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
evening news only the birds arrive home — Shalini Pattabiraman, Wales Haiku Journal, Spring 2021
Priti Aisola considers each flight:
This haiku resonated with me the moment I read it. Poignant and unsettling, it stayed with me for days. I wondered about the story, the incident that lurks in between its lines. I wondered about all that is left unsaid.
“evening news” sets the mood of amorphous unease. What is this “evening news” that the narrator is referring to? Is it news on television? Very likely. News from a family member, relative, or a friend, over the phone, is not referred to as “evening news.” News from a neighbour isn’t “evening news” either. As one pauses after line one with held breath, one reads lines two and three — “only the birds/ arrive home.” The word “only” jolts one and fills one with apprehension and concern. Lines two and three imply quite strongly that “evening news” is not pleasant news. Has there been a mishap, some unfortunate incident, or an accident? Or does it have to do with inclement weather? One’s anxiety deepens. Who is the narrator waiting for? Or, is the narrator referring to many families waiting for their loved ones to get back home after the day’s work? And has something prevented them from “arriving” home safe and sound?
Consider “only the birds arrive home.” As I said earlier, the word “only” makes one sit up and listen to the narrator’s voice and message. And what is that? Someone else who was supposed to be home isn’t back home. Why not? Only the birds are back home. Back home to the dense canopy of a tree, a niche, a thicket, a birdhouse. Back home to rest their tired wings. Back home to re-energize themselves for a new day. Back home to fill the morning with birdsong and bird calls. But what about the one who hasn’t reached home yet? What about the ones who haven’t “arrived” home yet. Will they ever get back home? If not that night, then the next day, or the following night? Is a message of hope concealed somewhere in the poem? Not really.
My feeling of apprehension deepened to a settled sadness at the end of this beautifully crafted, poignant haiku. And I consoled myself with this: At least the birds are back home. And whoever is supposed to come back home may find his or her way back sooner than later. Of course, the homecoming that did not happen may not be limited to just one individual.
Sushama Kapur finds context in current affairs:
2020 and 2021 have been terrible years for the human race. They have literally seen the world down on its knees. The immense loss of human life that has taken place is tragically horrifying. People have had to live their lives cocooned in their houses, in almost virtual realities, in order to be away from the virus causing the pandemic. And unfortunately this measure, too, has not given them complete safety!
One of the realities of this state of affairs has been the lockdowns, with life in cities coming to a standstill. In these circumstances, the only connection sometimes with the world outside has been via digital and/or electronic mediums. The only way people can stay abreast to predicted and unforseen developments in the pandemic has been through news on the various TV channels or the newspapers or the internet. The death toll every day has been terrible, and this could be conveyed to the people mainly through “news.”
When we read this very poignant, seven-word haiku, the first allusion to all of this is the fragment “evening news” — the end-of-the-day news. However, it is the next image in the phrase that gives relevance to line one. It says, “only the birds/ arrive home.” Yes, they do — and not the many, many people who succumbed to the virus that day or the families who suffered losses and for whom, now, “home” has become synonymous with pain, anguish and fear.
If there is any silver lining at all to this true and morbidly tragic scenario, it is that nature has thrived in the absence of human intrusion. Because of lockdowns and because people have almost been imprisoned in their houses, the flora and fauna of this planet have suddenly become free to live unencumbered lives and/or thrive.
And so in the second image of the poem — of birds that come back to their nests in the evening — it seems like the human race is no longer at the apex of the food chain, but in fact the creatures that live in the natural world are! “birds” become symbolic of such creatures.
The reality of human suffering is highlighted minimalistically with the word “only.” Humans have now become outsiders. They don’t get to feel the safety of their homes. The word “home,” then, has a double meaning. Besides being a place of physical shelter, it has also been a place where one feels protected and where there are the roots of identity. It seems like this is no longer available to humans.
Is there an undercurrent of hope in this poem? If we choose to see it, it would be an implied one — where people of this world can look forward to a time when they, too, are able to “arrive home”!
Laksmi Iyer sees the universal truth within:
A simple haiku with only seven words, yet a bold and brave truth many hesitate to speak of. Let’s find out the deeper meaning of line one — evening news — and of the following image, “only the birds/ arrive home.”
The strongest image of this ‘ku lies in the word “birds.” Nothing strange to know about them, but the fact that only they arrive home is the highlight.
Birds here represent those who look upon their home as a lighthouse in their lives. It’s an invisible thread of bonding that attracts them to return; a magnetic pull; an inborn internal clock that judges the daytime and twilight time.
A waiting far off…
An unsaid story retold…
Warmth and care wanting to be hugged
Yes, only the birds arrive, because it’s a “home and not a house.”
Can I also put it this way, that maybe there has been a long spell of absence of that particular bird who is to arrive, or maybe a long lost friend, or maybe the wanderers who now want to settle into their homes? However we take it, the poet has beautifully used the word “arrive” instead of “return.” It magically weaves in the entire episode of the evening news.
Why the evening news? Because the sun rises to set. A beginning has an end. Going up brings you down, too. You leave to return!
Isn’t that the biggest headline in the evening news?
Isn’t that the fact?
Isn’t that the truth and the whole truth, the universal truth?
Nathan Sidney observes contrasting cycles:
Set against a scene of humble domesticity — the T.V. on, the blinds drawn, the shoes off — are the impersonal forces of history, forces that send men and women to war, send men and women on migrations through foreign lands and across seas in search of peace and security. We imagine the news once again announcing the troops will not be coming home or another ship of refugees was lost in the ocean. Juxtaposed, too, are the two auditory components of this poem: the drone of the television and the excited chatter of the birds as they come home to roost, the flurry of avian lives versus the staid quality of the news studio. Perhaps the birds that have arrived home have themselves made a long journey, and the poem references the beginning of spring, when many migrating birds return to their summer feeding and breeding grounds. In this case, the hopes of spring are dashed by the cruelty of fate or the callousness of our political leaders. The cycles of nature are contrasted against the cycle of history, and we have to ask, where has humanity gone wrong? The 3-4-3 syllable pattern is very compact but achieves a great deal with just seven words, the entire human drama condensed into this scene. And it does this without lecturing, but by showing us, with compassion, this intimate moment, as if we had simply walked by and looked into the window and realized how this ordinary/extraordinary life is our life, too.
As this week’s winner, Nathan 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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half a lifetime . . . the lemon tree yet to grow a peach — Julie Schwerin, is/let, April 4, 2021