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 poem, proposed by Cristina-Monica Moldoveanu, was:a seashell in my pocket
the gentle clunk
of the car door
— Steve Dolphy
Presence 62, 2018
Introducing this poem, Cristina-Monica writes:
I chose this haiku because each of the three lines can function as a pivoting point, or as a center/ medium for the other two lines’ meanings. The seashell can refer to the clunk or to the car, the clunk can refer to the car door or the seashell. It is a well-pondered haiku. Besides this, it creates more than one possible interpretation and empathetic feelings regarding this story about a man and a seashell, feelings of gentleness and care, fragility, perhaps loneliness, shelter and protection. When the car door closes, the person enters a protected place. Like this, the car looks like a bigger shell. The shell is shelled in the pocket and the man is shelled in the car. This is a feeling of awareness, of being part of a complex weaving of things in this fragile world: acceptance.
A mellifluous haiku/senryu, with balance between the two phrases selected and juxtaposed quietly and with care — “toriawase.” It rolls off the tongue smoothly. The images are universal and familiar — the shell carries the sound of the sea, we may imagine it chinking with coins or keys in the pocket, and the quiet clunk of a car door closing is easy to hear in the mind. In a subtle way this haiku also exploits the technique of moving from the vast (the implied ocean; the great outdoors) to the small: a single seashell in a pocket, a poet in a car. The verse may be seen as complete in itself, a moment caught and shared; or it may, with meditation, yield more. A flight of interpretation that might stray far from the observation that the poet had in mind.
Haven’t we all picked up a shell on the beach to take home? I have some from islands off Mozambique and in the Caribbean, to Cape Cod, the Portuguese coast and Devon. Each one prompts memories of times and places, and they all bring home the sound of the sea, a bird’s wild cry, bare feet, and that sense of wide ocean freedom. And the clunk of the car door closing….as we return to our circumscribed lives. It’s not a harsh prison, and we do not resist, we might even be looking forward to a hot bath and dinner; but nevertheless, it’s not the lonely sea and sky, the wind’s song, the call of the running tide….the gull’s way and the whale’s way; the sea-fever of John Masefield. That gentle clunk takes us back to the car service and insurance, the traffic jams, the performance review with the boss, the things that need fixing, the bills…. I take home the sigh of the sea in the shell together with my own sigh, and make this gentle haiku of Steve’s my own.
Lakshmi Iyer sees a childhood recollection:
The very first line opens the reader’s mind into that world of childhood and fantasy where even the possession of the smallest of the small things was a heavenly gift to the little mind. The poet has very beautifully juxtaposed the sound of the seashell in line 2. When after the long day at the beach, it is time to go home; the child silently hides the seashell and gently gets into the car: the apt usage of the words, ‘the gentle clunk of the car door’ says it all. The idea behind this lovely haiku is how well the poet has shared his experience of that innocence, of that genuine feeling that no one can read and all the wonderful things he has lived in his own mind!
Ann Smith cradles a day:
A forwards and backwards haiku that is full of the sounds and the feels (and, though not mentioned, the smells) of a day trip to the beach.
Reading from the middle line up the sound comes from the seashell –
the gentle clunk… of the seashell in my pocket (maybe against a pebble).
I can also hear the sounds of the waves breaking on the shore behind me ……. and inside the seashell.
Reading from the middle line down:
the gentle clunk …. of the car door.
And now the day trip to the beach is over and, with the clunk of the car door, the outside sounds of waves and gulls and wind are deadened and I am inside the car ready to leave – but with a bit of the day safely in my pocket
Even the lines of this haiku rock back and forth like the sea.
Sushama Kapur’s hypnotised:
What’s the story behind this tranquil haiku? With the central object being a seashell, the setting automatically becomes vast. There is a special magic about these immense water bodies (oceans / seas) that is universally felt. For me, what is also disarming in the two juxtaposed images (L1 with L2 + L3) is an almost surprising note of finality. Having found the seashell, (perhaps a rare one he’s always been looking for?), he gets in the car and closes its door, ready to go home.
One notes the auditory element in the poem almost immediately. The onomatopoeic “clunk” of the car door is not loud as it closes, but “gentle.” The poet does not care about this, because right now, he has this treasure from the sea. The evidence of a small being that lived a life in sea waters and has now been washed ashore in fossil form. I could imagine a half smile of quiet satisfaction as he may pat the shell in his pocket while carrying it back. And I wonder momentarily: is he a shell collector, or is he a marine biologist? A tourist? A resident living nearby? And will he be keeping this find, or is it a gift for someone special? The questions will not stop.
