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re:Virals 36

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

     a ladder
     leans into the loft
     winter light
          — Susan Constable, The Heron’s Nest XVII:3 (2015)

Susan’s ladder was an immediate vehicle of transport for Scott Mason:

The alliterative ladder in Susan Constable’s fine winter haiku delivered me, by free association, to an entirely different time and place.

I instantly pictured myself back beside a reconstructed kiva at Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico one late summer day. I can still see the rough-hewn wooden ladder descending into a hidden recess that once held special meaning for a long-departed people.

Summer, not winter; down, not up; then, not now. But the same sense of sabi.

An evocative haiku can transport the reader from its ostensible setting to the uncharted depths of his or her consciousness.

Then Jo McInerney, our stalwart for this column, delved in even further:

Susan Constable’s haiku has a numinous restraint. Its simplicity is transcendent. The image is like Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Water Jug’ where the light falling on the young woman’s headpiece seems holy.

It would be easy to suggest symbolic possibilities in line one, but what is remarkable about this ladder is it is so completely what it is. Taken with line two it is a mundane piece of equipment, probably farm equipment. The observer seems to have come on a scene in the process of unfolding. There is no human presence in this moment, though there clearly has been and presumably soon will be again. It is a moment of suspended action; like a still from a film showing a setting devoid of actors. There is a sense of life in abeyance; a brief respite in the daily hubbub. Though, to say ‘brief’ is misleading. The haiku makes this transient moment permanent. This lull is lasting

The sense of suspension is heightened by what is shown and not shown. The ladder leans into the loft; apparently a mezzanine. Can we see what is above us? Nothing is specified. It is as though the top of the ladder disappears into shadow. ‘[L]eans into’ has an indeterminate quality. A destination has been reached but we are not shown what is there.

Line three brings this haiku to a poignant conclusion. ‘[W]inter light’ is thin, meagre light. It is the consolation offered in cold, hard times. A diffuse, low light compared to the glare of summer. The alliterative ‘l’s have a soft, lilting quality seeming almost to mimic the incline of the ladder. The ladder seems to parallel the shaft of light. For some there may be a brief transubstantiation where the ladder seems to become a beam of light.

This is a remarkable haiku in which the images take on a subtle resonance without ever appearing props for a metaphor. It is a haiku that suggests the holiness, the transcendental quality of simple things in and of themselves.


As this week’s winner, Jo 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 36:

     dark afternoon
     hydrangeas drying
     upside down
          — Peggy Willis Lyles, The Heron’s Nest V:9 (2003)
          Memorial poem for Kylan Jones-Huffman
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