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
Scalding coffee from a freezing cup. At the rim no telling Which is which — Lou Hartman, Essential Zen (1995)
Nicholas Fici provides some background on his selection:
The volume was one of the first books I read on Zen those many years ago. The poem did not really hit home until several years after I had read it.
I was talking with an older friend of mine who had served in the Korean War. He was telling me how miserable the conditions were during the winter. He told me that it was so cold that when they went to the mess tent to get breakfast, by the time they got back to their fox holes, the hot coffee in their metal cups had turned to slush. Not sure if he ever had the opportunity to tell “which was which.”
Radhamani Sarma discerns layers within an ordinary experience:
This week’s write by Lou Hartman is very interestingly drawn from a close observation of his coffee and a freezing cup, an ordinary, day-to-day experience, vividly drawn.
In “Scalding coffee from a freezing cup,” coffee is taken after steaming, here meaning it is strong or almost solidified at the freezing point. Here, the freezing cup also plays a crucial role; we have to infer that the boiling or steaming point is over.
The second line — “At the rim no telling” — is a puzzle, a mystery, an incomplete content, yet signifying something at the edge of the cup. One cannot distinguish if it is steam or a solidified layer hiding the rim, so much so that the coffee is hidden beneath the thickened layer; beautifully clothed in the poetic line, “Which is which,” and not being separated or easily recognized.
As this week’s winner, Radhamani 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!
ill all day... a crime novel in both rooms — Alan Summers, Blithe Spirit, vol. 17 no. 1 (2007)
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Scalding coffee from a freezing cup.
At the rim no telling
Which is which
— Lou Hartman, Essential Zen (1995)
Lou’s haiku can be read as a simple observation of a sensual experience — hot coffee on a cold day, drunk perhaps from a tin cup. However this poem leads us far beyond our physical senses. The first line does not mention any cooling effect of the coffee nor warming of the cup. They remain two extremes, scalding hot and freezing. Yet at the rim, where the two extremes meet, the sensation feels the same. Perhaps it is pain, perhaps pleasure, but essentially the same sensation. So too, many of the extremes of life, love/hate, joy/sorrow, mania/depression, at their heart affect us so similarly that we find it hard to tell which is which, just as Lou has said in the final line. Hot/cold, two extremes, but both so much the same experience.
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