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 Amanda White, was:
a blue sky
I don’t trust
— Robert Epstein
Frogpond 41:2 Spring/Summer 2018
Introducing this poem, Amanda writes:
A gem. This haiku has a hint of our British preoccupation with weather about it and yet also manages to evoke a wider human obsession with weather both literally and personally. But of course there is so much more to this haiku, its ability to focus on the human condition, the highs and lows of our mood, the inevitable change that will come from the blue sky good days. We are fragile souls in an unpredictable world that we have no control over.
Once bitten, twice shy. From a whole sky narrowing down to one person, this plain, economical poem takes us from the seeming whims of weather to the human world where nothing can be taken for granted or on trust. Where I live, it’s either sunny periods with showers, or showers with sunny periods. People may divide into optimists or pessimists: I think pessimists have more delights since they can take comfort for being right when things go wrong; are more rarely disappointed when things turn out worse than they expected; and are inwardly pleased when surprisingly they turn out better. Optimists think their haiku are bound to be accepted by editors.
Blue has contrasting associations. It tops the polls as our favourite color. Blue skies and blue eyes are viewed as positive; but the blues are a sign of woe (blue as sad probably originates with Chaucer — “With teres blewe and with a wondyd herte” – Complaint of Mars, ca. 1385).
The verse is uncomplicated and effective. There is contrast, albeit removed in time, between images of rain and blue sky. There is a noticeable break after “rain” at the end of L1. Rain may occur in any season, so there’s no definitive seasonal anchor as it stands. As with last week’s example, we are told how the poet feels, but there is still space for the reader to arrive at meaning. This haiku won the $100 Museum of Haiku Literature Award for “the best previously unpublished work appearing in the last issue of Frogpond as selected by vote of the Haiku Society of America Executive Committee.”
Highschool poetry classes teach us things like “If a poem changes how you feel or changes how you see something, it’s effective.” I think that’s true for haiku as well. This is, technically, a poorly crafted haiku–abstraction-dependent, limited imagery, no shift, etc.–and yet there’s a ominous mood that comes through, affecting the reader.
As the poem is presented, it reads as one sentence–“after rain, a blue sky I don’t trust.” There’s a subtle cause and effect here–the rain has caused the speaker not to trust the blue sky. An ominous feeling pervades, as though the speaker knows the respite from the storm is only temporary and that more rain will be on the way soon.
With that in mind, I think it’s possible to read this as more of a confessional poem, too:
a blue sky…
I don’t trust
a blue sky–
I don’t trust
If the reader gives the author a little grace here, and assumes that they’re familiar with the fragment/phrase theory, then it’s possible that this is using the clear sky after a rain storm as a metaphor for a cycle of abuse or something. After rain, the deceptively calm sky could be a metaphor for a deceptively calm person after a big fight or blowout.
Without punctuation to imply the kire, we’re left with an ambiguous poem that could simply be a cynical commentary or a deeper poem about emotional scars and mistrust. I’m not sure it’s the most effective use of this sort of ambiguity that I’ve ever read, but I do think it works. It’s subtle and soft, and weak in its craft, but the cynicism or pessimism in this poem do come through, emotionally affecting the reader, making this an effective poem.
Epstein’s poem says a lot in three brief lines. This poem resonated deeply with me and speaks to a universal conundrum. How are we to heal from all of our recent “storms” and step into life, relishing the “blue skies” of today… without spending our energy bracing for the next “storm”? It is a tall order for us, for our society and for our world. Such a powerful message in just eight words. Good choice, Amanda.
The color blue denotes love and intelligence, peace and independence, joy… “And joy is everywhere; it is in the earth’s green covering of grass; in the blue serenity of the sky.” (Rabindranath Tagore). The blue of the sky is one of the most special colors in the world because the color is deep but see-through both at the same time.” (Cynthia Kadohata, ‘Kira-Kira’).
In this straightforward senryu with a personalized depiction, writer Robert Epstein has some grievance: about what, let us see. It rained and what follows is a blue sky. Beautiful clear sky with invitatory charm. One can visualize the change. Metaphorically also, one can visualize, after quarrels, normalcy returns; but the poet has the apprehension that it may not last long. He has learned about the vagaries of weather, and the moods of life.
Beautiful!! “I don’t trust” has captured the essence of this poem. Robert Epstein is one of the poets whose poems speak the magnitude of vastness in very few syllables.
Blue sky is what we always look forward to, and we have hopes in that closeness of nature. But sometimes even those who are close misfire and that creates imbalance in relationships. After the rain, we always look forward to relief from the storm that has engulfed our peace and if still the blue sky doesn’t co-operate, that’s when our minds are burdened with too many criss-cross tense wires. And we are forced to say: I don’t trust!
