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
falling leaves — several trees in the woodpile — John Stevenson, The Heron's Nest, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1999)
Lakshmi Iyer walks through the cycle of renewal:
“falling leaves” is autumnal; and what a beautiful shower of colors nature offers us to experience! The poet has crafted this poem very well by using the em dash as the kireji. This reflects that though the two images in the fragment and phrase are unrelated, they are juxtaposed to establish the ultimate truth. The truth perfectly falls in place in the phrase “several trees/ in the woodpile.”
A cycle of renewal is a universal principle: In order to grow, we must peel off that which is most close to us. The very thought that trees shed leaves and ultimately lie as a pile of wood reveals the greatest perspective of the poet.
Autumn is colourful, and it is all in our mind how we take it forward, what to hold onto and what to leave. Sometimes, we may have to release a few good things in our life, sometimes we may have to forgive those we hardly know, sometimes it may bring pain and grief. When all is said and done, I feel we might let the falling leaves happen; we aren’t responsible. It is one of those windy days that effects it. The leaves that fall lose their form, but it surely helps the well-being of the tree. Likewise, our good actions speak for themselves.
A lesson to remember: “falling leaves” are full of life and color in their last days. They become another spring with the golden leaves as flowers. It is a transition between hot and cold, and yet it remains one of the best seasons to cherish! From unreal to real world, from clinging to non-clinging, from ego to egoless; let us master this craft of the falling leaves to remain in a woodpile and be useful to the world!
Sushama Kapur ruminates about the scene:
The first line would take the reader to autumn — in medias res. The trees are still shedding leaves. There is a pause at the end of the phrase indicated by the em dash, as if the narrator’s eye now spans the scene — observing details in the surrounding perimeter. Perhaps he is standing at the window of his house or is on his porch. Or more possibly: Is he on an evening walk, or maybe touring an area?
With the mention of “woodpile,” my thoughts went first to pieces of wood, cut and piled up for household use, for burning in fireplaces with the onset of the cold season. The word “logs” is not used, but my second thought was: Could it actually mean that? It talks about “several trees” after all. And then the tone in the fragment held my attention. To me, it seems to be almost critical. For human consumption, several trees have been cut down and are now lying on the ground in a pile. The word “pile” would also suggest a fairly large quantity. The link between this image and the one in the phrase — “falling leaves” — is what seems to be making the narrator very concerned.
There are two points that could be noted about the two images: 1) Falling leaves is a natural phenomenon but the image in lines two and three has happened because of human action. 2) What probably causes the strong concern is the speed of this action: Leaves in autumn and winter fall without stopping, until there are none left! And the trees in the woodpile seem to have been cut, without any thought or restraint, with equal speed. Are we then going towards a time when there are no trees left in the world?
Furthermore, this action carried out by human hands seems to be unconscious or uncaring about upsetting a delicate balance in the environment. To every action a reaction, and in this case one that leads to a cascading effect of affecting the climate cycle of the place with all the ramifications. And to what end has this action been carried out? Most probably for commercial benefit and profit. Well, the cost does seem to be a trifle high then, to put it mildly!
This seven-word haiku builds its strength with the juxtaposed images in the phrase and fragment: natural seasonal change versus manmade exploitation of nature. And the poignant part of the situation is: How many people in the world would really care about upsetting this balance, or even know that such a situation exists?
For Shalini Pattabiraman, it’s about communication:
Robert Macfarlane’s The Understory is a remarkable piece of writing that pays attention to the idea of how trees communicate and respond to each other as a community and offer healing, contact, and resources to other trees that are struggling to survive. “The Giving Tree” is indeed more than that. Often, ecologists call them the lungs of the earth. But I’m beginning to think of them as people — a living, breathing community of beings who look different from us.
Increasingly, I’m drawn to the idea that our bodies rue the loss of the trees, and this manifests itself in different ways within our bodies. We mourn this loss without awareness. The more distant we become from being attentive listeners rooted to earth, the less we are aware of how we hurt each time a tree is cut.
It is therefore quite striking to take note of John’s juxtaposition of “falling leaves” — a natural phenomenon set against the manmade impact of “several trees in the woodpile.” “Falling leaves” evoke balance as fall brings winter and eventually spring — there’s continuity, a sort of graceful dance between birth and death and rebirth. But “several” cuts into the conscience, as it’s “several trees” that offer me the “warmth in the woodpile.” I’m suddenly aware of the impact of my choice.
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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owl call a blood moon sailing through the vole’s eye — John Hawkhead, The Blo͞o Outlier Journal, Issue #1 (2020)