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 Ann Smith, was:
far upriver –
with nothing to sell
— Ruth Holzer
The Heron’s Nest 15:4, December 2013
Introducing this poem, Ann writes:
This reminded me of a visit to Marrakech when we were constantly being targeted by people trying to sell us things. We went for a day trip into the Atlas mountains – no shops – relief. Then suddenly – not sure how far up we were – a man appeared with his shoulders piled high with carpets and tried to sell us one. Looking forward to seeing where this takes you.
I first came across this verse among Scott Mason’s favourites, and it stuck with me, growing more with each reflection. At first I saw this as simply poverty in an out-of-the way place the world passed by. Now I think it conveys with subtlety the equation, or the balance, between purity and the absence of material possessions.
For “far upriver,” the waters are fresh, unpolluted, and flow clear and lively. Downriver there are larger towns, brimfull of material things, ports, polluted and corrupted, the waters concomitantly broad, slow and murky. The upstream villages have nothing to sell you….they aren’t trying to sell things to you. They have only enough on which to live unsullied. If you go to the source, you will find purity.
This intriguing, economical and quietly suggestive haiku is out of the ordinary, and deserves its place in the first Heron’s Nest anthology: Nest Feathers: Selected Haiku from the First 15 Years of The Heron’s Nest (2015) ed. John Stevenson.
Both Holzer’s diction and syntax lend an openness to this haiku. On my first read through I felt the lament of having nothing to sell, and this came with a swift reinterpretation of the first line to feel more like “up a creek without a paddle.” Then my mind shifted to hearing it as the villages had nothing of value to sell, and finally, I feel that I am far enough into nature, closer to the source, where the balance of life de-necessitizes commerce.
The scene is set on a river and it is not just at any point on this waterway, but ‘far upriver’ which, when combined with the villages of line two, evokes a long journey to the interior of a country, perhaps Africa or China. (In fact, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ came to mind.)
The final line tells us that these villages have nothing to sell and the reader attempts to work out why this is so. Is it that the villagers have left for economic reasons? Perhaps their rural life no longer sustains them and they have had to move to the towns and cities for work? Or have they been forced to leave because of the actions of outsiders?
However, we are not told that the villages are empty, simply that they have nothing to sell. There is almost a silent “now” after that final line, with the implication that the villagers formerly had something to trade with. So have these people been exploited and their land depleted? It is a moving haiku that reverberates the emptiness of the last line, and the reader is left feeling that as well as ‘nothing to sell’, there is also nothing to say that will make any difference. Devastating.
This poem gives the reader a lot of subjects to ponder: geography, economics, perhaps even politics. “Nothing to sell”–is that because of undesirable economic conditions or is it by choice? “Far upriver” says we’re getting near the source; the water is purer here than downriver, where it carries the accumulated waste of all the villages along its shores. Maybe these upriver villagers are fine with their way of life and have chosen not to attract the buyers who have made a mess of things downriver. After multiple readings, I even experience a sense of remorse that the poet and I are invaders complicit in the disruption of village life: others will find out about this place and it won’t be long till even the smallest villages are selling stuff to outsiders.
On reading Ruth Holzer’s poem I was immediately reminded of the Jorge Luis Borges story that I always taught my Spanish literature students, “las ruinas circulares” (The Circular Ruins). A man comes from upriver not knowing who he is nor where he came from, only knowing that he is to create a man. By the end of the story he realizes that the man he created is sent downriver to begin once again the process of creation. Culture moves outward — downriver, not upriver. Those who are left behind or choose to stay behind become part of history, sometimes remembered, often forgotten in humanity’s ever forward push. In this poem, we have to ask if those villages far upriver have nothing to sell because no one comes to buy what they might create, or is it because they have no desire to create, or have they lost their creative urge? Whatever the reason this beautiful poem fills me with a sense of abandonment and sadness for those far away villagers.
What makes this senryu so interesting is the implied narrative and its social commentary.
