Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of your favorites among the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Jonathan Epstein, was:moving boxes… still leaning on the bare tree our rotten ladder — Eva Limbach The Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, December 28, 2022
Introducing this poem, Jonathan writes:
The theme for that week in the Haiku Dialogue was “Childhood Memories — Special Occasions.” As one might expect, Memory Lane was brightly lit by nearly all the selections. So when I came to Eva Limbach’s senryu, it took my breath away. Here was a complex, shadowed memory unlike any of the others.
Eva Limbach’s work always invites me to dig below the surface until I reach other worlds of reality. I am over the moon to select this senryu for commentary and can hardly wait to see what others will uncover.
A haikuist at work…
Set in winter, and loaded with wabi-sabi; the transience of moving house, the bareness of a tree, a rotten ladder… and with ma as the reader fills the spaces of a little story from the symbols sparely used. Crafted with unobtrusive alliteration and a pleasing rhythm, although there are two cuts — the second being the pause at the linebreak after “tree” before the inversion of “our rotten ladder.”
I wondered how it would read without the inversion:
our rotten ladder still leaning
on the bare tree
…but then, there’s the eight-syllable middle line. And I think we want the present continuous “leaning” rather than the finite “leans.” In its original we have a five-seven-five (counting the formal ellipsis as the equivalent in English of a kireji/cutting word, usually one ‘on’ or syllable). Writing haiku so often involves compromise.
Now the story: “moving boxes,” and the outdoors environment that follows, suggests a house move and/or clearance, rather than the attic or cellar or spring-cleaning. The context of the poem was a prompt on childhood memories. The inference is that this is a house clearance as a family moves. “Our” ladder spoke to me immediately of a ladder to climb a tree, perhaps to a tree house, scene of childhood play and daydreams. Clearly it has not been used for a long time, thus rotten; but it is still there, with all the symbolism of a ladder (climbing, growth &c.), as a reminder of what once was before the children grew and left (the tree now bare); perhaps the present move is downsizing, putting a surviving parent into a care home, or clearing the house after a death. Another little echo is “leaning” — “lean/leaning” is a fashionable word in current haiku — on the bare tree may map to those early days of depending on a parent, the parent now “bare” of their supporting, nurturing role.
Altogether a pleasingly poignant haiku that has three real, related images (boxes, tree, ladder) thoughtfully juxtaposed in an harmonious combination, that avoids overdoing the sentimentality, respects Japanese aesthetics and shows a fragment of a story open to the reader’s introspection. I think it is a good piece of work.
My first thought upon reading this was that purchasing and using a wooden ladder was a bad choice. Aluminum orchard ladders are more durable than wood and cost about the same. There is no shrinkage or upkeep as there is with wood. The moving boxes and rotten ladder suggested a relationship that had a sad ending. The rotten ladder could be a moving metaphor for a relationship that has faced too many storms or been invaded by fungi and no effort was made to move the ladder to protect it from the elements or to re-paint it. Other poems have described a failed relationship as a rollercoaster ride, a bumpy road, a dead end etc. A rotten ladder is a creative and powerful way to describe a friendship or marriage that has seen better days.
Eva Limbach’s “moving boxes” is such a seemingly simple three-line poem, but it’s filled with lots to consider. The long life Eva lived at the house she is leaving is symbolized by the rotten ladder left behind and by the sigh that’s implied by the ellipses after “moving boxes.” I know that feeling all too well. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve moved over the years of this 59-year life. In one move, about 15 years ago, my then husband forgot to move everything that was under the stairs leading to the basement. Folding chairs, a good set of tires, boxes containing who knows what. We could have gone back for them, but it wasn’t discovered for nearly a month. And by then we were just … over it. Then there were the things that others left for us: paint that came in handy since it matched for fix ups, manuals for appliances so we’d know how to use them, and the biggest treasure, a princess phone that my stepdaughter adored as a teenager. But really what I’ve always left behind, in a way, whenever I have moved are the first-person, first-hand memories of living in a place. You know, when you walk in a room and remember a funny story or situation because it happened in that place. You can and do take the memories with you, but they are not harkened in the same way when you live in a new space. That takes time and you have to make new memories there.
