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re:Virals 354

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 Sébastien Revon, was:

nuclear threat
the chickadee chirps
the chickadee chirps

— Françoise Maurice
Haiku in English, The Mainichi, 27 June 2022

Introducing this poem, Sébastien writes:

This haiku by Françoise Maurice, an author I particularly appreciate, was an instant crush for me. The striking juxtaposition startled me at first, then I felt it going deeper in the haiku. I was left struck by this poem, and couldn’t help repeating the lines like a mantra — a very disturbing one indeed. It deserves to get many commentaries.

Opening comment:

This is one of those verses which for me, whether or not ELH professors might quibble on technical grounds, immediately rings that old haiku/senryu gong. I love it. The balanced rhythm and repetition is musical and mesmerising — like a train going slowly over the joints in a railroad track. I can see why Sébastien thinks of it as a mantra. The disjunction between “nuclear threat” and “the chickadee chirps” is so huge that it allows the reader many thoughts as they spark across the gap. It is also an interesting example of the principle of “from something vast to something small” that is often applied in our craft. In the current context, is this the threat repeated by Putin which is dismissed as nothing more than a chickadee’s chirp? Is it that the chickadee as a small representative of the natural world is oblivious to the threat of a grand extinction and carries on chirping? (Issa’s cricket singing on a branch floating downriver? – my favourite haiku of all). Is it a stark comparison of evil destructive humanity with inoffensive little birds?

When I first saw this recent poem I commented that the chickadee is a North American bird, and wondered whether this was a verse pointed at the USA; but the author noted that there are also chickadees in the South of France. Another nuclear power… Perhaps that member of the genus Poecile is p. montanus, the willow tit — which led me on another trail to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado:

Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?” I cried
“Or a rather tough worm in your little inside”
With a shake of his poor little head, he replied
“Oh, willow, tit willow, tit willow!”

….. He sobbed and he sighed and a gurgle he gave
Then he plunged himself into the billowy wave
And an echo arose from the suicide’s grave

…..If you remain callous and obdurate, I
Shall perish as he did, and you will know why
Though I probably shall not exclaim as I die
“Oh, willow, tit willow, tit willow””

I am playing with the idea that that may not be entirely irrelevant.

Kavita Ratna:

This haiku intrigued me, first sight. Why is there a repetition of the last two lines? And what kind of bird is a chickadee? When I looked it up, I learnt that these birds are considered to be full of energy and curiosity. One site went as far as to say ‘these birds are a source of positivity and joy in the lives of countless people. ….. they are symbolic of self-expression, insight, and the value of friendship’. That was very impressive.

What then was the link between that and a nuclear threat? Another bit of reading informed me that the birds’ name comes from their chirping – though it is fee-bee under normal circumstances, their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, is considered an alarm call.

It all then clicked into place.. the nuclear threat that is all pervasive is – picked up by antennae of the sensitive insightful chickadees of the world – and in anguish and fear – alarm is sounded – over and over again.

This haiku packs such a punch in three lines – one of which is ominously repeated…because it seems to fall to deaf ears….

Amoolya Kamalnath:

Beginning with ghastly imagery, the haiku keeps us on tenterhooks. We imagine the scenario of an impending or ongoing war imagining the terrifying scenes abounding in the place. Has this piece been written keeping in mind the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war? Followed by this horrifying milieu, the poem suddenly takes on a very pleasant turn with the mention of the black-capped titmouse, its name being imitative of its call. On looking it up, the chickadee bird has been known to be a source of positivity and joy, a storehouse of courage and energy and also curiosity. These birds are friendly and symbolise the values of friendship, intelligence, insight and self-expression. Hence the mention of the chickadee cheers us up, the reader, the atmosphere in the war zone in spite of the threat, the reader’s mind and the poet too, of course. Now the chirp of the chickadee is called ‘fee-bee’ normally. However, their alarm call is a distinctive ‘chick-a-dee-dee-dee’. They’re also known to be aggressive leaders of the bird community and they are commonly found near willows and cottonwoods and nest in alder and birch trees. I’d like to think the poet’s mention of chirp here meant it’s normal call of ‘fee-bee’ bringing in some respite to the already stressed minds.

It doesn’t end with this. The poet has used a powerful component of repetition in her poetry wherein the second line is repeated as the third line giving it a strong impact and a sweet melody. This musicality again refreshes the reader’s mind ending the haiku on a happy note.

On the whole, writing up this commentary was a joyous experience and I thank Françoise Maurice for her ku and Sébastien for his selection of it.

