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re:Virals 34

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

     glimpse of dolphin
     beyond the river mouth . . .
     friends a youth ago
          — Rodney Williams, Stylus Poetry Journal 28 (2008)

Janet Marsh neatly parses the elements of Williams’ touching poem:

In this poignant haiku Williams captures the elements of memory and youth. It’s a ‘glimpse’ of dolphin — bringing together both its playfulness and protectiveness. The dolphin is wild and free and a glimpse is all that is needed.

The image ‘beyond the river mouth’ spells out childhood’s end as the river finishes its journey and spills out into the greater ocean — there is no turning back; life has run its course.
And finally comes the stunning phrase, ‘friends a youth ago’. Here age and experience have concertinaed the years but friendship remains.

Garry Eaton fixes it in context:

Nostalgia is the keynote of this haiku, but it avoids sentimentality by framing associations with a happy past time in a powerful image of creatures easily eluding the fragile net of our tender, human feelings. The fleeting dolphin image powers up to a final line in which the pastness of the past can be accepted with an honest, if bittersweet, resignation.

And Cynthia Rowe personalizes it:

As the poet sits, confined to his desk, he recalls the hopes and dreams of his youth, the freedom ‘beyond the river mouth’, the capacity for intelligent discourse, the ability to learn and be self-aware. He is like the dolphin who has meta-cognitive reasoning typical of humans. He hankers for the playfulness, the joy of simply being. He thinks of his own potential greatness, much as the greatness seen in Greek mythology when dolphins were believed to be integral to mankind’s understanding of the natural world. The poet glimpses his own emergence into adulthood, to noble aspiration and to the success as envisaged in many cultures where dolphins are to be found in multiple coats of arms. The dolphin — revered for its luminosity and acumen. This small poem paints a vast picture in just a few words, a universal picture that we can all relate to. An absolute delight!

But Simon Hanson plumbs it:

This intriguing haiku by Rodney Williams was originally part of a longer sequence In Driftwood — a ‘haiku tanka interchange’ — first published in Stylus Poetry Journal (Issue 28: January 2008) under the editorship of Janice Bostok. As good writing tends to do, this piece opens up pathways into our own experience and imagination. This haiku and the sequence in which it is embedded take me back to my own youth and its many idle (idyll) hours enjoying the coast, in and out of the water, alone and with others. The coast suggests for me (in large part unconsciously) ‘the great other’, a boundary between worlds, yet worlds connected (and truth be known wholly One in the bigger context of things). The river mouth too has elements of symbolic allusion, where the long and winding journey of the river eventually finds its way back into the sea, is lost and taken into ‘the deep’

— beyond the river mouth . . .

The word ‘beyond’ is especially effective in this context, taking us out and away, into that other realm, the sea. The judicious use of ellipses here gives us time to pause, invite us to dream a while on the suggestions of this line, beyond . . .

There is beauty and sadness here, sabi.

Ah, the dolphin — what a wonderful creature it is, embodying intelligence, benevolence and grace and believed by many ancient Greeks to carry the souls of the dead into the afterlife. Of course I do not know if such symbolism were or were not consciously intended, but like so much of the truly creative, symbolisms and meanings sometimes find their way into our writing unconsciously and unintended and we as writers discover them afterwards; learning once again that the creative process is something bigger and beyond ourselves. Our momentary notice of this or that ‘particular’ can if we are fortunate be illuminated by the ‘universal’, to have that unmistakable glow of the numinous. The word glimpse is so apt here for that is often the way dolphin are seen, by a quick glimpse and then hidden again — as are occasional insights into deeper truths. There is sunlight here, in a brief flash on the dolphin’s smooth skin as it breaks the surface for air, gliding with effortless grace.

glimpse of dolphin
beyond the river mouth . . .

The longer sequence is full of life, both sides of the coastline; the brahminy kite, breaching whales and their calves, rainbow lorikeets, bottlebrush, sugar cane, a dog at play, osprey, dolphin, pelicans and people too; a girl, a surfer, a busker — again, flashbacks of my own youth, so many images, thoughts, sightings, interactions flitter in and out of memory. Which brings me to the last line

— friends a youth ago

The older we get the quicker the years seem to roll by and it is with some sense of loss that I look back on my own youth slipping into the past, yet seemingly so recent. The music, the times, the friendships, the laughter and tears — come and gone. Sometimes it is best not to comment on art, and perhaps more so with haiku than other forms of art; it is best just to experience it for what it is, to let it speak in its own way. There is an unmistakable ‘depth of the unspoken’ in this haiku and in the last line in particular — depth that moves me, full of beauty and sadness, memory rich.

Thank you, Rodney.


As this week’s winner, Simon 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!

re:Virals 34:

     thíos anseo
     canaid don doircheacht
     na míolta móra
     down below
     singing to the darkness,
     great whales
          — Buachallán Buí (Ireland; translated from the Irish by the author and Anatoly Kudryavitsky), Shamrock 25 (2013)
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