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re:Virals 291

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

     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!

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.

re:Virals 292:

     you and me
     together yet apart —
     beads of a rosary
          — Tejinder Sethi, Uncharted Roads (2021)

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. I read with much delight this ”poetic history”. I enjoyed the way poems In the beginning was the poem by Mary Jo Balistreri. It was another poet, Alan Summers, that chose her recently-published poem to be commented in the present re:Virals after his own poem had been chosen in the previous re:Virals. The poem gets three commentaries by Diana, Lakshmi and Sushama.
    Then Mark, Alan, Radhamani, and Angela comment upon the poem and write commentaries. While commenting on his choice, Alan tracks the history of the poem. We learn that Alan appreciated Jo Balistreri’s poem so much that he was inspired to found his Blo͞o Outlier Journal after her păoem had been rejected several time (before it appeared in a quality print publication which made it possible for Alan to choose it…). Then, Alan opens drawers within drawers when he introduces Jo Balistreri’s recollections of that moment that inspired her to write the poem. And Corey Finger’s expert data on the birds featuring in the poet’s memory, which prompts Angela to add visual information on the subject.
    Jo Balistreri closes this circle by commenting on all the above. I really enjoyed the way words and images trigger so many reactions and create unexpected connections.

    1. How delightful to continue the conversation with your Mona. Thank you for writing. It means a lot to me.

  2. I’d like first of all to thank Alan Summers for selecting this haiku and believing in it. Thank you also, Alan, for your notes that followed including the surprise of including it in the anticipated natural history issue of Blo͞o Outlier Journal.

    I’m so grateful to each of you, Diana, Kakshmi, Radhamani and Mark, who participated, took the time to thoughtfully comment. I read each email with joy for extending my own meditation on the many hours I’ve spent watching sanderlings. They are such magical birds as the two offered links show as well–both Angela France and Corey Finger. I enjoyed these links very much as I hope you will too.
    Sushama, congratulations on your thorough commentary. What a pleasure to contemplate all that you’ve said.
    I carry all that’s been offered today in my knapsack as I leave shortly to walk among the sandlerlings. They hold their own among the many shorebirds I’ll encounter in their own camp down the beach. They beg one to stop and play…

    Jo Balistreri

    to thank each of you for your comments which extended my own many hours of watching sanderlings.

  3. re:Virals 291:

    a boy’s wind-up robot
    chases the surf
    — Jo Balistreri, bottle rockets #44 (2021)

    Many thanks for giving us a write on cute birds seen in around shore delightfully spending and wading in water, their abode of stay and revel in flight. Short and spongy sauntering around of course in water, these sanderlings are image of play ,run and revel, their watery cushion.
    The first line beginning thus ” sanderlings…” in plural typify images of beach and shore echoing their reveling in water,in waves, dashing on waves, roll and back. The poet Jo Balistreri, giving a room for extensive chance and expansion of descriptions, goes thus “sanderlings…..” We, readers, beach lovers, fisherman’s net, tiny wading birds take a round around beach poetically now; Following two lines,
    ” a boy’s wind-up robot
    chases the surf”
    let us imagine and see a boy playing with a robot, machine, accompanying him, a past time, a toy, a machine on hand, around sand and dunes, coming around . Depiction of boy’s robot brings a contrast – sanderlings on water/ robot in sand / perhaps delightfully every now and then touching shore . So far, robot so active, giving company, a toy enlivened , lively, cheering, on sand, now on loosening end. Boy winds -up robot, now shift is on water.
    Just as sanderlings go in surf, possible inference is that. boy’s robot, operated by a string/ follows the surf, after the cute ,tiny bird, in water/
    Another expansion of image is that, robots different in shapes and sizes, toys – cops, cars, clocks and cats and birds , dolls, speaking and dancing abound. Similarly the boy’s wind up robot meaning the mind and mood at that time of shift into surf after sanderlings. Man made motor runs after sanderlings, in surf ; A sort of contrast with God’s creation of birds with man made robots all dwell in pride after chase in water.

  4. sanderlings…
    a boy’s wind-up robot
    chases the surf

    Jo Balistreri
    bottle rockets, #44 (January, 2021)
ed. Stanford Forrester

    This is the haiku, which has been rejected quite a few times, that inspired me to found the Blo͞o Outlier Journal. It was finally taken by a quality print publication. It makes me feel good every time I’ve read it, which must be a few hundred times by now.

