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
winter morning... the farmer's sneeze startles the new-born calf — K. Ramesh, a small tree of tender leaves (2020)
Sushama Kapur visualizes a tender encounter:
The scene is set in line one: It is a cold morning. Farmers around the world are generally kept busy on their farms with challenges. Today, on this farm, it is the birth of a calf. The farmer’s cow has just delivered, and visually the reader can see, feel and hear this scene: The patient cow being ministered to, the unsure, awkward little calf — all legs — being cleaned by its mother, the farmer himself monitoring everything, and perhaps there are farm hands helping him. All this in the nip of winter air.
The farmer’s connection with his work and with his surroundings is implied. The fact that he has chosen this occupation itself says a lot about the man and his affinity with the outdoors.
The next image in lines two and three is a beautifully humorous one! The little creature that has just entered this big cold world from the small, warm, comfortable and protective uterus of its mother is suddenly surprised and alarmed by an unexpected loud sound that is emitted nearby.
The farmer sneezes! (Well, it is a cold morning in winter, after all!) The calf is startled, and perhaps almost jumps out if its skin. The cow probably calms it by continuing to lick and clean. And maybe the farmer himself laughs involuntarily at this reaction of the calf, but at the same time tries to reassure it by gently stroking its head.
The action in the second image contrasts vividly with the vastness and silence of line one with its reference to the winter season. Two sudden and immediate things happen: the sneeze and a startled reaction! No one can predict a sneeze. It comes when it has to and it is generally loud. And about the second one, well, one is startled when something unexpected happens!
Also, the slight pause as line two ends, after the word “sneeze” (the end of one action), works very well to show its unexpected quality, and thus justifies the calf being “startled” (the second action).
I see this nine-word haiku as a true example of a “small tree with tender leaves” that it is part of! We see both the narrator and the reader viewing everything — this entire scene happening in a cow shed or a pasture, on a farm, on a winter morning — oh, so tenderly!
Lakshmi Iyer takes us scene by scene:
I am in awe and wonder-struck at the subtlety and purity of this poem: layers of images with a simple and honest background.
After reading it several times, I wondered what I should talk about first; whether of the winter morning, the farmer’s sneeze, or the newborn calf being startled. Both the fragment and phrase support each of the actions. The images are perfectly placed in the order of observation. I would say, it’s like viewing the frames of a one-minute film.
The opening scene gives us a “winter morning.” We have all experienced a winter morning with cold, shiver-inducing winds. Dressed up in thermal wear with his hands tucked inside a jacket, the farmer makes his way to the cow shed to attend to a newborn calf.
Suddenly, in the second scene, the outside temperature triggers an allergic sneeze. As many of us may have experienced, a sneeze pops up without our knowledge, and it is very embarrassing when the decibel level of the sneeze goes beyond our control. Though it happens unknowingly, it startles the people around us.
Now, here is where the poet describes the third scene of the newborn calf. What’s so special about a newborn calf? The birth of a creation is a very special occasion, and it is this golden hour that we all look forward to. There’s a special wonder accompanied by love, compassion and attachment. The newborn has just arrived with no prior knowledge of sound, light and touch. Hence, everything that it sees or hears or feels is for the first time. This is why even a surprising sneeze startles it. Already, the newborn calf has mild hypothermia as its body temperature drops below the norm. With the winter morning adding a chill to the weather, a surprise sneeze would startle anyone!
Creation is very special, and timely love and care is all that one needs to offer. Balanced images, a well selected kigo, brevity, and the use of alliteration (the “s” in “sneeze startles”) have made this a complete haiku.
Keith Evetts delves deeper:
On the face of it, an unexceptional — and unexceptionable — haiku, simply observing the skittishness of a newborn confronted with a sudden noise. Yet, if the reader dwells on it, focusing on each word chosen with care, there is much more to bring. First, it is the unfamiliarity of the noise that causes the alarm. As we gain experience with age, we get used to things. In this case, the thing is a sneeze, in winter. Is it something to be alarmed about? Perhaps carrying disease (in 2020, a Covid year). And the source of the calf’s alarm is the farmer. For now, a newborn calf has nothing to be startled about from a farmer whose aim will be to nurture it. But later, when the calf is fully grown and accustomed to his sneezes, no longer paying attention, it will be time for the market.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă discerns a melding of sensory images:
This is a poem in which visual images blend harmoniously with tactile and auditory ones. The first part brings to the fore the winter season, which is associated with the feeling of death, with the idea of decomposition. In this sense, the suspension points can signify melting snowflakes, announcing the end of winter.
In the second part, attention is focused on the newborn calf that immediately begins its exploratory adventure, trying to decode in its own way all the external stimuli that invade it. The farmer’s sneezing causes it to react, to process certain information and to adapt to the wonderful new world in which it landed.
Interesting that, in context, the right choice of the verb “startle,” due to its form, is close to that of the verb “to start,” to begin. The poem is also special on a phonetic level, because “s” and “z” make you think of the noise that a sneeze makes, and “l” and “f,” through empathy, make you feel in your own skin that thrill that the animal feels.
Priti Aisola appreciates the freshness of perception:
This haiku is an auditory and visual delight. Line one gives the context of the season and the time of the day — “winter morning.” Since the poet, K. Ramesh, is from south India, I wondered about the place that he could be referring to. Line two mentions a farmer, and then we hear his sneeze on a crisp winter morning. If there is a farmer, one needs to have fields, and these fields would very likely be at the foot of some hills for the narrator to experience some kind of wintry chill. My thoughts wander to some of the lovely hill names in South India and the images they evoke of the flora and fauna — the Anaimalai Hills, the Cardamom Hills, the Pothigai Hills. And I am curious about the exact setting of the ‘ku. Does it matter, though?
We see the farmer set out early on a winter morning to go to his fields. Are they paddy fields? Is it the winter sowing season for paddy? As the farmer sets out, perhaps across an open meadow or a field, the cold winter air hits him and he sneezes. And this sneeze “startles the new-born calf.” I imagine that it is still dawn and the farmer has not spotted the calf with its mother. Or he is so focused on reaching his fields that he almost misses seeing the calf? I am sure the farmer is as startled as the calf is. One can visualize a tender, vulnerable little creature either nestling against its mother or suckling. It is still unsure of itself, perhaps a bit wobbly — still not used to the outside world and its sounds; not used to the early morning light because it may have been born when it was still dark.
The farmer is unaware of the calf’s existence, its presence. The calf’s new world is only the mother and its need to feed itself. Hence the word “startle” is apt for both the farmer and the new-born calf. This word connects them both in an interesting, momentary relationship — of an involuntary intruder and a new life that needs shielding and nurturing — that needs to be gently and gradually introduced to the world; certainly not in this abrupt manner.
I enjoyed this simple ‘ku that evoked a homely image of a winter morning with so much sensitivity and freshness of perception.
As this week’s winner, Priti 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.
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evening news only the birds arrive home — Shalini Pattabiraman, Wales Haiku Journal, Spring 2021