Just two words set the scene. The former residents of this house have packed up, ready for a fresh start elsewhere. We learn that they are leaving an old ladder behind, but why would they take it in its rotten state? Why mention this at all? Also, this ladder is “still” leaning on the tree, so perhaps it was there when they arrived and the garden was never tended or nurtured. Could the fact that the ladder is in a bad state and is still leaning on a “bare” tree be a metaphor for the relationship between the two people while they lived there? Could this move be an attempt to start afresh and try to fix things? After all, the ladder’s rot and the bare tree are being left behind.
We hope that this will be the case — but because of the imagery employed, I am not really convinced. A thought-provoking haiku from Eva.
This charming verse appealed to me at the first read. The structure is simple and straightforward:
L1- it’s appealing because everyone can relate to it. We have all moved homes, houses, and apartments. In boxes, crates, cartons, containers and cars. I can imagine loads of activity here. The hustle and bustle of sorting and packing ..into boxes.
L2 & 3 – we all have left something behind. Discarded, sold or given away. Here, it’s this image in nature, of a tree, with a discarded ladder leaning against it. I find music in the word ‘leaning’. I find a certain charm in the ladder, albeit a bit old and worn, propped against the tree. It’s probably a wooden ladder because of the adjective, “rotten”. It’s served its purpose well.
The poem connects each line to the next. Moving boxes; empty or bare house; bare tree. In essence, it brilliantly captures an event like a live video. Within nature, every beginning has an ending and all endings herald a new beginning. This poem celebrates both the joys and sorrows, the endings and beginnings. Wonderful, indeed.
Moving from one place to another is an ordeal. But, also equally important the memories we take along with us. The poet has beautifully captured the image. In the deepest of our memories we have a sense of belonging and in that a sense of hatred too. The way we announce ‘our’ instead of plainly putting it as ‘a rotten ladder’ makes it clear that we will miss the ladder wherever we go. Another revelation is of the ladder leaning to its own parenthood. The impermanence is so well depicted. A well crafted late autumn voice signalling that life has to move on, being attached and detached.
Moving boxes are the cartons we use to pack stuff while shifting houses.
‘Still’ as the first word in L2 means something has been in this place for a long time. Something is leaning, for support, onto a tree which is bare, it may be an old, dried up tree which is still standing or it may be winter at the time of the observation. Now comes a rotten ladder, old and worn out and ladder still leaning onto that bare tree. The ladder probably from the poet’s childhood invokes nostalgia. Maybe the ladder was used to climb to a supposed tree house. It could be that the tree was alive with leaves, flowers and fruits during the poet’s childhood. The fun must have been memorable.
I like this senryu, but the crafting raised four little questions and I wondered did the poet spend time on revisions. I look forward to her comment.
The poet has used two -ing verbs. There are two emotive adjectives, bare and rotten (at least not “rotting”). There are two cuts. And the subjective element is brought in by the use of the first person plural.
The first could be fixed by changing the first line to something like “boxes all packed” and/or “leaning” to “leans.” An active verb can also be an opportunity to get rid of the second cut (“our rotten ladder still leans”). Probably “our” earns its place, and the warmth of personal involvement adds significantly to the poem, fixing the house and the ladder as the poet’s home. The “bare” tree gives the verse a season, and “rotten” is significant to indicate the passing of time and the ladder falling into disuse.
Sébastien Revon — in which box do we put our memories?:
This haiku starts with a rather mundane event. We think maybe about “Moving house…” but the author didn’t chose the word “house”. Boxes are moved and we can picture one or several people in an act that keeps them busy.
Then L2 comes: “still leaning on the bare tree” and there’s suddenly a lot to process. We are picturing that bare tree that sets the mood of the haiku with its seasonal reference to autumn or winter. I won’t go to wonder already if bare tree is a kigo or not, if this is already a senryu or a haiku, it doesn’t really matter for me because the simple mention of “bare tree” sets the mood. That’s the aim of a kigo anyway, anchoring the verse in a mood. In that case, the verse already guides us towards some kind of nostalgia. Then in L3 we get the full picture: “our rotten ladder”. Not “my rotten ladder” or “her/his rotten ladder” but “our”…
That verse struck me almost instantly as a nostalgic haiku that triggers empathy within the reader, but I’d like to go back and analyse certain choices of the writer here:
“Moving boxes…”: not “Moving house” and with an ellipsis which brings the necessary “ma”, four syllables with a space afterwards, like a rhythmical pause and with the pause in meaning that let us breathe before the phrase comes in L2 and L3.
