tensions, a Civil War, the conquest of a continent and systemic injustice. In this light, any optimism in calls for unity in “one color” are subtly undercut by the foreboding, almost fascistic call for political or even racial unity that shade this hue—a dark shadow cast from our current state of politics and their focus on race and national identity. Some might question whether this kind of commentary belongs to the realm of haiku, to which of course the answer is emphatically yes.

The historical richness and strength of the US has always been its heterogeneity: the melting pot of many cultures and the fertile cross pollination of ideas and idioms in diverse communities, which has served as a boon to the wealth of craft and creativity that have been expressed in American art and poetry. To envision the map of the US overtaken by any single “color” in this current climate of red vs. blue is perhaps uncomfortably totalitarian, and certainly blinded by nostalgia or ideology. So, while I think the poem remains tolerant, and even sympathetic to the logic behind the nostalgia it inspires, I do read it as being critical in a way that sides with the progressive school of haiku, thus, I read this poem as a haiku of social conscience.

Indeed the success of this poem as both haiku and political commentary is in the subtlety, craft and sensitivity with which it gives so many simultaneous readings and allows us to unpack such vast incongruities between surface reading, meaning and intent. Sometimes, the ability of haiku to tackle large topics and politics is called into question, but I think this verse is a fine example of haiku that are successful in dealing with politics and current affairs while remaining true to haiku essence, structure and craft.


As this week’s winner, Jacob 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 209:

     the way words
     change everything
     falling snow
          — Victor Ortiz, The Heron's Nest, Volume XXI, Number 2: June 2019

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I wonder if something is being missed here. I wonder if Jim’s poem was born when holding a dollar bill.

  2. At first glance: the one thing that I notice is the word – country

    and I did my first reading like this:

    old map
    the whole
    one color

    so a country is united colour of all the things that Jacob stated ( Hi Jacob)
    The poem is not so much a – socio-political we are a republic not a democracy -statement as it is nostalgic, as if the speaker knows the history of the place.

    It is here that I ask myself: what does the word -country mean? Which is also why I ramble on above …the word – country intrigues me.

    Is it the remote rural districts, the booay? And has that kind of a place been coloured a distinct colour of hinterlands? Is it something the speaker knows well, but is not marked on the map? Some place the speaker has ease and familiarity and does not need a map for?
    Yes, the poem traverses the timeline and the vertical axis is interesting. As is the horizontal.
    If the entire country is one colour, where is progress, what colour does it take? Is the speaker looking back and remarking about the way things were in the past, does the word -old – mean existing for a long long time or is the speaker “familiar” with the place called -country ?

    And what if the country is echoed in the individuals and each one is a country of her own or an isle of his own?
    Too far-fetched a read? Even for me? I don’t know but what exactly is the ballpark here?

    If the book title were the cue, I would say that every one of the above reads are wonderful and the country is the country…republic or not( ahem,) that said, one cannot fence a thought or a reading, and there I go again…well you see…India is organic and I collect atlases

  3. .
    old map
    the whole country
    one color

    . — Jim Kacian, Cranach City Anthology; Border Lands (2007)
    This is a masterful haiku (unsurprising given the authorship), and I, too, like Mark Gilbert, appreciate the many perceptive comments in its regard.
    For me, this haiku conjures images of terra incognita, the unknown land, land that has never been charted or documented, and by extension ideas and concepts that have yet to be tried. It is an invitation to explore, taking a flight of fancy into the exotic, to place the self into that intimidating space. It elicits the question – where do your dragons lie?

    1. are you into treasure hunting? No way you get to know where my dragon lies, nor can you lay your eye or finger on the map, roarrrrr…..

      seriously though, yes, terra incognita can be it, everything looks the same when it is at a distance, unexplored, and we are ignorant. It takes a bruised elbow and a greased map to tell a story …glad to have read your perspective too…

  4. Thank you so much Radhamani Sarma for choosing this haiku (and sorry I did not manage to contribute). I appreciated the many perceptive comments and admire the subtle way Jim has introduced race into a haiku. For me the color is pink, as that was how the pieces of the old British Empire were always colored in old school books.

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