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 Marcie Wessels, was:
i am i am not the darkness between subway stations
— Frank Dietrich
Frogpond 45:2 Spring/Summer 2022
Introducing this poem, Marcie writes:
A year ago, I took The Pursuit of One-Line Haiku with Alan Summers at Call of the Page. Since then, I have been fascinated by the monostich – its economy and its possibilities. I will be guest co-editing whiptail: journal of the single-line poem with Kat Lehman and Robin Smith in January 2023 so I would like to offer a one-line poem for commentary. I love the poem below, and wish I had written it. While the verse could be read as a haiku moment, it is so much more. The one-line format has allowed Frank to layer on an existential theme but the multiple parsings open this line to so many interesting interpretations.
I can’t wait to hear what the haiku community thinks of Frank’s poem.
Great observation that makes a fine one-line poem, with vision, sound, time, motion, humanity and philosophy all present. Full of contrasts stated and implied. As a British reader it put me immediately on the Tube (London Underground).
— the bleak darkness of the subway tunnel contrasted with the light of the stations
— the poet’s face a constant reflected in the moving carriage window against the blackness of the tunnel, that disappears in the clutter of light and bustle at the stations
— the hypnotic, clackety-clack rhythm of the rails in “i am i am not”
— the passing of time “between” stations
— reflection on the nature of being, for the meditative reader: is it when you see yourself, when you are visually aware, when there is external proof of your existence? Are you particularly conscious of it when contrasted with “the darkness”? Does the tunnel represent the dark of a suspended existence before re-engaging with life at the station? Are the stations the stations/states of one’s life? Or the parts you remember vividly, when you “lived,” saw the world, forgetting the dark boring tunnels between?
Plenty to conjure in this line of simple, basic words. I hope it gets recognition.
I really had no ideas with this one for a long time. I find many 1-line haiku difficult.
What I came up with eventually is a person struggling with depression. The “darkness” is the feeling of depression that stretches between moments of non-depression – the brighter “subway stations”. It is the person redefining who they are – they are NOT their depression – perhaps as part of therapy. But they are only just starting along the journey of this healing and so they stumble initially. With punctuation, it would be “I am … I am NOT the darkness between subway stations”. This latter becoming a mantra to their healing.
I think this poem is about reflections — how we observe our faces reflected in the window of a subway train while going through a dark tunnel, only to disappear when the train enters the lights of a station.
It could also be referring to the transitory nature of life — one minute we are here, and the next we are gone, plunged into the darkness of the unknown.
I also wondered if there was a nod to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”…
Finally, are these momentary glimpses of what is to come? Perhaps they are meant to prepare us for everlasting darkness?
Sobering thoughts, in any case.
Is this a counter affirmation where the person is persuading themselves that they not ‘like’ the darkness between underground station stops, or they are actually not sure about their personal nature? I don’t know. I do suffer from depression that feeds or creates self-doubt and other negative opinions about myself.
Let’s break this intriguing one line haikai verse down…
i am (not)
i am not
(a darkness like these unlit passages)
I am not
Reminding me of the childhood plucking of flowers saying in turn either they love me they love me not, and perhaps here it’s a game of ‘I love me’ ‘I don’t love’ between the gaps of station stops?
I am not
Where our negative mental attitude takes hold and creates an inner turmoil and struggle.
I am not
between subway stations
Is there an implied ambivalence, or is the sophomoric effect of underground train journeys giving the author or protagonist a type of handgun roulette of consequences? There does seem to be a deliberate obfuscation which would not appear in a 3-line presentation.
i am not
the darkness between subway stations
I do find repetition can work even in the short genre of haiku, take for instance this haikai verse:
as an and you and you and you alone in the sea
Richard Gilbert, Roadrunner Haiku Journal ed. Scott Metz issue 11:2 (2011)
Both are hauntingly memorable. Many of us have travelled underground railways and they have a distinct taste to them different from overground/overland train journeys or other above ground journeys.
