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
of course the mountain wasn't always — Tiffany Shaw-Diaz, Cold Moon Journal (2021)
Keith Evetts writes of his selection:
I like verses that provoke meditation, for me an essential ingredient of the genre. This is a senryu I keep coming back to. It is unorthodox, beginning with “of course,” which immediately challenges the reader to think otherwise. There is no kire in the text; that is left as the dangling “always” at the end, for the reader to supply their own thoughts. It reminds me of Issa’s “inch by inch/ little snail/ climb mount Fuji,” where David Lanoue’s interpretation and context goes way beyond the first simplistic thought.
Having acknowledged that the mountain of rock wasn’t always there, but was once lava, and who knows what before that, or after… we have other layers. Age, for example: many things that were easy to do when one was young become difficult with age — is it all in the mind? Do we make things difficult for ourselves? Even, is the world making progress in this or that matter?
Then there is the notion that we may be seeing a reflection of the mountain.
I will be interested to see whether other readers bring differing interpretations.
Lakshmi Iyer deconstructs to get a better view:
I wonder about the weight and style of this poem. I had to read it several times to think deeply about the use of the words “wasn’t always.” For this, I read it backwards from line three to line one:
(with an empty space that brings in hundreds of images) and then, is that a revelation or a forceful statement saying:
Intriguing, but there’s a passion for the outside world and the vacuum created therein; a longing to see something beyond the mountain, something that the naked eye can’t see, and yet compromising with oneself about it. So who’s to blame? The poet is not in any mood to blame the mountain.
“Faith moves mountains.” Life is about adjustments and understanding. Of course, what was before wasn’t always the same as we see things today. So much has changed or is being changed. So much has life taught us or that we are teaching ourselves. How much have we gained or are trying to learn and unlearn?
There is always a connection between the mind and the moon. The more we expand our understanding, the more we can definitely see things beyond our control. So the question of “wasn’t always” disappears. Doubts and illusions try to overcome our purposeful life, but we have vibrant words, such as “of course” that change everything.
A tiny poem with a strong punch!
Peggy Bilbro tackles the question of permanence:
What an interesting way to begin a poem! “Of course.” That can mean, “everyone knows…,” or it can mean “however…” Either one leads beautifully into the following idea, “the mountain/ wasn’t always.” Perhaps there has been a discussion of eons-long geological changes that make mountains rise and erode, seas surge and ebb, and rivers flow and disappear. Someone might have commented that of course (we all know), the mountain wasn’t always here. Or perhaps it was a more philosophical question on the permanence and solidity of the mountain as it stands century after century against the sky. Then someone ventured to suggest that of course (however), as permanent as it seems to us in our short, impermanent lives, the mountain wasn’t always here. From whichever perspective we read this poem, it takes us to the recognition of our short time on this earth to contemplate the mountain, which is for us humans the symbol of permanence. Yet we also see that in the cosmic time scale that mountain once wasn’t and once again will not be. The mountain and we humans then are not so different.
Marion Clarke circles around the mountain:
What a fascinating little poem. It felt like a fragment of a conversation, perhaps overheard by the barman of an alpine ski resort. I keep wanting to add the fourth line, “the mountain,” which in turn made me wonder about its origin. Could this formation have been produced by volcanic eruption, in which case it would have started out as a pool of magma beneath the earth. Or might the majestic peak have been a former desert that has been pushed upwards by colliding tectonic plates?
Then I did an online search using the words “the mountain wasn’t always” and, to my astonishment, arrived at an article about actor and bodybuilder Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, better known as The Mountain from the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones. It turns out he was a basketball player when he was younger, so this particular mountain definitely wasn’t “always. ” I’m not sure if Tiffany is a GoT fan but, if not, I thought the story was an amusing spin on her poem!
For Radhamani Sarma, much hinges upon circumstance:
Many thanks to Tiffany Shaw-Diaz for giving us this senryu, a poem with myriad connotations to be explored by readers. It might be that while trekking and climbing up the mountain, certain weather conditions have created different situations, moods that impact the climber and reader. In a very casual and private tone, the writer admits that her opinion about the mountain wasn’t always the case.
A single line in past tense, depicting exclusively the mountain, dons different forms. For example, during the peak of winter, one finds thick white snow and a frozen path that completely hide its view from our sight and access. Climbing as a venture, as a pastime with delectable journeys of one’s own choice or in groups, may be jolly or cumbersome, depending upon the place and distance, with an abiding interest always, or effect on the body and mind. The mountain, though known for its unreachableness and as a synonym for heights and grandeur, disappears. In between, branches, trees, animals and birds, crevices and cavities are all subject to the vagaries of weather and change. Another possible inference is that the trek up the mountain was not always the same. As mentioned earlier, the past tense of “wasn’t always the same” allows room for symbolic shrinkage of a mountain as envisaged by so many.
Next, symbolically, we may have a gigantic “mountain”: a man at the height of fame, name and popularity, with excessive wealth and sturdiness of courage and wisdom, who encounters a choking downfall, such that his enormous mountainous prowess is no longer the same; hence, “the mountain/ wasn’t always” the same. Man and mountain, at times, disappear into a haze due to circumstances.
Hildy Bachman delves beyond the obvious:
At first reading, the poem seems simple, but it begs the question: The mountain wasn’t always what? The poet prods readers to supply the answer: The mountain wasn’t always there. However, once the question is asked the answer goes deeper.
The first line starts off with a matter-of-fact statement “of course.” This line assumes that we all know something and are in agreement. In the second line, “the mountain” is what we have taken for granted because we see it; it has always been with us. We can all imagine any mountain from the smallest to the tallest. Mountains are spectacular. However, we may not know how they became mountains without reading about the geologic process — the process of plates moving against each other resulting in mountains over millions of years. Geologists tell us mountains grow perhaps one to two inches a year.
The poet says very simply that the reader should consider that something we see every day, and take for granted, really has a complex formation. It is almost too difficult to grasp that a small change, mostly unnoticeable, can grow and develop into a mountain. Mountains, immovable and constant, hold mysteries for us all. They hold allure for people to climb them. The poet pushes us to look deeper, to question, and to learn the wonders of the natural world.
Shalini Pattabiraman encounters mystery and change:
The mysterious opening with the rather strange first line signals that “of course” is the confirmation or acknowledgment of something that has happened, even a kind of realization. Perhaps a person attempting to arrive at an understanding of sorts has figured out what should have always been known or apparent. The indent before line two allows line one to appear as a phrase to the fragment instead of being read as a one-sentence haiku. On the other hand, the indent creates a pause that suggests this understanding has taken a rather long journey, despite its universal truth: “a mountain/ wasn’t always.” This abrupt ending in line three both evokes mystery for those who are not part of this truth and also lends a certain gravitas, because one can read that last part as suggesting that a mountain wasn’t always a mountain. In this universe, things are forever changing and metamorphosing. Change is indeed the only truth, the obvious truth. On another tangent altogether, one can treat the mountain as a new development, a metaphor for new challenges for which the current status quo is bound to change just like the mountain that wasn’t always there and has only just appeared!
As this week’s winner, Shalini 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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slung boots over the powerline southbound geese — Gideon Young, Wales Haiku Journal (2021)