In L2 we have to notice the importance of the word “still”, a word that is often used in haiku but here it has several roles:
– the meaning of the word still, in relation to the ladder that comes in L3, the ladder is leaning on the bare tree like it was maybe twenty years ago…?
– With the word still, L2 gets 7 syllables that could maybe help the haiku in its rhythm…
– the other meaning of “still” (not moving) is of course thought of, in juxtapostion to the “moving boxes…” (contrast) and then refers back to the stillness of the ladder.
In L3 we have “our” that manages to bring all the potential readers together. Then “rotten”/ “bare tree” conjures up a good deal of wabi-sabi for the verse.
Altogether we have in L1, a mundane activity that is juxtaposed with a L2/L3 full of wabi-sabi and triggering contemplation in a nostalgic mood.
I imagine myself, moving house, being in the house of my parents, moving boxes, rather bored or rather sad with the task… (I imagine I won’t enjoy the moment I have to empty my parents’ house…), and suddenly an epiphany: I look at that rotten ladder we used to climb with my brother… to that tree (THE tree) we loved. Maybe to pick up the mirabelles (a variety of plums we have in France), or maybe to build a treehouse or anything related to a relationship we can have with a tree, as a child, for instance, or a teenager… I have no brother, but that verse gave me one. I travelled back to nostalgia land with this verse.
When we move forward in life, what do we leave behind? What are we losing that is a part of ourselves? What is that part of ourselves that we have to say goodbye to? This verse started with moving boxes… In which box shall I put my memories? The good old times? The sad ones? Will we leave that rotten ladder, OUR rotten ladder, leaning on that tree we loved? I think so, I wouldn’t move that ladder. It is where it is, probably where it should be.
Author Eva Limbach:
Farewell, not only to the house we lived in, but also to childhood and to many memories. The ladder as a symbol of our adventures.
And now it’s your turn. Where do you think the ladder is?
In our garden or in the neighbor’s garden ;)
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!
belfast campus blast i sift through the remains of my neutrality — Marion Clarke Guest Judge Selection: “History, Story, Narrative” IAFOR Vladimir Devidé Haiku Award 2017
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Eva Limbach’s short bio and a few haiku in THF’s Haiku Registry; and more at the Living Haiku Anthology. Her website is here.
Eva’s work also appeared in re:Virals 374
This Post Has 9 Comments
I know this isn’t a workshop space, but I’m having so much trouble with the word “rotten,” which has a negative charge to it: putrid, (morally) corrupt, unpleasant, inferior, uncomfortable. It’s hard to find any kind of positive connotation for the word at all. When paired with “ladder,” it becomes even more difficult for me to get a positive charge from the word and image (although I’m immediately drawn to Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” and “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still”). I’ve used wood ladders, they’re heavy and awkward. A rotten wooden ladder is a dangerous thing, and leaning it against a tree that’s bare seems like a fruitless gesture (sorry about that). But I don’t think that’s what the writer intends. I think she’s going for kind of wistful remembrance of days gone by: “The ladder as a symbol of our adventures.” Maybe “broken” would work better, but even that carries a sense of discontinuity from the past rather than a connection to it. “Old” might work, but it’s rather vague. “Ladder” needs a positive connotation of some sort, or at least a something neutral. Even “our wooden ladder” would make more sense, particularly since it’s been leaned against a tree, which is also, obviously, made of wood, which reinforces a sense of continuity and connection. What do others think?
I think “rotten” is quite a good choice, as it deftly indicates the passing of time — rotting doesn’t happen all at once — coupled with the observation that the ladder is still leaning against the tree. That is, that there has been a period of disuse, of neglect even, in consequence of the ladder having passed its earlier significance and usefulness. The reader assumes that when the ladder was first used against the tree, it was sound and strong. Nobody has climbed into the tree for a long time.
How reliable are our memories with the passing of time?…..
“How reliable are our memories with the passing of time?….. ” – Keith
In general, I’d say not very reliable. But in relation to things we knew well, with all of our senses, in our early to mid childhood, I have to say ‘very clear’, and not just the visual images things but their touch, texture, scent. . .(eg, the house, steps up to house, apricot tree in sandy backyard, native trees down by the creek, moss, native orchids now vanished.. . certain seashells . . .some not so nice things, too.. . locked in a room with the stench of my baby sister’s poo… and I spent a fair bit of time in certain trees, from, early childhood on (no ladders involved) .
