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re:Virals 370

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 Amoolya Kamalnath, was:

the scream it owns just before it

— John Hawkhead
Bones: journal for the short verse no. 24, October 2022

Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:

The word ‘it’ is repeated twice and this produces (more than) sufficient ‘ma’ surrounding this seven word, eight syllable monoku. Male limpkins, red foxes, bobcats are among animals that scream in aggression or when they feel threatened. Among birds, peacocks and peahens scream to introduce themselves. Is the poet referring to a human’s scream or to some other species, or something entirely different like an inanimate object (wind). This ku is open to a wide variety of possibilities.

Opening comment:

A one-breath monoku with no cut or grammatical break until the end, no creature nor plant mentioned, and no season. It struck me nonetheless as a nature poem first. Moreover, a poem about the reality of nature, not the romanticised view often found among poets. But that’s a hobby-horse I like to ride.

The line’s impact is strong and haunting. Working along it: “the scream” immediately gets the reader’s attention, and the unspecified “it” suggests a non-human creature. This draws us into wondering what “it” might be and also suggests some generic meaning; “owns” implies unique possession and admission/emission of the scream. Then “just before” signals some momentous moment of change, and the final “it” is such an abrupt cut-off — with the reader left dangling — that I read it as a sudden death. Predator meets prey. The scream of the prey in terror, or perhaps that of the predator in exultation seeking to freeze the prey in panic, echoed in my mind. The name of the poet underneath perhaps subliminally reinforces this reading.

And then when meditating on it, more general still, the primal scream… Edvard Munch’s famous painting comes to mind any time “the scream” is mentioned. The line is so open to interpretation that it could equally remind a reader of the last scream before giving birth, the scream of an incoming artillery shell, of tyres before an impact, of a fan before a rock star begins a hot song, any kind of scream you think of.

Marion Clarke:

This haiku noir raises the question: who or what owns the scream? At first it felt like it should be that the scream is owned by the night, but the poet goes on to say it is a scream that owns it “just before it” so that would make it dusk…hmmm…

Or is “it” a second scream and the first is still reverberating when the next arrives and is absorbed by it? Is this a suburbiku (a wonderful term coined by your good self, Mr Evetts!) and curtains are twitching at the sound of these screams piercing the night.

Of course, the first two words could also refer to Edvard Munch’s famous painting. Could the poet be referring to the scream that the artist uttered in his “gust of melancholy” just before capturing it in paint?

A tricksy one, whichever way we approach it!

(Btw I am eagerly awaiting delivery of John Hawkhead’s latest collection, bone moon)

Lakshmi Iyer:

the scream
it owns just before


the scream it owns
just before it (the scream)

(Please note that when the line is said faster one can sense that it is a continuous movement of actions. For eg. ‘the scream it owns just before it the scream it owns…..)

I am perplexed at the use of two instances of “it”. One defines the scream whilst the other shows a happening. In other words an action and then the reaction which is visualized much before. Sometimes we come across a fear of whose outcome we are familiar with. Hence the line, ‘the scream it owns’…there is an ownership. Who owns what? But then we also relate to the fact that ‘just before’…..maybe the poet is aware of the fear and is ready for the take off – ‘the scream’. Inter connections of actions, the ownership of a particular action, etc. does allow me to think spiritually too. We human beings have a special sixth sense called ‘instinct’ and that probably is what the poet wants to show, in ‘just before it’ — the scream!
A vicious circle! I would also want to stress that ‘the scream’ may not be about a fear. It can be for a surprise, a joy in abundance, a shock!! The sound of ‘s’ and then the syllables count to only 8. It is mind-blowing! Thanks John. Thanks Amoolya!

Harrison Lightwater:

“the scream”: Munch’s painting

“it owns”: the defining work on the subject

“just before it”: it’s enough for any viewer in front of the painting to feel that human scream

Radhamani Sarma:

“The scream it owns”: readers are prone to question and find an answer, where is the scream from and what “it“ implies: could be a small toddler or a child screaming after having dropped a box or tumbler of milk before it drinks or tastes; only a glance of helplessness or guilt before the mother with a look of cudgel or ignore or pardon.” Then “just before it“ a sense of incompleteness or expansion into the meaning or content leaving wider semantic perceptions to the fertile imagination of agile readers.

Could be a small fight between two kids, hence “ it”: the one snatching a biscuit or chocolate from the other, hit by the other, hence the scream, an apology , a look of helplessness before dad or mother. Could be a crow or other bird screams, vying for cake or bread piece before it owns it and flies off victorious. Could be ascribed to an animal before tearing a piece of flesh. Above all, yet another vital possibility is that of a new born coming out of its mother’s womb; this way also could be viewed, the loud labor or screams of a mother before delivering the baby. Mother owns , accepts the new born; “just before it” is pushed out.

