Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poems, proposed by Sushama Kapur, were:
cemetery stroll all the parallel shadows
— Matthew Markworth
Prune Juice, Issue 34, July 2021
bone-coloured moon the shape of forgetting
— Ron C. Moss
Heron’s Nest Volume XXII, Number 4, December 2020
or compare them with focus on technique.
Introducing this pair, Sushama writes:
Monoku, for me, is still an elusive struggling-to-get-it-right kind of a poem. So when I see one that has achieved this with rich layers of ideas and thought, it’s a moment of awe. I felt that when I read and re-read these two.
A pair of fine monoku. Some successful modern monoku build or progress through the words to a twist or reveal at the end. These two hook the reader at the beginning with a memorable scene-setting image, which is then juxtaposed in a more traditional way; the first with an image (parallel shadows); the second (bone-coloured moon), is juxtaposed with a thought. My impression is that “image and thought” haiku are becoming more prevalent. In both examples there is space for the reader, the unsaid. There’s transient or ageing beauty; a slightly poignant empathy, there’s haunting grace, tranquility; and elegance. In each haiku there is balance between the two parts, and there’s a natural “cut”. In each, the juxtaposition is gentle and complementary rather than an abrupt disconnect.
“Cemetery stroll” immediately sets the living among the dead. The choice of “stroll” is striking – because, for me, it’s associated with relaxed pleasure as well as slow measure. Yet this is a cemetery. I looked hard at the next word, “all..,” very frequently used, deciding that it was necessary – not just to emphasise the large number of gravestones and shadows, but also because it brings us in – we are all going to end up shadows. Author Matthew reveals below another cogent reason for choosing “stroll” and “all.” His haiku left me with a picture of one moving shadow among the still ones, yet pointing in the same direction. Beautiful.
Ron’s “bone-coloured moon,” again a striking phrase, conjures up fading, bleaching, and death, well beyond the pale moon with which we are familiar; “bone” also adds structure. The “shape of forgetting” makes me think of the moon waning to a crescent then finally disappearing. It also brought to mind the “hollow moon” in Adam’s Curse “worn as if it had been a shell washed by time’s waters”: what’s left of Yeats’ faded love for Maud. How can a little haiku be so gentle yet so strong? Perhaps more lyrical, less imagist than Matthew’s verse, but again, beautiful, and again, tinged with that compelling subtle melancholy.
A rich and varied crop of commentaries follow, lightly edited.
I have chosen the first poem. Reading it, I get a feeling of contemplation and reflection. I imagine a military cemetery with identical regimented graves and wooden crosses. I picture a bright winter day with the crosses casting long shadows and the stillness and quietness associated with a place of rest. But what I really like about this poem is the structure. The monoku format captures the rhythm of the stroll and as I read the poem my eye is drawn to the letter ‘l’ within the words ‘stroll’, ‘all’ and ‘parallel’ which serves to emphasise the straight lines of the graves, the crosses and the shadows they cast.
An interesting and atmospheric poem. Thank you Sushama for choosing it.
Both of these speak to me of loss, but in different ways. In the first, we’re in a cemetery, the parallel shadows appearing as similar headstones, much as we see especially in military burial grounds. The haiku runs deeper than the superficial observation, however. We’ve all had so many losses and our grief runs in parallel in the burial places of those we loved.
In Ron’s bone-coloured moon, I see the ‘bones’ of what the moon could become or already has been. When I go out to get the mail late each day I often can look up and see that faded moon in the sky. Soon it will take on color that is lost to it now and lost to us in its travels around the planet. The moon is our own intentional forgetting of losses we can now only see in shadow form.
What is unseen in both haiku is what ties them together for me. What is lost is their other bond. How this is implied is very different but both both succeed quite beautifully. I would love to be in the head of both writers and in their hearts to see what triggered the feelings they express here.
Peggy Hale Bilbro :
These two monoku provide a beautiful parallel vision. Matthew Markworth’s poem is a visual image seen in late afternoon while Ron Moss’s one liner moves us forward into nighttime. Both use light to create the desired effect — the elongated, parallel shadows of all the headstones, followed by the chilling bone-color of the moon. In the first poem those who have died seem to linger, casting their shadows ahead of them, leaving a path to guide those who are still here. The poet strolls among the stones, perhaps remembering each individual as he passes through their shadows. However the second poem has lost those shadows and memories, leaving behind nothing but bones and finally, forgetting. These two monoku stand in sharp contrast in their treatment of death, yet together provide a powerful statement on memory and the finality of death.
cemetery stroll all the parallel shadows
— Matthew Markworth
Prune Juice, Issue 34, July 2021
The technique that I see that really succeeds is the sheer expansiveness of its concreteness. Sometimes concrete images can remain flat, sometimes the abstract factor fails to bring something more out of the physical imagery. Here it’s the vivacity of image, the combination of two words into ‘cemetery stroll’ so that we have forward movement, and a dedicated place of the dead represented by various stone monuments: The other key factor is the use of ‘parallel’ alongside ‘shadows’.