To extend discussion on the auditory element, one could also note the profusion of consonant sounds in this small poem: p, k, t, d, as well as g, r- which, I think, somehow ground the poem in its reality. The softer s, l, n and m- sounds are almost hypnotic in their echoes. I would be curious to know how this haiku was made. What image came to the poet first and what followed? Is it something that actually happened or is it a figment of the his creative imagination? How was all this translated into the fragment and the phrase?
For me the haiku is almost like a refrain that resonates with its own music, and somehow makes me remember a line that comes at the end of an E. E. Cummings poem …
Mashaal Ahmed – a moment of transition:
Such a lovely way to capture a moment of transition. In the phrase “the gentle clunk of the car door,” I can picture him leaning against the door to push it shut, relaxed and perhaps reluctant to end a journey. And preparing to transition with a small reminder in his pocket. I also appreciate how the seashell could serve as a kigo, a second source of the “gentle clunk,” and a tangible representation of transition, having been swept in by the tide.
Seasons and sounds and metals and birds – always cheering subjects for haiku and senryu writers. Steve Dolphy admirably weaves powerfully imaginative haiku, taking readers into the world of the sea and seashells. We see a shift as well here: “a seashell in my pocket” — use of the first person makes us curious to know what’s next; the person who loves to collect and store sea shells for fancy’s sake, back home; or perhaps he also holds the conventional belief that shells (for example, conch shells) bring luck and prosperity, and a good aura in the home; hence care and caution exercised; veneration and even worship. The next two lines indicate that he is prudent enough to close the car door gently, carefully, in order that the shell, the emblem of luck in his pocket, should not be damaged. Hence “the gentle clunk ,“ time-honored faith attached to the sea shell, value and care, all embedded in this write.
Melanie Alberts – a time to say goodbye:
Looking forward to spending time at the beach, my excitement naturally rises. The beach promises vistas of natural beauty, serenity, and fresh air. Assembling everything I need for that perfect day is a little nerve wracking, and of course, there is the travel to manage. I load up the car and head toward the coast.
Anticipation builds as the landscape levels out. I turn the air conditioning off and I roll down my windows. Pulling into the beach parking lot, surrounded by dunes, my breath slows, but I eagerly want to get out there. I gather up my belongings, slam the door shut. Soon, I’m stretched out on a blanket on the sand, and I don’t care if I forgot anything. Everything is alright.
Steve Dolphy’s poem picks up at the end of day such as this. No matter what one accomplishes at the beach, whether it’s to sunbathe, snorkel, ride waves, dig for clams, sketch, go fishing, write poetry, picnic and laugh with friends, or to simply sit and gaze at the horizon, there comes a time to say goodbye.
We travel to the beach to refresh ourselves, and as a reminder, we might bring back a seashell or two. What do shells remind us of? They may not resemble any home we’ve lived in, but seashells are essentially the abandoned homes of sea life. As such, they are symbols of protection; as pearls grow within them, fertility, and as products of the sea, baptism.
The shell in this poet’s pocket was kept most likely because it was admirable: eye catching as it glinted in the surf, a reminder of how we feel when immersed in nature. So, we tuck it carefully away and then, when it’s time to go home, tired and reluctant, we may pull the car door closed gently as a farewell whispered into a loved one’s ear.
Author – Steve Dolphy:
First, thank you so much Cristina-Monica for selecting this poem, and thank you to The Haiku Foundation for providing space and support for these interesting and inspiring dialogues.
To explain what gave rise to the poem: I resumed writing haiku in 2018, after a twelve-year break, and wrote this one after visiting a favourite beach of mine. It was a cold and blustery day, but the walk had been refreshing. As I got in my car, I noticed the contrast between the sounds and experience of being out in the weather with the quiet and warmth of the interior of my car. And as I often do, I had a little souvenir of my trip in my pocket. The poem pretty much wrote itself; the only words I deliberated over were “clunk” (should it be “thud”) and “gentle” (could it be “soft” instead).
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. A difficult choice. As the contributor of the best one this week, Melanie 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!
the other owls
know what it means
— Tim Cremin
The Heron’s Nest September 2021
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Many thanks to Steve Dolphy for commenting on his poem. His entry in the Haiku Foundation registry is here, where more of his haiku may be seen; and he has some more under his entry in the Living Haiku Anthology.