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
powdered snow– a crow’s eyes above the no parking sign — Alan Summers, Does Fish-God Know (2012)
For Sushama Kapur, it’s all about choices:
Visually, each line in this small poem has a different color: white (snow), black (a crow’s eyes), green/red/yellow/ blue (parking sign). The scene is also steeped in silence: We have powdered snow (and the em dash after that for emphasis), the focus is on the eyes of a crow (not its caw), and the reference to a “no parking sign” probably means no engine sounds.
So why has the poet brought together these three images? Does the poem say something more — other than being a beautiful visual scene and a treat to the eye?
The answer might reside in the choice of the bird: a crow! This bird — besides being known to be intelligent, adaptable and, in some cultures, wise — could symbolically have connections with death. In fact, in some religions, crows are believed to be carriers of the soul in its journey to the afterlife and could have links to other everlasting mysteries of life as well.
So what, then, are the eyes of the crow doing above the “no parking sign”? Are they warning us? Are they safeguarding/ policing the “no parking” rule? The snow around is “powdered.” Does that mean it’s thin, and so the space below the sign is more easily accessible to rule breakers?
And again, why the choice of a “no parking” sign? Why not any other sign, or a gatepost, or a branch of a tree or anywhere else that the crow perches itself on? What links the bird to this specific sign? Could the sign then be alluding to a cemetery? Would that explain the presence of the crow, and the possible warning in its eyes?
Well, a lot of questions do spring to mind! With every reading the poem seems to get more and more intriguing. And for me, therein lies its greatness!
Donal O’Farrell goes on a journey:
I love this poem. The opening line presents a view of pristine newly fallen snow. Then line two gives a crow’s knowing view of things — that cleverest of birds. And then line three: All this will be turned to grey slush soon enough when the cars return. The poet takes us on a whirlwind journey. A bit like that much loved subject of haiku: the cherry blossoms that are soon to be swept away.
Lakshmi Iyer makes keen observations:
I feel that the weight of any haiku is the use of the kireji — it pauses, reflects and explains. Here, the em dash in line one makes all the difference. It highlights the truth. The first line transports us to winter where snow is thick all around; and what a clear-cut image it is.
The images between the first line and the second line seem slightly unrelated at first, but, through keen observation, we can make out the relationship between the powdered snow and the crow. The poet has used the crow as the main character of lines two and three. Crows are intelligent, apt to detect any danger, and that is what is seen here. “crow’s eyes above/ the no parking sign” — Is there any danger in that area? If so, what? Reading about powdered snow, I came to learn that crows collect it in huge cauldrons kept outside in a snowy biome while it is snowing. There are chances of falling. And yes, in that case, the crow’s cache is a dangerous area. The “no parking” sign explains this.
I love the way the poem has unfolded the poet’s love for the crows and how beautifully the crow’s eyes are taken as a medium to pinpoint the whole image.
Alan Peat is struck by the poet’s craft:
One of the acid tests of a fine poem is the length of time it remains with you. I first came across this haiku a little over a year ago when I first read Alan’s collection Does Fish-God Know, and I was immediately struck by the precision of its language. There’s snow, but it’s not just any old snow; it’s powdered snow. And there’s a crow, but it’s not the whole of a crow — it’s precisely the eyes of that crow. For me, this attention to language makes the image that the poet creates much more vivid. The specificity of the language and the specificity of the image go hand in hand.
I was also struck by the craft of this haiku: it’s subtle and it’s very clever. Alan opens the ‘ku with “powdered snow” and ends it with “parking sign”: the PS of the start is the PS of the closure. In a sense, the poet has created a frame for the image with the very language of the haiku. The “picture” sits comfortably in the space that this forges. The blank space that surrounds the haiku (the poems are arranged one per page in the collection) functions as an outer frame, further amplifying the visual impact of the words. Put simply, the ‘ku functions in a space within a space.
Then there’s the wry humor of it. The crow has parked itself on a “no parking” sign — it’s funny but it also resonates with deeper meaning: We can’t control nature. It was written in 2012 and it was prescient then but it’s even more prescient now. Nature has no regard for our rules — that’s the deeper meaning that I take for this multi-layered haiku.
Alan’s poems demand close reading, and the reader who takes the time is amply rewarded. The black eyes of that crow will continue to stare out at me from the powdered snow and the white of the surrounding paper for years to come. That much I am certain of.
As this week’s winner, Alan 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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into a wild boar’s dream the thud of an acorn — Réka Nyitrai, while dreaming your dreams (2020)