Zooming out to zooming in. A minimalist poem that is crafted so well.
Untrustworthy serene ‘blue sky’…. Why doesn’t the poet trust the sky after rain? I don’t remember having experienced showers with a blue sky above. Then what doesn’t he trust???
This made me look up about blue sky showers and I found a term called Serein (/sɪˈriːn/; French: [səʁɛ̃]) referring to rain falling from a cloudless sky. It was further explained that this sort of rain is said to take the form of a fine, light drizzle and typically occurs after dusk. The name has been derived from French serein, meaning “serene”, or “clear” (as in unclouded), it was further elaborated. (Wikipedia)
Still, I was not convinced, so I thought I’ll learn more about the poet and started referring to material. I found this piece, “I write wherever the haiku spirit moves me. I am often inspired to write while out walking in nature, which is why I bring along a small notebook and a small ball point pen. But, if I am working on a book of haiku, I might be jotting down poems from bed on post-its in the middle of the night.” Does this mean that my first guess was right that this poem was about nature?
Still unsatisfied, I read some more and found my answer.
Robert’s interest in Zen Buddhism and fondness for death awareness haiku made me now think in a very different angle. After a severe bout of sickness (rain), a period of betterment/normalcy (blue sky) appears after which, sometimes, unfortunately, the person suddenly deteriorates very much or passes away leaving the relatives in shock and agony. This could be why Robert Epstein doesn’t trust the blue sky after the rain having been witness to deaths of both his parents and some others.
“I have turned to haiku, again and again, as a means of expressing the inexpressible. Haiku (in conjunction with journal writing) has been the primary source for mourning profound losses in my life, especially my parents,” (‘Motherloss and Mourning Haiku,’ Modern Haiku, 49.3, 2017. See also Robert Epstein, ‘Free to Dance Forever: Mourning Haiku for My Mother,’ Middle Island Press, 2018 and ‘Days of Remembrance: Haiku in Honor of My Father,’ Middle Island Press, 2018) “and I have found a measure of peace and solace in using haiku as a way of coming to terms with my own mortality, writing what I call death awareness haiku.” (Robert Epstein, ‘Checkout Time is Noon: Death Awareness Haiku’ Wasteland Press, 2012; and ‘Checkout Time is Soon: More Death Awareness Haiku.’ Middle Island Press, 2018). “On a more mundane level, I rely on haiku –– or a hybrid mix of haiku and senryu –– as a way to give voice to the stresses and strains of everyday life, including chronic illness and pain as well as the vicissitudes of winter.” (Robert Epstein, ‘Healing into Haiku: On Illness and Pain.’ Middle Island Press, 2018. Also ‘Reckoning with Winter: A Haiku Hailstorm.’ Middle Island Press, 2019). From The Transcendent Function of Haiku, New Zealand Poetry Society (poetrysociety.org.nz)
“On a more personal level, I have said on more than one occasion that haiku saved my life: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. Having developed chronic health problems twenty years ago, I turned to haiku as a way of giving expression to my grief over multiple losses while still remaining creatively engaged. My life circumstances may have been circumscribed by pain and illness, but haiku preserved and elevated my spirit and for this I am eternally grateful. Sharing the haiku I have written about grief and loss, illness and pain, has counteracted loneliness and isolation.” (The Haiku Foundation: New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Robert Epstein).
He’s a psychotherapist and he happened to develop certain chronic health problems. Haiku helped to root him in the present moment, he says. (Sheila Bender’s ‘Writing it Real Special Edition: Haiku Poets Focus on What Matters Most: An Interview with Robert Epstein‘)
So now as I am writing this, I’m wondering aloud if this ku was written due to his health condition (rain) which probably looked like it was getting better (blue sky) but then there may have occurred a relapse or that it remained a chronic condition, he doesn’t trust the normalcy in between. We come to yet another oft quoted statement that the only thing constant is change and that nothing is permanent, and hence there is always the element of uncertainty.
Melanie Alberts — a haiku that’s not too enigmatic:
My son and I were discussing haiku when he complained that some poems were too enigmatic. I then read him this senryu by Robert Epstein and he smiled. “I like that,” he said. I agreed; bringing up the weather is a universal topic of conversation and, unless you’re a farmer, begrudging the rain is something we can all commiserate about.
However, the focus here is not on the weather but the jaded emotion of the last line. Enduring a spell of rocky weather certainly can keep us on our toes, but is there something more at stake? I feel a sense of immediacy, that the “blue sky” is only teasing us temporarily, and we cannot trust it to remain clear for our day’s plans. Let’s get things done while we still can!
Not trusting the sky presents a striking contrast because blue symbolizes trust. The daytime sky is perpetually blue above the clouds, often likened to the uncluttered, primordial state of our minds. But we forget this, and are preoccupied by the temporary clouds that are blown this way and that way, never completely taken out of the picture.