Sushama Kapur: classic horror:

As I read the monoku several times, each time with growing trepidation, my eyes stray to “it” – in two places. “It” – with its echoes of Stephen King’s book – is apparently righteous enough to own (interesting choice of the word, “own”) THE scream which is being emitted, “just before it” … and here we have a cliffhanger! Nerves already stretched, we want to know very much, what does “it” do? I’m guessing something either really terrible or something very tragic. But it’s a million dollar question, and one that would make a wonderfully eerie story or even a film.

For me, the monoku is a classic example of a horror ku, all its three parts adding up, each word / phrase selected with deliberation, to something ghastly and frightful happening,

the scream/ it owns/ just before it

Let’s see why:
– there is proof of something terrible happening: “the scream”,

– the main protagonist is “it” indicating the great possibility of something inhuman, or mutated,

– curiously enough and apparently, “it” has its own framework of ethics. Or is it gleeful self absorption? Or trapped, it sees no other way out? But it owns the scream. In what way does it “own”? By not holding it back, and making that sound with full abandon?

– the element of suspense throughout the monoku, and especially the end which is left to the readers’ imagination after they have been suitably elevated to an anticipatory state, “just before it”.

Curiously enough there is no punctuation after the second “it”, the last word. One would expect perhaps an ellipsis? Or is the observing eye just too horrified at what it sees happening to even try putting it in words?

Where does this leave the reader? Do I hear the merest whisper of a soundless scream, the mouth open widest but frozen and unable to emit any sound?

Author John Hawkhead:
This haiku started life as a longer piece:

winter shadows
the scream before
it leaves the tunnel

However, I thought that I have been overusing ‘shadows’ in my haiku. I also thought it wasn’t leaving enough to the reader. SO I thought about what I was really trying to say here – which is writing about the screams we bottle up inside us. The ‘tunnel’ is the throat. So I took out the first line completely to leave:

the scream before it leaves the tunnel

It still seemed to give away too much to the reader so I clipped away one word at a time from the end. When I got to ‘the scream before’ I thought I had gone too far. So then came:

the scream before it

The haiku ended up being about something slightly different to its original incarnation. It’s about what a scream feels like before it comes out; what we hold in, whether through fear, anger, frustration or conditioning and what a person nearby might feel before the scream is released – is it sensed, is there an underlying expectation of it’s release? What do we feel just before a scream is released and what triggers its release? What is the threshold between not screaming and screaming?

The final version resulted from my feeling that the ‘screamer’ was no longer in the haiku. I tried ‘the scream I own before it’ but again, this was blocking other interpretations. So I took myself out and placed a neutral ‘it’ in my place. This allows more interpretation, focusing on the scream itself and how it can exist in all of us before and after release or, indeed, if never released.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best 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. 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!

chrysanthemums trying on my wife’s kimono

— Jacob Blumner
Whiptail Journal issue 3, May 2022
and Hon Mention 7th Annual H. Gene Murtha Memorial Senryu Contest 2022

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.


Particular thanks to John for details of the creative process behind his thought-provoking poem. An illustration of how clipping opens up space for the reader, in parallel with disguising the original thought of the author.

John Hawkhead is a prolific haiku and haiga poet of many seasons. His short bio may be viewed in THF’s Haikupedia; several of his poems in the Living Haiku Anthology; and his approach, and advice to beginners, was outlined in interview in the Foundation’s “New To Haiku” series last August.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. To “own” a scream is a strange concept. Seems to me that one does not “own” a scream any more than one “owns” laughter, or any exclamation that is a response to something happening in a moment. Perhaps the author is playing with strangeness here, but the strangeness resides mainly in the words and does not, for me anyway, extend beyond them.

    It is probably wrong of me to suggest an edit, and I admire Lorin for sticking to what the author himself offered, but for me if the poem was:

    the scream just before it

    a whole horror movie unfolds, if only in the ambiguity of the word “it”. And in the enormous silence after.

    1. Hi Meg
      Thanks for the comments. I understand the confusion as I struggled to get this haiku/monoku to where I wanted it. Fundamentally it’s about the genesis of a scream – what exists just before the scream is released. So it’s not just about what a scream sounds like. I wanted to write about the moment before the scream; does it exist as a micro-second impulse inside the person or animal that emits the sound? It happens so quickly that it seems to be outside our understanding – how does the impulse work? The ‘ownership’ (it owns) was intended to keep a level of ambiguity; is ‘it’ the scream or the screamer? I’m not sure I know, but it’s how I left it and how Johannes published it – so ‘it’ exists now!
      Thanks for commenting on it (it)!!

      1. I applaud your wishing to get a sense of what exists in the moment before “it” exists. In a sense, and I’m sure I’m really only talking of my own explorations/experience here, it relates to the presence of something before it is named, before it is reified– becomes a “thing”. Or to the state of mind prior to naming. I have thought, as many have, that this is what poetry essentially is– using words to get at something beyond words. It may be the appeal of haiku, the quickness of it– letting the depths that open between the “cliffs” of image/language unfold. Not exactly “letting”, perhaps. More like not getting in their way. My own somewhat esoteric take on it is that the depths want/need the container of words.

        Esoteric again: poetry exists in the bowl words, which it shatters with each reading.