    The opening line gives us the sanderlings, delightful birds that chase and in turn appeared to be chased back, by the tide. The ellipsis works as a lovely visual touch of their tiny “footprints” that continue to appear disappear appear and at the close of the day will disappear until the next time.

    The second half of the haiku gives this reader, myself, another wonderfully upbeat image. First of all the second line gives us “a boy’s wind-up robot” which makes me smile and takes me back to childhood and those jerky robots that give endless simple pleasure, as you activate and then re-active them, a little like the tide does to the sanderlings in fact. I remember an outsized wind-up key and everything unsophisticated if it was a big rubber band, and not clockwork with multiple cogs.

    The third line brings us momentarily back to the sanderlings, but also there is a toy robot being chased too. I see a boy constantly winding up the toy, which hopefully is mostly plastic and waterproof. The boy is enjoying the fact that his treasured toy can imitate those wind-up toys called sanderlings

    It’s a wonderful beach scene, of a much needed holiday escape for hardworking underpaid adults, and that the beach will engage with the long child from early morning all the way through to the dwindling light of day.

    Here is what the author has to say:


    Sanderlings—the way they run like little wind-up toys to avoid the waves—they need wet ground to feed, but without knowing that they are like kids too, teasing the waves, daring the waves to get them wet. Their little stick legs go so fast…

    One day a little boy was winding up a tiny robot—he put it among the sanderlings and it was like God parting the Red Sea—But the boy did it over and over and it looked so much like one of them when it walked that the sanderlings soon ignored it and they all took off together toward the surf…

    it drew a crowd as it was so much fun to watch.

    That little boy on his belly winding up his robot again and again—everyone had a smile, stopping to watch before moving on. 

    That’s about all I know.

    They are also called Peeps but I never called them that. They do look round like those yellow peeps in Easter Baskets. 

    I forgot to tell you the best part for me!

    I saw this little boy and what he was trying to do so stood there a long time. His Mom came to stand beside me as we were cheering him on. Then she walked back to her chair and I sat down with the child. He gave me turns with the robot too and we were playing and figuring out different ways to send it.

    I was a child again.

    I have to add this last note after Jo’s magical disclosure:


    And that’s what is so magical for me too, it’s about ‘natural history’ of course but also our starting gate as humans, when we commence as baby humans, and then the honest and innocent naive engaging with the natural world, before we get over-complicated as older children and then morphing into teenage years.

    It’s really healthy for a fully adult human to remember a little about being a “child” and that it’s always there. We need not be ashamed we were once a child, and it’s unfortunate as we enter teenage years, or even sooner, that we are embarrassed by what we were, as a child.

    This haiku will also be featured in issue #3 of the Blo͞o Outlier Journal which is focusing on ‘natural history’.
    Blo͞o Outlier Journal issue #3 which will be ready to receive submissions in the Autumn (2021) will allow any strong nature haiku, and not just birds. Even though I am excited by ones that involve birds. Maybe that’s because they suggest freedom.

    Here is what one top bird expert has to say about Sanderlings and just magically lose yourself into his photographs too.


    “If you see shorebirds on a coastal beach in North America they are most likely Sanderlings (Calidris alba).  If they are running back and forth as the waves ebb and flow they are almost assuredly Sanderlings.  They are the “clockwork toy” birds according to Sibley, “The Bird That Plays Tag with the Waves” according to Pete Dunne, and The Shorebird Guide points out that Sanderlings are “probably the most widespread shorebird in the world.”  They appear on all the continents except Antarctica and migrate anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 miles from breeding grounds on the tundra to temperate and tropical beaches.  They are far and away my favorite shorebird.  I saw over 200 of them Sunday at Rockaway Beach and stuck around to watch and photograph them.

    Not only are Sanderlings fun to watch they leave cool tracks too. 
    Note the three-toed imprints left behind, the better for running.”

    Corey is the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.
    His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and many other fine publications.

  5. To me this haiku is a comparison of a sanderling to a wind-up robot, with added hypallage (the sanderling is chasing the waves, not the robot). It leaves the reader to make the comparison.

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