I’d say that a key word or phrase is paramount to many poems, especially of the brief kind, as that is our way of expanding the poem when using a bare minimum of visible words, plus words within the spectrum of white and negative space: What we don’t see counts as much as what we can see. The key word for me is ‘parallel’ and looking up the word again was beneficial, as I gained even further insight into the “atmospherics” of the poem:
“Parallel planes are planes in the same three-dimensional space that never meet. Parallel curves are curves that do not touch each other or intersect… Figuratively, parallel means similar, or happening at the same time. Parallel lines look like railroad tracks: they are always the same distance apart, running next to each other.”
That made me think again of the obvious, that once we are in the ground, we all become equal in time and station to each other, and the other components of the “below ground” arena.
Let’s look at the one line haiku again, and where I observe the middle phrase “all the” holding the two concrete images both apart, and together, becoming a moveable feast of meaning:
cemetery stroll // parallel shadows
This changes, perhaps, in my “segue technique approach” from “all the” to “all of them”. Whether this is intentional or unintentional on the part of the author, it’s still a technique that enables me to “slide my interpretation along” and go deeper into the poem and its layers. This is what gives me frisson, which is so important, even moreso than the popular last line surprise of a three line haiku. I need the whole poem to be a surprise: not in an overt manner, but embedding its tension within me as I read and re-visit the poem.
7 years training in the Japanese martial arts of iaido and aikido has alerted me to view shapes through the prism of Japanese cosmological geometry. With the sword art of iaido, to end the kata (the disciplined movements of the form), the top edge of the blade is briefly placed at right angles (making the corner of a square)to the sheath opening. This represents Yang approaching to Yin (once inside the Yin darkness of the sheath, the resting sword will have its Yang nature diminished). Death is the ultimate form of Yin so the original idea in the days of active samurai was that you didn’t re-sheath your sword until it had fulfilled its role of killing an opponent. With aikido (which is based upon the same sword movements), an attacker’s arm ends up being pinned on the ground at right angles to his body while your forefinger (Yang) rests on his elbow, pointing to the ground (Yin) and parallel with your leg which is alongside his torso, preventing a further struggle. The square in Japanese cosmology signifies mastery, dominion and arrival at a static ending. So as we know parallel lines never meet, in the haiku ‘cemetery stroll all the parallel shadows,’ I visualize the connecting line of the 2 parallel sides of a square as being the Heaven’s gate of Christianity where hopefully all creeds will ultimately arrive. So it does not matter whether the shadows belong to strolling legs in a non-Christian cemetery or refer to a regimented array of headstones with biblical inscriptions. The initial launch of the sides of the square shape informing this superbly assembled haiku can be found in any one of the vertical letter ‘l’s in most of the words. There is an apt progression from the row of letter ‘l’s (‘stroll, all, parallel’) hinting at the ‘l’ of the unspoken word ‘life’ to the hushed ‘sh’ of the word ‘shadows’ summoning the idea of ‘death’. The vertical letter ‘l’s’ are Yang, representing light and linear movement and the hushed dark shadows are Yin, representing the hidden resting place of the grave. As for the baseline of the square, I’m going to allocate that function to the visual impact of a one-liner. Or the spreading smile of the poet appreciating the fact he is still living and able to stroll about.
Shadows are nothing, really, just the absence of light… the images in the first haiku conjure so many patterns of absence and presence, darkness and light, motion and stillness, life and death. One brings to mind something of the other. Here a living person is walking along rows of absent lives. Parallel columns of light are implied between long shadows of gravestones. There is movement in a place of stillness. Perhaps the strolling person is alternately glowing in evening sunlight and darkened by gravestone shadows… but as they glow, they cast their own shadow between the graves.
Apart from the striking visual image created by Matthew Markworth’s poem — a low sun drawing long shadows from rows of headstones (I visualize shadows across deep snow, with an added chilling effect), the sonic elements offer another layer of resonance. The words “stroll,” “all,” and “parallel” produce a lovely series of slant rhymes; what’s more, the double ll’s in each word work as kind of visual rhyme, as well as enacting the primary image in the poem: parallel shadows. A masterful lyric move. The music created by word choice and sequence, taken together with the stunning image produced, makes this a stand-out poem. Bravo!
Radhamani Sarma writes that the word “stroll” evokes many a deeper overtone. Why in a cemetery, what observations does it provoke, a burial ground, where all are common: workers, laborers, rich and middle class, coolies and drunkards, salaried and debtors, lewd and sardonic, accidents, covid cases, murdered… all the “parallel shadows” indicate their sameness; there is no ambiguity or difference in the placement or order there.
Living in Washington DC, I immediately think of Arlington National Cemetery, a prominent military cemetery with frequent visitors looking to honor loved ones, learn about this historical site, or simply “stroll” in reflection.
The use of “parallel” brings to mind several poignant images. Soldiers standing at attention. The shadows of their headstones forming the stripes of the US flag. Their loved ones lined up in front of their gravesites. Even the presence of double “ells” throughout the verse (“stroll,” “all,” “parallel”) provides a visual anchor.