Thanks for the first person monologue, taking us through subway stations; a mind and body busy travelling from place to place, with a different ambience, a mind, mood, shift and what happens during a move from subway station to subway station. The persona depicts his situation, his mindset present at the time of writing: the first part amply showcases his dark, dismal, somber being, his predicament. “I am” gives so much for readers to configure, while a contradictory statement reveals more: the darkness, he is not; from a setting of gloom, now shifted to a bright ambience. Through dark tunnel, to a busy spot wherein interaction is so soothing, like reading a novel full of uneasy passages of brimming chaos, suddenly transported to a world of mirth and content brimming in you. More than the main path, subway stations remove darkness, for busy interactions between persons, far more secure.
“the words of the prophet are written on the subway walls…” Paul Simon.
This is a relatable monoku because of everyone having travelled by some means of transport and having experienced at least a little bit of what’s said in the ku. Looking up the dictionary, a subway station is an underground railway in North America (could be a tube or metro). For the British, it probably is a tunnel under a road for use by pedestrians or an underpass. In between the stations, the passengers are shrouded in darkness. This relates to life’s joys and sorrows.
The monoku is written quite effectively with fourteen syllables. There is much said with ample space ‘ma’ for the reader to introspect and interpret. It’s in simple language. Metaphoric mapping comes into picture here. There’s repetition of words ‘i am’ twice compelling the reader to think and consonance of the ‘s’ sound which makes the poem a pleasant read. As a three line senryu, it may not have had quite the effect on the readers that it has now.
The kire could be considered in three or four different ways:
i am / i am not the darkness between subway stations
i am i am not / the darkness between subway stations
i am i am not / the darkness between / subway stations
i am / i am not / the darkness between / subway stations
The first line in this verse is reminiscent of the well-known little game that lovers in doubt might play: “s/he loves me, s/he loves me not”. Although the difference here (in the verse) is that the doubt is inwards, “i am i am not”. And what is the “not” about? Darkness, as says the verse. Perhaps the person is inside a train, or remembers a moment in a train, as it leaves the well-lit station, speeding into the darkness between subway stations, again and again. And for some reason this disturbs the narrator, enough for him to dwell on it.
But what if the pause is after the second “am”? Like this:
“i am i am / not the darkness / between
And not like this:
“i am i am not / the darkness / between
In that case, the “not” that follows would be emphatic: “NOT the darkness”! Here narrator is establishing his identity with a double “i am”, and pushing away firmly the doubt in his mind about becoming the darkness. But that he needs to repeat “i am”, may actually show how hard he is trying to convince himself? Is he, in fact, terribly concerned that “darkness” can take over in him? That light might fade?
In the language of symbolism, light and dark are a necessary part of the spectrum of existence. To put it very simply, if there is a balance of these two in a person, all is well. But what if there comes a time when there is a tilt towards one or the other? Too much of either would not such a great thing, would it. The content in the verse itself might show a balance, as represented by the words (if the pause is after “not”), five with five:
i am i am not
the darkness between subway stations
An intriguing verse indeed, one that would resonate with any human being at any point in life.
I read this to my other half and he said “That’s very deep.”
So, moving quickly on …..
This verse conjures up a great sense of speed, rushing from the light to the dark in the subterranean world below the city, invisible to most, surrounded by the roar, the whoosh and the wind of the subway. It reminds me of the childhood game Peekaboo – now you see me, now you don’t. Inside the tunnel I am invisible. Out of the tunnel the people in the station can see me again. Or, in reverse, when in the tunnel my reflection is visible but it vanishes when the train emerges back into the light of the station.
It can be read in several ways depending on where you punctuate
I am. I am not the darkness.
I am I am. Not the darkness between.
I am I am not. The darkness between
The line reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life about a woman who keeps on dying and being reborn and here the verse could be a metaphor of birth and death, of existence and inexistence, of being and non-being. It also reminded me of Shakespeare and how we experience time — sleeping and waking and sleeping and waking, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, beginnings and endings and the relentless passing of time till we reach the inevitable destination. I also wondered, in looking for a possible kigo, whether darkness might convey winter: but as this is subterranean that seems irrelevant.