I speak for myself of course but I have no reason to think I’m unique in this.
I agree with Matt’s comments. ‘Rotten’ and ‘bare’ had negative connotations for me too. They made me feel that perhaps this applied to the relationships within the house as well, and that it was good thing to move away. Perhaps ‘rickety’ or ‘wobbly’ would serve, though this would add another syllable to the third line
I was hoping someone would bring this up. Clearly the writer does not intend the word “rotten” to signify *bad* (“I’m having a rotten day,” e.g.) but I can’t shake that sense– it’s too forceful and too frequently used that way. I’ll add this: for me the ambiguity of the word “moving” — is a verb or adjective?– does not help.
This sounds harsh, I know. In my opinion, better choices would make this a better poem–and there is something poignant and imagistically arresting about a ladder, symbolic perhaps of one’s childhood, being left behind, never to be climbed again. (And the suggestion that the freedom of childhood is now boxed,)
Matt, yes, there are many ways we use the word “rotten” and almost all are metaphors with negative connotations.
“There are rotten apples in almost every barrel one cares to look into.” * From the Hansard archive. ” (Cambridge Dictionary)
” My friend’s second husband was a rotten bastard.” ( me)
But Eva Limbach has used the word in it’s original sense, which is straightforward and not negative. Things that literally rot, like wood, like flowers, like fish, seaweed, like corpses (human, animal and insect) like meat and vegetables too “off” to eat are things that allow life to continue on land and in oceans. Things that don’t go rotten are problems, are the ‘bad’ , negative things. What life could exist in a plastic forest? Nothing. Earthorms can’t eat plastic, in any form. And we need earthworms.
c. 1300, roten, of animal substances, “in a state of decomposition or putrefaction,” from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse rotinn “decayed,” past participle of verb related to rotna “to decay,” from Proto-Germanic stem *rut- (see rot (v.)).
Of vegetable substances from late 14c. Also used in North America of weak, melting ice (1660s). The figurative sense of “morally corrupt, wicked; unsound in character or quality” is from late 14c.; the weakened slang sense of “bad” is recorded by 1880.
Rotten apple is from a saying traced back to at least 1528: “For one rotten apple lytell and lytell putrifieth an whole heape.”
Things look stark in Eva’s haiku,…bare tree, rotten ladder… but the tree, I imagine, is deciduous and will bear leaves in season and the rotten ladder will continue to rot until it’s part of the life-giving soil.
Hard to find another word that encapsulates the passing of time, disuse and neglect to the point where the ladder, only its shape remaining, is no longer fit for the remembered purpose. Decayed? Weathered (omits a great deal)…. old is hackneyed…. other suggestions from those unhappy with ‘rotten?’
Eva, your question about where the ladder is intrigued me. Lorin Ford is probably right: in your memory still leaning against the tree.
However, I imagined that the ladder could have been an escape route to the ground via the tree, which was close enough to the second story window of your childhood bedroom. Close enough to grab a branch sturdy enough, then cross to the ladder and climb down for adventures you and your best friend/neighbor might have kept from your parents. The ladder may even been in the friend’s garden, which was even better to escape without being caught.
Or, this is just the fanciful imaginings of someone who heard tales from a mother whose sister would escape out the window, run to the ice cream place, buy ice cream bars with pink centers, and seemingly always win a free one until the pair ate so many they felt sick to their stomachs.
still leaning on the bare tree
our rotten ladder
— Eva Limbach
The Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, December 28, 2022
To me, it’s the word “rotten”, showing that the ladder wasn’t cared for, just left out there against the tree in all weather, that explains why the ladder won’t be going to the new place. Perhaps the kids climbed it and sat among the branches.
Rotten ladder and bare tree, dead wood and bare live wood together seem to me show a damp and rainy winter place and time..
Knowing that this ku was written in response to a given theme “Childhood Memories — Special Occasions” prompts me to assume that it’s the “childhood memories” part that’s been responded to. The image of the ladder against the tree has stayed with the author/ speaker/ observer for a very long time, as our childhood memories of things do.
” And now it’s your turn. Where do you think the ladder is? ” – Eva Limbach:
I think it’s in your memory, unchanged, and will remain clearly in your memory (as these childhood things do) long after it’s gone.
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