Radhamani Sarma:

Françoise Maurice envisages a world of disintegration, brutality beyond expression, by the threat of nuclear war. Conventional beliefs say that the chirps of the chickadee denote a potential warning, or danger. The observant poet construes one particular chickadee’s cry as a warning for humanity. Not a song of melody but a recordation of malady.

Sushama Kapur:

A heartwarming verse. This small fluffy being is so concerned with this huge problem that looms over the planet, that it keeps protesting, again and again. The repetition in the phrase plunges us in this never-ending sound of the chirps, that sweet sound which unfortunately can be heard in just one small corner of the world. How much difference can it make to stop this enormous threat from materialising, if it has to? However, that does not deter this friendly little bird. It is doing its bit by warning all who can hear and are willing to listen and take action. Chickadees are known for their intelligence and their ability to particularise every single feature of their environment. If this planet were filled with chickadees and/or if all of us were like the chickadees, perhaps this threat could be logically addressed and would eventually stop being one!

Note also the narrowing of focus, from huge to tiny: nuclear threat (for the entire planet) to one chirping chickadee. In some ways, this fact brings so much hope: that even the smallest voice of dissent has the potential to be heard … and could bring about positive change!

Ann Smith — a little bird told me… 

This very recently written haiku reminds me of the saying “a little bird told me” …

Chickadees are a group of North American birds in the tit family, and (it turns out) an all-winter kigo in Canada. The bird is named after its distinctive call – chick-a-dee. When a bird senses the presence of a predator, its call warns other chickadees of the danger. The number of dees in the call increases according to the magnitude of the threat.

While doing my research I learned that “The cries of birds can be classified into two types, i.e. “chirping” and “singing”. Birds’ chirping is rather simple but it means a lot. Birds chirp to indicate danger, warning and communication.”  I also learned that in Cherokee mythology the arrival of a chickadee is thought to warn of danger or foretell the future. In many Plains Indian tribes, chickadees are symbols of success, and it is considered good luck to see or hear one, particularly in a dream or vision.

And here the little bird is warning us about the enormity of a catastrophe looming on the horizon in the current world situation.  Of course another interpretation could be that, while we are busy fighting with each other and threatening to start a third world war, nature is completely indifferent to our squabbles and is simply carrying on with its daily life.

I love the line repetition which mimics the reiteration of the chickadee’s alarm call and emphasises the danger. I also love the onomatopoeia and the repeating ‘ch’ sound.  I think that the contrast between this sweet little thing with its sweet little voice warning us about such a horror is very effective. We imagine the bird is chirping that our ludicrous behaviour could lead to our self-destruction (and to the destruction of all chickadees everywhere) but will we listen?

Author Françoise Maurice comments:

I live in the countryside of southern France. As I listened to the radio’s news of the war in Ukraine which is crippling Europe emotionally and economically, a pair of chickadees were busy feeding their chicks. Nature and animals do not care about war. The male was chirping and then the female in turn. So this is a simple observation of the moment, the silent, invisible nuclear threat and the noisy twitching of the chickadees. The repetition of L2 came spontaneously as a relay from these two birds. Were they alerting me? I will never know…


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Ann 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. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick 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!

Spring evening —

      the two

Eighteen year old sisters

— Jack Kerouac
Blues and Haikus 1959

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Françoise Maurice is in her sixties and lives in the Var, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of Southeastern France. She discovered haiku in 2012 after breast cancer. She started it slowly, without any pretentions, and discovered a way to refocus on the present moment which has become essential for her. It is now part of her daily life.

In 2021 she coordinated with Eléonore Nickolay the collection Je pense à toi (Pippa, 2021) and she is represented in several collections: Naitre et renaitre (Pippa, 2020), Ecrire, Lire Le dit de 100 poètes contemporains (Pippa 2020), Haïkus et tankas d’animaux (Pippa 2020) She is a contributor to various journals including Gong (the Journal of the Association Francophone de Haïku), and participates in English-language magazine competitions (The Mainichi and The Asahi Shimbun). In May 2021, she won the first prize in the 10th Jocelyne-Villeneuve competition.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Thank you all very much for your encouragement. Thank you Sebastien and Keith, it’s an honour to be featured in re:Virals