With the general state of world news and plenty to grumble about I was ready to criticise when I first read this monostitch. Does it fall into the “clever” category? Then, there are many “on again, off again,” “folding and unfolding,” “in and out of” verses lately, they might be an overworked seam. Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” is hard to top.
However, the more I thought about this line, the more it got hold of me. Taken in one breath, the natural cut is after “not” in which case we have two parts: “i am i am not” / “the darkness between subway stations.” Relating these, I get the image of the poet reflected against the tunnel’s backdrop of nothingness, and “on again, off again” between tunnel and station. This itself is a neat comparison with “to be or not to be,” a new “aha!” to me at least, enough to make it a good short poem. Another reader could experiment with cuts after “i am” or after “darkness.” and insert other readings: such as the personification of darkness, or the poet equating himself with darkness, or a bipolar poet comparing depressed and manic phases, or periods of loneliness with only himself for company contrasted with periods of liveliness surrounded by busy people. Better and better — all makes it a good poem to sit with.
It feels right that this railway ku is on one line, and the use of lowercase i helps to make the fragment “i am i am not” all of a piece with the sound of a subway train rattling along the track, as well as to diminish the ego. Also, the closed “not” points to it being the end of the fragment, the cut to the phrase following. “i am not i am” would be less effective in this, my ear says, and also less effective in the ostinato of wheels over tracks.
So, kudos to the poet!
Sébastien Revon – accepting, embracing, our light and darkness:
As a relative new-comer in the haiku world I often wonder if what I write can qualify as haiku. Sometimes (rarely), the quality of the content overcomes the form of the poem. I feel this poem enters in that category.
I would have difficulty in explaining why this one-liner is a haiku/senryu (there is no kigo). Is there a juxtaposition? I am not sure. The way the poem is written is highly subjective. The presence of the narrator is emphasized by the repetition of the first-person pronoun. There is a clear cut between “not” and “darkness”.
I would think that there is a juxtaposition in this poem. Metaphor? Simile? Comparison? Association? I am not sure… In my opinion, what makes this poem so powerful is its meaning. I relate so much to it because of my personal history, and I am sure I am not the only one.
We all have shadows, we all seek to find a light. Life is the struggle between Eros and Thanatos. Life has highs and lows. This poem is about that and more.
What is striking here is the physical impression of motion, without any use of a verb. We are traveling between subway stations with the poem, with the narrator. We are going from light to darkness, darkness to light. We move forward as well as up and down. You can feel the speed of the train, feel the changes of mood: a smile of relief and then maybe a facial expression of anguish, sadness maybe even depression, and then back again, the narrator manages to overcome these feelings and then… it never ends or does it?
Normally the train stops at the station, all is fine. But sometimes there is some problem. Power-cut? Delays? Work in progress? The train stops in the tunnel. For how long? Time seems to be stretching and slowing down. Seconds become eternity.
The sole juxtaposition of the first part and the second part of the poem is enough to move me… litterally and metaphotically. After reading the poem I keep following a sine wave going through good and bad times. This poem makes me wonder if I will ever settle, will I ever find contentment? A zen attitude to life of acceptance might be the answer. Maybe the answer is to stay in that train and embrace the fact that I am and I am not this darkness between subway stations.
I hope to keep in mind this philosophical yet very grounding haiku like a mantra for my remaining days.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Sébastien 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. All with respect for the poet. 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!
uploading to the cloud dandelions
— Marilyn Ashbaugh
Wales Haiku Journal Summer 2022
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Alas I was unable to get hold of contact details &c. for Frank Dietrich, to ask for his comments as author. If he sees this, I hope he will comment below.
Meanwhile…. Are we holograms?… See https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/10/science/black-holes-cosmology-hologram.html