There also seems to be a deeper meditation at play. While the above entities stay still, their shadows appear to “stroll” as the sun moves across the sky. Even in a place of stillness such as this, time marches on. A reminder of the greatest parallel: that the same destination awaits us all.
Cristina Monica Moldoveanu — creating a void the reader fills:
Both haiku are about images known to everyone’s eyes, they have very good scenery settings and good choices for letting the light come in, in order to stimulate our inner focus, our personal meanings.
Then both haiku analyze, augment and diffuse the opening data in further directions, thus creating space for the reader’s own judgments and feelings. But they do this in quite opposing ways, because the haiku about the moon creates a feeling of concealing and letting us guess, a nondirective approach pointing to our inner experience, while the haiku describing a cemetery stroll keeps us at that place, continuing to describe the scene in its outer reality.
There can be many interpretations of the moon imagery. What can a bone-coloured moon be? — I asked myself, and then I realized that the moon can be bright and white, or less bright, and in this case the duller moon can suggest the yellowish-brownish colour of bones. Then I linked this image with the second part of the monoku and I realized that forgetting is at the same time a process leading to the loss of brightness and the discoloring of memories. And the “shape” of forgetting introduces a contrast, because it is about an abstract form, not about concrete colours, leading us to revisit the first part of the haiku. The moon changes its shape through waning and waxing on its voyage, and so the haiku again makes use of an implicit analogy. To me, this haiku creates a personal space, because I’ve seen that human skeletons and other scattered bones become dull through time, and I think that the bone-coloured tinge suggests older memories.
The haiku featuring a cemetery stroll leads the readers to the creation in their own minds of a familiar place, a place for meditation and remembrance. Then the author uses the technique of surprise, he creates a void between expectations and reality, an aha moment, a kind of riddle, because it is not certain what kind of parallels he is referring to. What did he see in the shadows? The effort of perception makes us realize something hidden at a first glance, something obvious to everyone, yet not always perceived by everyone, and by solving this mystery, this tension, we are granted positive reinforcement, the feeling that we create our own space in the poem. Here the parallels can be the parallel shadows of the stones, and by the polysemy of the word “shadow” we arrive at our own map of concepts regarding the afterlife. It is another aha moment, another higher step in construing the poem’s meaning. Tombstones can be aligned in parallel rows, in straight lines. The word “shadow” shifts the focus of the poem towards us, to the shadow of our own vertical shape. We are mere passers-by, and temporary shadows, like all the rest. This poem too pointed to my personal experience, to the moment when I visited an old countryside cemetery, realizing that very old tombstones (in the shape of crosses, which is customary in my country) were little compared to the others and no more vertical, no more parallel with our lives, thus signaling the loss of their living memory.
Author — Matthew Markworth:
First, thank you so much Sushama Kapur for selecting this poem, and thank you to The Haiku Foundation for providing space and support for these enriching dialogues.
To explain what gave rise to the poem, in the same issue of Prune Juice that this poem was published there is also a found sequence that I reconfigured from John Prine’s song “Sam Stone.” After putting the sequence on paper, I was in a particular state of mind thinking about the song and thinking about parallels with some people that have been close to me, and I wrote a series of original monoku of which this poem is one. There wasn’t much revision, other than maybe the word “stroll”. I liked the additional “l”s because with the other “l”s it reinforced the meaning for me of being in national cemeteries and the symmetrical vertical headstones.
I especially enjoy poems that allow the reader to supply the bulk of the meaning, and I can only hope that this monoku approaches that ideal.
Author — Ron C. Moss:
Thank you for the invitation to write a commentary on my own haiku and to Sushama for selecting this haiku. I’m not setting out to completely explain my one-liner as with most haiku, they are best left to the reader to absorb and find that special magic and respond to it in their own way. Having said that I can try and give you an opening to what inspired this moment for me.
The moon as we know is traditionally the symbol of enlightenment and carries for many a deeply spiritual flavour that has been written about since time began. I loved the sound of “bone-coloured” and for me it gave the moon a deep human connection not only as we are made up of bones, but the slight off-white colour caused by a covering of thin cloud, or in what I experienced, remnants of smoke from a bushfire emergency and a moment of danger.
I could possibly write a very long essay on “the shape of forgetting” or leave the page blank and silent. But I will say the wording has a deep spiritual connection for me. Something about all the things that shape and condition us and how they can be let go of with a commitment to go deeply to the source of things. We can travel this path through the contemplative traditions, which includes of course the way of haiku. Perhaps only through the trial and error of life can we truly remember who we are.
What could be this shape of forgetting? It could be many things for many people. If I may I would like to respond with another haiku…
ice-blue sky this shapeless remembering
— Ron C. Moss
Thanks to all who sent commentaries, and to the authors of the two poems for insight into their creative process. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Cristina Monica Moldoveanu has chosen 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, which take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentary’s author gets to choose the next poem.
Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!
a seashell in my pocket
the gentle clunk
of the car door
— Steve Dolphy
Presence 62, 2018
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Remarkable. This is quite a panoply of poets and comments. Thank you all so much — and thanks to Sushama Kapur for putting forward this pair of poems. A good deal to edit, digest, and from which to learn.