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re:Virals 385

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 Jennifer Gurney, was:

     used-book store
     its dusty true-crime section
     covered with fingerprints
     — John J. Dunphy
     Cold Moon Journal, November 4, 2020

Introducing this poem, Jennifer writes:

I chose Dunphy’s intriguing haiku because of the stage he sets and his delightful word play. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this densely packed poem.

Opening comment:

It’s interesting to contrast this one with Marion’s of last week that dealt with the shock of a very real and present crime. John Dunphy’s verse is situated at a safe distance, in books. Straight away it engaged my sense of humour and of irony, people being what they are. Murders are foul, so are highwaymen, pirates and Henry VIII, but for some reason we love them. The attraction here is specifically true crime. The section, and by implication the whole bookstore, is dusty — an unusual marketing tool: the neglectful owner can detect which parts of the store get the most attention, however furtively the customers indulge their fascinations. In the case of the crime section, amusingly appropriate.

As to craft, I wondered whether the author wrote it just as it first occurred, or gave thought to revisions. In any case, the phrasing reads smoothly, each word does a job, I had an enjoyable few minutes thinking about it, and no crime was committed.

Rupa Anand:

This poem is evocative and well-constructed. Its imagery dances. Close and vivid, each word is laden with something to show:
L1 the word ‘used’ lends comfort, and familiarity and defines the bookstore in a charming way.
L2 The definition becomes specific ~ ‘true-crime section’ pulls me right into the store, my hat, dark glasses, grey cape et al. The books are dark and deep, holding within their dusty pages, the stories of God alone knows what murders! As true crimes, were they ever solved, what were the stories behind these macabre tales of death? Who were the sleuths or detectives in charge?
L3 A brilliant turnaround ~ from the ‘fingerprints’ at those crime scenes of yore ~ to the ‘fingerprints’ of individuals rummaging through this section over the years. The link and shift of L1 and L3 are clever. The pre-owned books have gone through many hands, and many homes, and are covered with fingerprints.

A sucker for true-crime serials on Netflix, I love this poem.

Harrison Lightwater:

I like it, it’s diverting, but is there anything more to this senryu than the smile about customers’ fingerprints in the crime section of a bookstore? It’s readable, but did the poet think of alternatives to trim the verse? Could the first line fragment have been an image more juxtaposed with what follows rather than simply a setting? Are the hyphens, the “used” and the “dusty” needed? I look forward to the author’s comments that might clear up these mysteries, and to the responses from other readers. I feel I must be missing some clues. As my friends tell me.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

A cleverly done verse but simple. I notice the poet hasn’t used any articles in all three lines and has used two hyphenated words and some assonance.

In a second-hand book shop, the poet has created a mini crime scene! Is there a section of books with true crime stories filled with dust and now covered with fingerprints of those who have come to the shop to buy these books? Or is it that a crime has really occurred in a dusty section of the bookstore and is marked by fingerprints everywhere? The poem reveals so much but still reveals nothing.

I am left wondering if the reader is supposed to take the role of a policeman and/or the caretaker of the bookstore or a customer. An intriguing story has been weaved here and we’re left pondering. I’m taken in.

Patricia McGuire — an amusing observation:

In RH Blyth’s book Senryu, he writes of a copy of book he had, How to Write Senryu by Kimura Hammonsen, in which someone has written, “senryu are not to be read twice, however good they may be.” That’s how I feel about this one. It’s an amusing observation, but would I turn to it again, possibly not. I wonder how others feel.

Yet the point of Re:Virals is to return to the piece and study it. In so doing I would really love to talk to John about his process. Does he read his work aloud, does the sound or rhythm matter to him? How much revision of the work did he do?

As I read the second line, the word “dusty” disturbs the rhythm, for me, and in calling attention to itself in this way causes me to wonder do we actually need to be told the true-crime section is dusty? We could probably have made that jump by ourselves, particularly as we have a clue in the last line. Perhaps “dusty” is there so we have the short, long, short formation of lines? Whatever the reason, I’d love to ask John whether he had ever considered leaving it out and if he had made a conscious decision to leave it in, why?

Then of course there is the whole question of adjectives. As a principle I would try to avoid them, they can interfere with the ‘ma’ in our poetry, the space we allow our reader to explore our work.

What if the poem were

used-book store
its true-crime section
covered in fingerprints

It’s still clever but now I have the space to imagine the scene in my own terms.

If you read it aloud, do you find the rhythm more pleasing?

Author John J. Dunphy:

This poem wasn’t born of some mysterious creative process. It is firmly rooted in my observation of reality. I’ve owned The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, Illinois, USA since 1987. The book shop indeed has a section devoted to true-crime books — and yes, I would much rather read, write and chat with customers than engage in the tedious tasks associated with cleaning.