  2. I’m returning because I’m having difficulty with this, in Amoolya’s introduction:

    “Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:

    The word ‘it’ is repeated twice and this produces (more than) sufficient ‘ma’ surrounding this seven word, eight syllable monoku. . . ”

    Can Amoolya (or anyone else) explain for me how the word “it”, repeated (repeated once, by the way, not twice) “produces (more than) sufficient ma surrounding this . . . monoku” ? How does this word (“it”) (or any other word, for that matter) “produce ma”?

    The concept of ‘ma’ as ‘negative space’:

    “Ma (間, lit. ’gap, space, pause’) is a Japanese reading of a Sino-Japanese character, which is often used to refer to what is claimed to be a specific Japanese concept of negative space.[1][2][3][4] In modern interpretations of traditional Japanese arts and culture, ma is taken to refer to an artistic interpretation of an empty space, . . . ”

    “Japanese can visually identify with the meaning of Ma from its kanji symbol. Ma combines door 門 and sun 日. Together these two characters depict a door through the crevice of which the sunlight peeps in 間.”

    1. I stand corrected, dear Lorin. Thank you for pointing it out!

      The word ‘it’ is repeated once.

      Negative space or ma is not produced by any word. I meant to say that the poet has left enough and more space for the reader to interpret the monoku and the word ‘it’ appearing twice enhances the mystery.

  3. Over the years, I’ve appreciated many of John Hawkhead’s excellent haiku. This one was a puzzle to me, though. John’s honest comments on his process with the piece have helped me understand his intentions, but ultimately, not with understanding the final & published version.

    I like (and much prefer) this earlier version that John quotes (leaving out the first line & making it a one-liner) :
    ” the scream before it leaves the tunnel ”

    (Allow me call that version #1. :-) )

    I don’t have any of John’s negative reaction to this version. In my view, it doesn’t “give away too much” at all. The sound of a scream in a tunnel and then, possibly, the sound of the scream after it leaves the tunnel, gives me quite enough to imagine, to compare and to dwell on. There is also, for me, a possible secondary reading or misreading there : “it” might be a creature, animal or bird, or it (the scream) may be a human or animal/ bird vocalization, or it could be the sort of scream made by machinery, for instance the scream of a vehicle’s wheels when the brakes are suddenly hit hard. The source of the scream is open.

    I prefer to read “it” , in the version above, as referring to the scream itself. I see my secondary reading (“it” as source of the scream) as a misreading that eventually takes me back to the thing itself, the scream.

    I have trouble with John’s final version:

    “the scream it owns just before it” (Let me call this version #2)

    What is the “it” that “owns” the scream, that “possesses” it? (“It” possesses. “It” is the owner of a scream that’s also referred to as an it) This leads, for me, to puzzling about what “it” might be. The second “it” is ambiguous: does “it” refer to the ‘owner’ of the scream or to the scream itself? Or are there two “its”?

    Sorry, John. I much prefer your discarded version:

    the scream before it leaves the tunnel

    1. Hi Lorin
      Lovely to hear from you. I definitely understand why you prefer your version#1. But for me that becomes a much more ‘concrete’ experience than the one I was aiming for. As I replied to Meg above, I was trying to include the scream itself as something that exists outside our own understanding – even if we emit the scream ourselves. We usually don’t decide to scream, it comes out unbidden and without predetermined thought (unless we are screaming for effect). Animals may emit a scream but what is the impulse driving it? So I was aiming to include the scream as a second ‘it’ in the poem or to express something more than just the scream itself. I like your version#1 but I’m not sure it captures what I was trying to do with version#2. Probably a sign of my muddled mind!!

  4. To be honest, I was dying to read the commentaries on this monoku.
    I wasn’t able to transfer into words what this monoku made me feel. I felt my guts were doing the talking and nothing wordly was coming out.
    I am so grateful for John Hawkhead’s interpretation of his own haiku.
    It is like the author himself says what I had bottled up (as he says) and couldn’t express. I really like when authors know how to speak of their own haiku and this is just the perfect example.
    And I haven’t read the other commentaries yet!!! :)

    1. Yes, I thought John’s comments on the process and intentions were excellent. Now I’m looking forward to any comments he might make on the commentaries!

    2. Hi Sebastien – thanks for your comments. I think you are really close to what I intended. How quickly that ‘bottle’ must fill up before we release the ‘bubbles’ of a scream! Perhaps we carry screams around inside us all the time, tearing out of us when triggered by events or emotions? What do you think?

  5. Dear Sushama Kapur
    Congratulations, nice to read the following of your comment:
    something vibrant with novel in its own way
    ” curiously enough and apparently, “it” has its own framework of ethics. Or is it gleeful self absorption? Or trapped, it sees no other way out? But it owns the scream. In what way does it “own”? By not holding it back, and making that sound with full abandon?

    – the element of suspense throughout the monoku, and especially the end which is left to the readers’ imagination after they have been suitably elevated to an anticipatory state, “just before it”.

      1. And I thank you for yours Sushama – insightful and trailing fingers through enigma at the same time. All the best, John

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