  2. It’s great to read all of the comments on Françoise Maurice ‘s excellent haiku, including her own.
    I must say that this haiku worked very well for me when I first read it, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about chickadees apart from a vague recollection that they’re birds. Juxtaposed with “nuclear threat”, the repeated line (“the chickadee chirps” x 2) immediately brought to mind a comparison with the “canary in the coal mine”, now used figuratively but once upon a time canaries in cages were taken down into coal mines so that the miners had warning of deadly air.
    A warning call, repeated, provokes a sense of urgency. (My mind also compared the sound of the bird to the anxious bip-bip-bip-bip sounds my refrigerator makes if the door isn’t properly closed. Laugh if you will. 🙂 ) All this in an instant, without knowing a thing about chickadees.
    Just now, after a brief reading of the comments, I’ve googled. As those who’ve done their research show, the chickadee is an American bird, but it belongs to a “family” (as I find by googling)
    “The Family Paridae includes 55 species split up into several genera. The tits occur almost in all continents, except Australia, South America and the poles.” (Check it out: there are many lovely photos of the little birds)
    Now, if one is writing in English about a familiar bird in France, Africa or anywhere in Europe, which term will you most likely use in the translation (for the sound of the word as well as the visual image it might provoke), “tit”, “great tit”, “blue tit” or “chickadee”? In my view, Françoise has made the best choice.


  3. This poem shows how to use natural imagery to wonderful effect. Readers have been able to deduce a great deal about both the significance of the chickadee’s call and the clever repetition of the line as a kind of warning. There’s a clear connection between the specific sound the chickadee makes and the warning sounds that accompany a nuclear threat – think of the sirens associated with an air raid or (much more likely) tornado warnings. There’s also comfort in “the chickadee chirps,” which in its consonance is a musical reminder of the balance of nature (although that comfort may be mitigated by the futility of that song in the face of an actual nuclear threat).

    Yet I can’t get past the vagueness of the first line, which has no imagery at all. The word “nuclear” could have modified any number of nouns that are more specific than “threat”: “bomb,” “fallout,” “reactor,” “fusion,” “meltdown,” or even “conflict” or “war.” Since “nuclear threat” isn’t something that can be seen or heard, but merely identified by the intellect, it gives us a conceptual map but offers no imagistic resonance with the aural image “the chickadee chirps.”

    1. Thank you, Matt. That (plus the repetition, perhaps) was behind my comment that there might be technical quibbles with it; and also why my own reading started with the rather real threats pronounced by Putin which we have seen/heard about lately.

      There seem to be increasing numbers of haiku/senryu published these days which are “image plus thought” as contrasted with “image plus image,” and here one could say that we have “thought plus image” perhaps. But the poet’s own comment makes plain that the nuclear threat was what she actually heard on the radio…. so wouldn’t that make it as real an aural image as the chirp of the chickadee, also heard?

      1. In fact, what I think is powerful is precisely this contradiction between the silent nuclear threat and the noisy alert of the chickadees. This is how I wanted to write it …
        Thank you so much for your kind comment

      2. Keith
        Yes, we all use the image/thought approach, and I didn’t mean to suggest that poem doesn’t work. I was just wanting the thought to be more precise. I wanted the thought to chirp.

  4. This is from the internet, and refers to the North American black-capped chickadee:

    “The black-capped chickadee not only warns its flock of danger but also communicates the predator’s size and relative threat, a new study finds.

    All with a familiar chick-a-dee-dee-dee — plus a few more dees.

    A cat on the ground might elicit five or 10 dees. But something closer and capable of an aerial attack could generate nearly two dozen closing notes.

    “With something really dangerous, such as a pygmy owl perched near some chickadees in our aviary, we heard as many as 23 added dees,” said Chris Templeton, a biology doctoral student at the University of Washington and lead author of the study.

    The acoustic signatures of the calls change too, in ways humans can’t notice.”

    Perhaps some will read the haiku in that light– the bird issuing a warning. Or as life persisting.

    Chickadees also have a more plaintive song, a whistled: fee-bee, fee-bee. I wouldn’t call it a chirp. But as I said, this refers to the N.A. black-capped chickadee.

    1. Thank you for more interesting insight about the lovely little bird 🤗

  5. Dear Ann Smith,
    Congratulations, for being this week’s winner. While going through, the
    following observations, quite interesting, with a verve and vitality.

    “While doing my research I learned that “The cries of birds can be classified into two types, i.e. “chirping” and “singing”. Birds’ chirping is rather simple but it means a lot. Birds chirp to indicate danger, warning and communication.” I also learned that in Cherokee mythology the arrival of a chickadee is thought to warn of danger or foretell the future. In many Plains Indian tribes, chickadees are symbols of success, and it is considered good luck to see or hear one, particularly in a dream or vision.”

  6. Dear Keith Evetts,
    Thank you for this regular , interesting feature; going through various authors
    with variegated comments, very inspiring; once again thanking you for the same.

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