When first-time customers enter The Second Reading, I facetiously ask them not to muss up the shop while they browse. “Try to leave the place as neat as you found it.” That line is always good for a laugh and lets customers know this is the direct opposite of an uptight place where they will be on pins and needles.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Patricia 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!

     snow on reeds
     the hush of a barn owl
     across the fen
     — Christopher Jupp
     Poetry Pea Journal 3:22

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.


John Dunphy’s bio is in Haikupedia. Further information including a link to his bookshop is on his website. A considered appraisal of his senryu appeared in 2002. John is a frequent contributor to Cold Moon Journal, where you may conveniently search for his more recent verses.

This Post Has 30 Comments

  1. A question for John Dunphy. You say: “This poem wasn’t born of some mysterious creative process. It is firmly rooted in my observation of reality.”

    Would you say what you mean by “some mysterious creative process”? Am I wrong in thinking you favor haiku that are
    “rooted in . . . observation of reality” over whatever that may be?


  2. To me this is one of those haiku where the meter changes at the break point. Line 2 is iambic trimeter, I believe, and line 3 is two dactyls. These two lines are musical and go together in a way that Shakespeare would recognise. They contrast with line 1 which isn’t musical at all. That structure would also be lost by deleting the odd word here or there for the sake of brevity. The poem is about books which contain thousands of words, so why can’t the haiku reflect that instead of conforming to current fashion?

    1. Shakespeare, indeed!

      A bagatelle, just because…

      Once i’the pall of a November day
      when e’en the dire crows uttered nor a word
      for all their well-used library of crime,
      by happenstance in Chancery’s dark ways
      I found a bookstore hitherto unknown.
      Forbidden textbooks of malfeasance lay
      grimed in the dust. The fingerprints of ill
      were everywhere reveal’d, and among them
      the cloaked form of a man I recognised,
      embarrassed that he should be thus unmasked
      by my good-hearted greeting: “Hello, Will!”

      1. It has (only just) occured to me, that saying “cover’red” greatly improves the meter, with all words used.

    2. Like Mark I’ve tried to analyse the poetic feet of this poem.
      used-book store
      Line one is 3 stressed syllables (I read ‘used’ as one syllable) which creates no rhythm.
      it’s true-crime section
      Line two I don’t see as iambic. I read 1 iam followed by 2 stressed syllables and 1 unstressed. This has no musicality for me
      covered in fingerprints
      Almost 2 dactyls. You have to not stress ‘prints’ to make it so. But it’s easy to read it that way so it just qualifies for me. This is the best line as the slightly ‘busy’ sound of the dactyl helps bring to life the image of fingerprints everywhere.
      I enjoyed this poem, but rhythm and musicality are not its strongpoints.

      1. I’m not an expert but for me the original 2nd line is alternating unstressed and stressed syllables ending on an unstressed syllable (I don’t know what metre that would be called) which works because it leads into the first syllable of the last line is stressed.

        1. MarK: it works for me too:

          its dusty true—crime section
          covered with fingerprints

          —- is what I hear.

          1. I can’t boldify but I stress ‘true’ and ‘sect’ – at least when I read it out in my head.

          2. I agree with Mark in that I too stress on true and sec in section, when I read the ku aloud, other than dus in dusty, in L2

          3. The sounds in this haiku work well for me. Seeing we’re showing how we pronounce (and therefore hear) things, though, here’s mine:

            its dusty true—crime section
            cover’d with fingerprints

            (crossed finger this will work when I post it)
            Regarding metre, I don’t know why I said L1 has 4 beats when it clearly has 3. Duh!

            So it’s 3-7-6.
            I still far prefer this ku as given over the result that any fiddling with L2 to make it neat would give. An ‘imperfect’ metre
            here serves to supports the content: it’s a second-hand bookshop, not a huge, gleaming, well-staffed bookstore with security cameras etc.

          4. its dusty true—crime section
            over’d with fingerprints
            I hope that works out better than my previous attempt.

  3. To make it rhythmically pleasing, ‘dusty’ or ‘section’ has to go.

    afterthought: Do our preferences correlate with the spoken length of our vowels?

    1. simonj: how would you feel about “shelves”? But it’s the books that are covered with fingerprints.

      There are always compromises. Improvements may be achievable, perfection unattainable, my parrot says…

  4. ” Yes, I think the dust’s necessary to reveal the prints, here. ” Keith (Yes, I agree.)

    “And Amoolya raised the possibility that a crime may have been committed in that very section…which has the makings of a TV episode! Perhaps a vengeful author armed with a paper knife? ” Keith (um. . . )

    “….my imagination is running away ” Keith ( I agree, and I think Amoolya’ is running away with hers, too. 🙂 )
    To me it’s a true senryu, a glimpse into human nature. Like the ‘True Romance’ stories of the ’50s that I read (illegally & out of sight of the shopkeeper) there are plenty of social reasons people might prefer a browse and/or a read to actually buying a True Crime book or journal and taking it home or back to the office. How to fill in a spare half hour? It’s Melbourne, it’s raining and one has forgotten one’s umbrella? Or status related issues, for instance, imagine seeing one’s English Lit. Professor or one’s G.P. reading a True Crime magazine on the bus! Word gets around. 🙂

  5. used-book store
    its dusty true-crime section
    covered with fingerprints
    — John J. Dunphy
    Cold Moon Journal, November 4, 2020
    I’m in agreement with the opening comment: “the phrasing reads smoothly, each word does a job”.

