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 Barbara Sabol, was:
in a desert stream
the years wear on
— Victor Ortiz
Acorn #48, spring 2022
Introducing this poem, Barbara writes:
This haiku transports me to a place completely different from my verdant NE Ohio landscape. I’m struck by the shape and four-line structure of the poem and intrigued by all the possible narratives this visually- and sensory-rich poem suggests.
At first reading, a haunting poem.
I may have written “dissect a poem? the animal’s already dead” but the biologist in me can’t resist. There are so few words in these short poems that each one has to carry weight. Here the poet has two complementary continuing actions: “dipping” and “the years wear on.” This is about the passage of time. He’s also specified a woman in a desert. Although the desert may briefly bloom when there is water — and we have a stream here — the main connotations are of dryness, heat and perhaps infertility. Putting these together with the years, there’s more than a hint of a climacteric, yet there is a stream to dip into, of whatever sort, cooling, life-giving; and the hat suggests the head or mind. The reader can do the rest. For me, it’s an arresting verse, out of the run of formulaic haiku, and all the more refreshing for that. Excellent. I look forward to Victor’s comments on the poem’s genesis.
The selected haiku offers varied possibilities. I can see the element of both spiritual awakening and spiritual hindrance. While pondering, dipping her hat in desert stream might showcase the human inability to let go of painful memory and the lines ”the years wear on” is a representation of havoc afflicted by the spiritual absence of letting go! The two separate parts of the haiku did put me into a debate with myself wherein I had to come to an equal ground with spiritual awakening. The poem perhaps pointed to the deep rooted traditional Japanese culture kintsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”). The act of mending makes an Art seem relatable to the process of resilience and personal growth.
If this haiku by Victor Ortiz hadn’t been posted on re:Virals I might not ever have seen it, having drastically reduced my subscriptions to overseas print journals, so I’m grateful it’s been selected for comment. It strikes me as brilliant.
To me, this haiku is primarily about time. By coincidence, I’ve just re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, a novel I first read in my late teenage years, but didn’t understand. My recent reading of that novel, by association, took me back to T.S. Eliot’s interesting concern with time, from his ‘Ash Wednesday’ to his ‘Four Quartets’.
What first strikes me about this haiku is its seeming infringement of (or great leap away from) the Zen-inspired idea of the ‘haiku moment’ that seems still popular among some. (I note that “the haiku moment” implies a single moment.) Keeping to present tense, here the poet time-jumps from a present, clearly observed image (a woman is dipping her hat in a desert stream) to another present, many years later, when that original ‘moment of experience’ which involves the poet, happens again. The image of the woman dipping her hat in a desert stream seems to repeat over time and it’s suggested that it has repeated time after time after time. There is a clear cut between the two parts of the haiku and in this space each reader will infer their own interpretation as to the meaning of the image that’s being repeated and also the speaker’s relationship to the woman, and why it might be recurring.
This haunting ‘moment’ of observation may have been ‘on replay’, recurring over many years; perhaps tedious years, as indicated by the final line: “the years wear on”. Does the recognition of time passing suggest that there are at least two ‘haiku moments’ in this haiku? Does it matter that there seem to be layered “haiku moments” instead of just one moment in a haiku, or doesn’t it? Is it possible to “step into the same river twice” (Heraclitus) and even perhaps many times, after all? It seems to me, in the context Victor Ortiz has given, that it is quite possible.
Being of a certain age, I sometimes wake from clear and detailed experiences that my waking, logical self must describe as ‘memories returning as dreams’. But that description isn’t sufficient. The experiences don’t feel like memories or dreams. Though they do feel somewhat familiar, they feel as if they’re happening in present time.
What do we really know about time? How long is a moment? How long is now? What did Einstein mean by his often quoted: “People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”? Why did T.S. Eliot write: “And all is always now.” ? (‘Burnt Norton’)
I don’t have any of the answers but I thank Victor Ortiz for writing this superb haiku which has opened the way for me to ask such questions.
