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re:Virals 27

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 shell I take,
     the shell it takes
     — ebb tide
          — Vincent Tripi, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (2013)

Peter Newton offers his own take, but doesn’t leave it at that:

Here is a world in balance. An optimist’s view. A positive outlook. A poem that says we are all caught in the in-between tide, the ebb tide where sand and sea parcel out what is taken and what is allowed to remain. A poem about humility in the face of the all-powerful sea itself. A nature-lover’s poem. At least these were my initial thoughts upon re-reading this poem of vince’s. Since vince is a friend I decided to call him up and ask him about his poem. Here’s what he said (with his permission): “Yeah, I wrote that around 1990 in San Francisco. It’s a poem about loneliness and impermanence. Jean-Paul Sartre said all poetry is about endings and I agree. We’re all ending, in a way. Ebbing. This poem is about reaching out to pick up a shell. The ocean is lonely too. And it is also reaching out to pick up a shell. Nature is, after all, the other half of us. Thing is we are never separated from nature. When we reconnect with nature we stop the ebbing and hold onto life.” Agreed. Thanks v.

Marion Clarke adds:

It was the movement in this haiku that struck me first, the almost onomatopoeic repetition of sound in L2, suggesting the action of endless waves arriving and retreating from the shore.

Then, the use of the verb ‘take’ in the actions, ‘I take’ and ‘it takes’, reminded me of players making their moves in a game of chess, each player taking their turn to lift their opponent’s pieces.

However, ‘ebb tide’ reminds us that man’s time at the game of life is finite; we are weak opponents against Mother Nature who will eventually take back anything we might have taken . . . and we will, ultimately, be reclaimed by her ourselves.

And Judt Shrode’s response to this classic poem is immediate, but then opens:

As I experience it, this shining little poem’s simple transaction expands in a remarkable way.

In the first two lines, the rhythmic pull of the back and forth of waves (and by extension the in and out of tides) is palpable. It draws me, almost literally, into a rocking motion.
The sameness of these lines then sets up a question of contrast. In my reading, the “other” shell is being claimed by the outgoing tide. This then alludes to the ineluctable power of tides and the forces that cause them . . . and in comparison the relative frailty of the human individual. In this context the person remains irrelevant. On the other hand, it would seem that in taking a particular shell from among others he is exercising his human power of choice and self determination.

But in the poem’s moment of give and take, there is recognition that that freedom of choice is an illusion. These shells belong to the sea. Only at random are certain ones made available — or reclaimed — by the tides.


As this week’s winner, Judt 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 27:

     by firelight
     listening to the silence
     of things we can't see
          — Larry Gross, Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (1993)
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