The speaker here seems to be on some sort of voyage. A cruise, possibly, is implied, but also something smaller and more intimate might be possible. They’ve travelled upriver, and are now seeing villages where there’s nothing to purchase or buy, be it food, water, or souvenirs. The social commentary is strong here. Holzer seems to be criticizing the speaker and their intentions towards the villages and the villagers. The fact that “with nothing to sell” is the last line of this poem reads as a let down for the speaker, and readers are left to consider why that’s the important takeaway for them. Why do the villages need to have commodities to trade or sell to give them worth? Why is this the focus of the speaker, instead of simply partaking in the experience the way a haiku normally would?
I get a sense of ignorance and privilege here in the speaker. The villages offer them nothing monetary or worthwhile to trade. There are people implied, with lives and livelihood, but nothing that can be bought or sold. The idea of staged authenticity and its negative effects on regional cultures comes to mind, and how this speaker, once out of the realm of their comfort zone (“upriver” bringing to mind the adage “up the creek without a paddle”) is forced to face the reality that not everything and everyone caters to them and their whims or consumerism.
Holzer seems to chastise this speaker, but also forces the to examine themselves and their approaches to the other or the foreign. This self-examination and self-reflection makes for a strong social commentary and shows satire working at its best. When readers are forced to face and acknowledge their own faults and flaws, we can confront them and hopefully change them, only improving ourselves for the better. Holzer has given us a small but important lens to examine our views of the world through, and if we’re bold, we’ll look and pay attention.
far upriver —
It brings to mind the movement up river which is always challenging and sometimes a struggle given that rivers flow downstream. On another level I’m reminded of the salmon and their journey upstream. How increasingly difficult it is for them to reach their place of birth for breeding, highlighting the changes in environment and habitat. At this point the next part of the Haiku becomes clear as it points to the dangers of human inaction with reference to climate change:
with nothing to sell
In eight words, Ruth has captured with a tight economy of words the intersections where man and nature collide and where human beings will too late realize the impact of their consumption and greed. It’s already been attested that given the current dynamic oceans will no longer be able to provide a source of food. Depleting resources, increasing temperature in the ocean waters, damaged corals and overfishing are resulting in an irrevocable loss.
Food is sustenance and without food, no one can survive. Although written in 2013, almost a decade ago, still we are facing this issue in 2022 and nothing has been done to change. On the contrary, we are on a journey with no return ticket.
As summer sets in here in India, a very cool, accommodative topic on a river, full of flow; nonetheless here the write can have a different meaning.
Towards the origin of a river, where the source is in full spate, there’s extreme flow, water surging beyond control. The “..villages with nothing to sell,” since flooding occurs, probably have their crops being washed away, every hut washed away, or goods destroyed – all due to devastating floods; hence, they are handicapped, with nothing to sell.
Water has such a overpowering capacity, how devastating for the villagers where advanced technology is lacking!
Amanda White — a place untarnished and a vanquished place:
This immediately transported me to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and subsequently the arresting film variation ‘Apocalypse Now’. We are taken both to a wild place far from the so-called civilised and consumerism-fixated developed worlds, but also to a desperate place, perhaps raped of its natural resources and unable to survive. This is both a place untarnished — an Eden — and a vanquished place. I want it to be the former – a hopeful place where there is no need to sell anything but simply exist in harmony with nature upriver away from it all. This haiku offers us both hope and fear. Maybe also teases us towards delusion. Can anywhere exist now without selling out?
Author – Ruth Holzer:
I had a cousin who was an adventurous traveler, always looking for places less popular with tourists, and he visited many regions of Europe and Asia that were off the beaten track. This trip was up the Amazon in a small boat. When he returned, he described the remoteness of the villages and the reactions of the inhabitants upon seeing him, in words similar to these. So it more or less composed itself. Although I wrote the haiku while he was still alive, now that he’s gone, it sounds more ominous to me, with the river taking on a meaning I hadn’t originally intended.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Amanda 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!
in the narrative of rain blackbird song
— Caroline Skanne
tinywords 6 January 2022
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Ruth Holzer is a well-published and awarded poet and haikuist, author of several chapbooks, who’s served as a co-editor of Haibun Today and as an associate editor of tinywords.
So many varying interpretations of this non-seasonal haiku/senryu!
The reader is the other half of the poem, unlocked by the poet.