A run-on flow of contrasting idea/feel/image. This haiku of four lines or “haiqua” begins in the third person as if in the middle of a story…“dipping/her hat…” Maybe she is sweating, or struggling in hot sun for want of a cool stream. Establishing a connection with a strong contrast — a “desert stream,” aridity. Is there even a stream, or as “the years wear on” is it just the faint glimmer of her hope in an implied meaningless, vague journey, her aging into a void, nothingness?
Sushama Kapur – grateful for those dips in the stream:
A visual quirkiness in this 4-liner is how the placement of words are in the shape of a hat! The “hat” being part of the first image. The way the poem offers the words, line by line, links to the pace of the poem: slow and savouring (one word, then two, and then four plus four), and despite its implied inadequacies (desert), with refreshing moments (stream).
The first image, “dipping her hat in the desert stream”, intrigues with its possible double meaning: the literal (as in actually immersing the hat in the stream for a moment – wetting it perhaps to counter the dry surrounding?), and the metaphorical (dipping or taking part in the flow of life).
The last line (and the second image), is matter of fact, accepting the seasonality of life, with chronological time as inevitably moving forward. But what adds something deeper to the image is the word “wear” – “the years wear on”. Time as a fabric that is thinning, wearing, becoming threadbare, but very importantly because of use (a life lived well). It’s interesting to note it as a continuous image: time moving forward (“the years wear on”). With the word “on”, comes this sense of continuity. Not ended. Still moving.
A greatly heartwarming haiku. To make do, to the fullest, with what has been given or earned. And not forgetting to take those dips in the stream …
Author Victor Ortiz comments:
Thank you and thanks to Barbara for selecting my poem.
This is really a birthday poem for a friend while a group of us were hiking in the California desert. It was a fairly hot day when we came upon an unexpected stream in a beautiful canyon. The birthday gal dipped her hat into the stream to cool down and was grateful for the chance. The first three lines came fairly easily to me but I had to wait for the fourth line. I had the birthday idea in mind (birthdays and hats go together and the stream as a joyful birthday gift from the desert was there as were other associations) and the feeling that we wear our years similar to the way we wear hats, revealing character in both cases, took me into the direction of line four. Wearing a hat may also reveal and/or conceal things of importance about us. So, the word “wear” became for me thick with multiple levels of meaning. Now, I felt that this birthday was a very significant one to her for her own personal reasons and that she was particularly grateful to celebrate this one. So, as we grow older and wear our years, I asked myself why should birthdays fill some of us with dread while others are grateful to have another year of life. She was clearly thankful to still be alive. I don’t have an answer, but this question did arise as I was considering the fourth line. Finally, I didn’t realize until later when it was pointed out to me that this haiku also has a visual component to it since the poem itself is in the shape of a hat and that realization was as unexpected and pleasing to me as the stream we happened upon that particular day.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Sushama 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 beginning
he was just pretending
to sound grumpy
— John Stevenson
Frogpond 45.1 Winter 2021/22
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Many thanks to Victor for his invaluable comment on the creation of this poem. Victor Ortiz is a distinguished haiku poet, widely published and with many an accolade. His short bio and a few of his haiku may be viewed in the Haiku Registry.
It was hard to choose between Sushama’s commentary and Lorin’s this time. Sushama hit more nails squarely on the head, with elegance, while Lorin raised wider fascinating issues pegged to this week’s haiku (and it was so tempting to see what she would put forward for next week).
Concerning the poetic “haiku moment” (not to be confused with the “aha moment” which is in the reader): it seems that this stems most from Shiki and can be overplayed. His was not the first nor the last word in hokku/haiku composition. Your comments welcome.
There are many haiku with impeccable credentials in the tradition, that deal with extended periods of time either from the past or into the future, notwithstanding the convention that they are written in the present tense. Indeed, since the poet is writing about it “now”, one could argue that all haiku are “in this moment” whichever tenses are used. And that time present contains time past and time future – cue Eliot.
Eliot’s Quartets were written before the big bang theory, but after the second law of thermodynamics – which he ignores. The universe will cool to the point where, there being no energy gradients, nothing more will happen. Time, just a succession of events, will then be standing still.
But not just yet. The floor is yours…still alive under the slightness of my hat enjoying the coolness Basho tr. Reichold