So when the rains cease, and we view a brilliantly blue expanse above us, deep inside we may think, “This can’t be, it’s too good to be true!” and strain to see if there is in fact a cloud in sight. This poem reminds us instead to slow down, trust the calm, and enjoy the uncluttered moments of our lives.
Author Robert Epstein comments:
I am a lifelong iconoclast and incline not toward what is politically correct but to what is true. In California, it is impermissible to say anything critical of the rain, especially when there has been so much drought. I often hear friends, therapy clients and strangers say, “Well, we need the rain,” each repeating the same phrase as if quoting a memorized passage in the Bible.
I have long felt ambivalent toward precipitation of any kind, including mist, drizzle, showers, slanted rain and torrential storms. As much as I may want to be neutral or indifferent, I much prefer sunshine to rain, which is why I love the summer when we don’t typically see a drop of rain for months on end.
I don’t exactly recall when this poem was written but I want to say late winter, maybe February. I believe it was early afternoon when, to my surprise, the sky cleared and the sun came out. Ordinarily, when it does rain, it rains all day and one has little or no chance of encountering the sun until the following day, at least. But, on this day, the sun did appear and I was skeptical, mistrustful. I so dislike the rain I was sure it would start again, and my longed-for walk would be marred by getting drenched. Still, I dared to go out for a walk anyway. . . but with a small, brown umbrella under my arm.
With all the foregoing being said, could I have had some conflicted feelings with a woman in my life that I projected onto the sky as my means of coping? Either way, there is an edginess (and a highly compact version, at that) to the poem which I find appealing.
Thank you very much for including this poem in re:Virals.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best 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. 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.
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ubu. small absurdist poems, June 2022
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I thought that Amoolya’s contextual research was impressive. Joshua’s comments prompted thought. Melanie’s son fingered a simple but critical issue that must be common to many readers, perhaps not so devoted to the craft, who find some haiku arcane. Getting a balance between banality and a too-conspicuous-striving for insight or mystery isn’t easy. Obscurity or juxtapositions that are too contrived can put readers off bothering with them. Haiku are for sharing… mostly we ‘feel’ a good one when we see it. And I suggest that it’s not primarily because of craft ‘rules’ and labels that such ku appeal to a wider readership.
Just after I’d written this, Melanie came up with next week’s verse…
In comments last week Lorin Ford focused on sentence-like verses, cuts (and the absence thereof) and turns, and wondered about precedents in the tradition. With no pretensions to being a Japanese linguist, thus relying on the translations of others, plus the romaji and the Jisho dictionary, I offer for contemplation the following sentence-like haiku:
nure-ashi de suzume no ariku rōka kana
wet-feet of sparrow along (trickles?)hops verandah/porch/ingle (kana)
with wet feet the sparrow hops along the verandah.
The sparrow hops
Along the verandah
With wet feet
I take the “no” in the romaji here to be a particle indicating direction.
The cut if any seems to be at the end, unless a Japanese linguist can point one out.
Who’s to tell Shiki this isn’t a haiku?! Well, there’s some bold discussion by Chen-ou: http://neverendingstoryhaikutanka.blogspot.com/2013/10/to-lighthouse-model-for-all-haiku.html
(which article also, incidentally, quotes another of Kerouac’s haiku that seems to me to show a definite influence of the Shiki one)
Then there’s Issa:
kimi nakute makoto ni tada no kodachi kana
you (friend) without(indispensable) truth as merely but grove (kana)
without you —
is just a grove
Has Lanoue decided to insert a cut of his own, — , in the sentence “without you the grove is just a grove”? Which reading would be essentially the same if written “the grove’s just a grove without you” or “without you it’s really just a grove.” Or does it break at “ni”? “without you the truth — it’s just a grove”.
aki ki ni keri mimi o tazune te makura no kaze
autumn spirit/mood/air arrived ! ear visit pillow of wind
autumn has come / visiting my ear on / a pillow of wind (tr. Jane Reichhold)
The cut is the exclamatory “keri” but consider how it reads without it as rendered by Reichold.
inoshishi no tsuyu ori kakete ominaeshi
wild boar dew weave puts on golden lace
The wild boar
snaps the dew off
Do you see a cut in this? I’ve read that Basho said any mora can be used as a cut, but I can’t quote an academic reference.
And in present-day ELH, where we don’t have the issues created by translations, one of my favourites by John Stevenson who has several one-sentence haiku:
a bit of birdsong
before we start
Upstate Dim Sum – 2002/2, later the anthology My Red, 2021.
Consider how the simple linebreaks modify the reading as compared with a single line.
Keen to learn, I’d welcome education/discussion particularly from those better qualified than I. But please, be gentle with me.