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
sanderlings… a boy’s wind-up robot chases the surf — Jo Balistreri, bottle rockets #44 (2021)
Diana Webb wonders at questions raised:
Are we all just part of a preordained mechanism in the tide of life? Or is there a distinct difference between the natural, i.e., the sanderlings, and the boy’s wind up robot? This haiku invites these huge questions while at the same time being a picture of an unique moment observed. A great haiku!
Lakshmi Iyer observes the back-and-forth:
I thank Alan Summers for selecting this poem. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to explain the aesthetics. But, here as the poet unveils a childhood through a wind-up robot, she not only brings in that genuine childishness, but also an understanding of nature versus technology.
Line one sets the image of sanderlings. These birds are found mostly on beaches. They are obsessed with going back and forth with the tides to feed on whatever is left by the to-and-fro of waves. The poem starts from here as the action is let out by lines two and three. The maneuvering is done skillfully by the player who is well versed with the sea tides. The poet has cleverly placed the child’s robot to chase the surf just like the sanderlings.
But, as we know, no one can compete with the challenges of nature. Unless and until one winds up the robot, it is not going to move. Can the robot outsmart the sanderlings? I don’t think so.
Ultimately, the sanderlings win the chase. A nice gesture by the poet to contemplate on nature and bring forward this observation.
Sushama Kapur ponders the undercurrents:
When we read the first word, “sanderlings,” we think of this delightful, plump little migratory bird in the cold regions, well known for its habit of chasing after waves. This bird does fly, I’ve read, but as part of a flock. The second and third lines of the eight-word haiku, however, startle us!
It is not a living creature that is doing the chasing. It’s a boy’s toy, manufactured in a factory and thus obviously man-made. More importantly, I think, when you compare it to a sanderling, it is without a soul. And that is what is chasing the surf!
But how can a soul-less toy do that? Oh, wait a minute, it does say it’s of a “wind-up” variety. Has somebody then wound it up so that it can move? And then we read the next word. The toy is a robot. Even more soul-less, right?
To finally get the image description correct, let me repeat: A wind-up robot (a toy) is chasing the surf like a sanderling, a sandpiper — a beautiful creature in our natural surroundings.
The image could produce a laugh. But if you think about it at a deeper level, you wonder: Is it really laughable? On the surface, the reason for the toy being in the ocean could be that a boy forgot his toy on the beach (which can happen) and his parents, too, apparently forgot to pick up all of their belongings while returning home (which should not happen). And then the waves pulled it into the ocean, and now it’s riding the waves, chasing them.
Or another reason it’s there is that some unthinking adult dumped a bag of trash near the beach and the tide pulled it in. And one of the things in that bag is the wind-up robot.
Whatever the reason, why is this toy in the ocean? It’s not supposed to be there. It’s supposed to be in a house where human children can play with it. Or if its days are done, it needs to be in a recycling facility, being repurposed into something else.
The haiku then seems to be pointing out the extremely sad and indeed horrifying outcome of human irresponsibility and a misplaced don’t-care attitude.
Together, lines two and three, I think, become a very graphic symbol of what is happening to our planet in the very thoughtless littering that is taking place almost everywhere.
The wind-up robot can never be a sanderling because it is not mortal. And its remains will not be absorbed by nature. It is most probably made up of plastic and metal and very possibly will be swallowed whole by an innocent creature that belongs to the ocean, thus endangering its beautiful life in this vast water-body.
Re-reading the eight-word haiku, then, I am struck anew by its underlying tone. It is, I believe, a gently scathing one, and rightly so! This beautifully crafted small poem becomes a poignant minimalistic critique of a thoughtless race, that seems bent on destroying this gift of a planet, piece by piece.
It is not only happening in our water-bodies, but on land, too, and in the very air that we breathe. And if this continues to happen, there will be no liveable planet left for our children, and our children’s children, and indeed for all the future generations of all races living on this Earth.
The layers in this haiku are many, and I think the reader is indebted to this very delicate assembly of words that show us this.
As this week’s winner, Sushama 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!
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you and me together yet apart — beads of a rosary — Tejinder Sethi, Uncharted Roads (2021)