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
evening loon call — nothing makes it call again — Gary Hotham, Mainichi Daily News Contest (2002)
ayaz daryl nielsen responds to the subject of this haiku as we nearly all do:
loons, you gotta love ’em — their name, physical appearance, melodic and almost mystical voices across our waterways and heartlands, haiku/senryu before the words are even written.
And Peter Newton takes this deeper:
This poem speaks to the primordial nature of the loon’s haunting call. Here long before us and here long after we’re gone. I appreciate Hotham’s sense of humanity in the margins, as witness to the wild. Despite our dominance in the pecking order there are moments when all we can do is absorb the scene. Its sounds and silences. We are not capable of communicating in a meaningful way with loons. “Nothing makes it / call again” which is to say something we will never fully know. Also there’s a tone of longing in the third line. A hidden wish each of us may have experienced : “call again” “call again”.
Scott Mason calls out the Bard on the theme:
“Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” So responded Lear to daughter Cordelia when divvying up his kingdom. But Lear proved a fool (or less than a fool: 1.4.185-186) in this and other matters. Greek and Roman philosophers and a certain fictional English monarch notwithstanding, nothingness can be highly generative — not least for haiku poets.
Gary Hotham’s fine haiku shows one way how. Here nothingness is ladled out in two helpings: in the absence of light (it’s evening) and the absence of sound (just after the call in L1). This nothingness fills instantly with mystery and wonder. What a satisfying repast!
The mystery pivots in part on whether “nothing” (L2) makes the loon “call again” (L3) . . . or not. Is this the nothing “that is not there” or the nothing “that is”?
We’re only left to wonder. But speak: what more could we want than that?
While Jo McInerney investigates the sources of our ongoing fascination:
Gary Hotham’s haiku begins with a disembodied sound. Long vowels and the repeated ‘l’s suggest the loon’s cry. Semantically, as well as auditorily, ‘call’ is a better choice than ‘cry’. It implies the bird is not just making itself known to whoever might be listening but is seeking a response.
A loon cries to mark territory or to call to a mate. Loons are less vocal in winter as the hormone levels that prompt their cries are lower. It is tempting to hear the line one sound as either a mating call or the bird’s plangent cry for its established partner to return. The poem ends in silence. ‘nothing makes it/call again’. Loons respond to one another; therefore, a summons is usually answered until the two birds are together. It seems the bird has succeeded in attracting its mate. The silence here is filled with a sense of achieved union or reunion.
Yet there is a mood of disappointed expectation, almost of loss. This feeling is the reader’s. It is the human listener who wants to hear the call again.
Loons are waterbirds. They come on shore only to mate and nest. With legs adapted for swimming, they are awkward on land. The name ‘loon’ derives from the Shetland Islands’ ‘loom’, which in turn comes from the Icelandic ‘lomr’ and the Swedish ‘lom’, both referring to someone who is clumsy or lame. They are denizens only of large lakes and waterways. Though strong in flight, their short wings mean they need a long take-off — up to 400 metres or a quarter of a mile — something only a large body of water can provide.
Thus loons live outside the usual human element. They are birds we are far more likely to hear than see. Hotham’s loon is not sighted but heard. It is ‘evening’ and it appears the bird is on the darkening water.
Hotham’s haiku suggests the existential divide between human beings and the other creatures with which we occupy this planet. It also suggests the yearning we have for connection. The bird’s plaintive cry becomes our own. Line three finally seems not so much part of a statement as a plea, ‘speak again’, uttered as we stand alone on the water’s edge.
The haiku contains another distressing possibility. The loon may be silent because its initial call received no response from another bird. It may be the sole member of its species on this stretch of water. ‘[N]othing makes it/call again’ takes on a disturbing finality.
Currently, the loon is listed as threatened in Michigan and New Hampshire, was declared endangered by the state of Vermont in 1987 and is a federally-protected species in Canada. With the threat of extinction hanging over so many species, this haiku takes on a particular urgency. The prospects are grim as the silence is unrelenting and unbroken.
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!
on wet sand the crab’s skeleton reaches out to sea — Ron C. Moss, from “Last Visit” (2002)