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.
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.
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)
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!
“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
“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:
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.
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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
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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.