    I like the humorous insight into human nature evoked in this senryu and the only change I’d make would be to lose the hyphen in L2. Well done,.
    I’m not in agreement with this comment given by Patricia McGuire at all:

    “Senryu are not to be read twice, however good they may be.”
    I don’t know whether or not Blyth was using this to dismiss senryu in his book, ‘Senryu’ (which I do not have). It sounds like the sort of ‘clever’ declaration that the old boys who invented the more ridiculous collective nouns might come up with after a few too many glasses of port at the club: (“Oh I say, Sir Bottom: ‘ a conspiracy of ravens’, excellent, excellent. . . ” )
    I’m in agreement with Matt about removing the hyphen from “true crime’ but certainly wouldn’t consider removing the one in L1. There is a difference between a used-book shop and a used book shop.
    “Then of course there is the whole question of adjectives. As a principle I would try to avoid them, they can interfere with the ‘ma’ in our poetry, the space we allow our reader to explore our work.” – Patricia McG.

    Heaven help the current flock if anything interfered with “the ‘ma’ in our poetry” !!! Do any of them even understand what ‘ma’ might mean in relation to our haiku? Personally, I’m tired of all the recent bleating about this particular Japanese aesthetic as it applies to haiku. Yes, ‘ma’ is space, is the ’emptiness’ between things, visually illustrated as a space within the boundary of a window frame. In haiku/ senryu often (but not always) it is visually illustrated by a ‘cutting word’ (kire – J) or cut mark (EL)
    “What if the poem were

    used-book store
    its true-crime section
    covered in fingerprints

    It’s still clever but now I have the space to imagine the scene in my own terms. ” P. McG.
    Patricia, you are certainly imagining the scene on your own terms by deleting “dusty”, but what has that to do with “the space to imagine”?

    I’d definitely keep “dusty” .

    (1) Fingerprints are more obvious, more easily seen in a dusty place. Without ‘dusty’ here, we might need Sherlock or the like purposefully looking for fingerprints with his magnifying glass (which would be overkill, imo.) or the fingerprints might be truly yucky, greasy etc. because people had goodness knows what unmentionable stuff on their hands. ‘Dusty’ saves us from the more revolting possibilities!

    (2. ) In context, ‘dusty’ here evokes a section of the shop less cared for and less visited by the bookseller, perhaps it’s the 3rd floor up an iron staircase or just down the back, far from the cash register.
    “If you read it aloud, do you find the rhythm more pleasing?” P. McG

    2. Definitely not. I prefer the rhythm of the original, with the central line having more beats than the other two


    used-book store ( 4 beats)
    its dusty true crime section ( 7 beats)
    covered in fingerprints (6 beats)
    P. McG’s version:

    used-book store (4 beats)
    its true-crime section (5 beats)
    covered in fingerprints (6 beats)
    Matt: ““Dusty” implies untouched; “covered with fingerprints” implies well-handled. So which is it?”

    Both are it, in my view, Matt. If there is a window or skylight, we might see the dust in the air as we browse. as well as seeing it on shelves and on books. We might breathe it in, too, and sneeze. “Covered with” is an ok exaggeration to me, often used in common speech. Did your mother ever tell you that your face was “covered with dirt” and order you to wash it, but when you looked in the mirror all you could see was a grubby chin and a bit of dirt on one cheek? I don’t think “covered with” can always be taken to be strictly literal.
    My experience with ‘True Crime’ sections? Next to nil. However, I recall investigating, at ages 12- 13, the ‘True Romance’ shelves of the general store in the small timber town I lived in. I even (sneakily) bought a couple of these magazines on my father’s account. (That was before he checked his accounts and after he caught me with a copy of ‘Peyton Place’ , the first novel I ever read.. )
    I imagine ‘True Crime’ novels are about as true as ‘True Romance’ novels. ( I may be wrong.)

    1. It would never even occur to me to use a hyphen between “used” and “books,” but maybe that’s an American language thing.

      I have no great objection to dusty. It’s simply redundant. All used book stores are dusty, wonderful places, full of emptiness and fingerprints.

      1. Matt:
        used-book store
        used bookstore
        used book store could be either, I think Lorin’s saying?

        1. Yes, I see what she’s saying. But I have never in 60+ years of reading encountered that hyphen, so this is an interesting, if minor, language point. In my experience, whether it’s “used book store” or “used bookstore,” we understand that “used” modifies “book” not “store.” Used car shop, used clothing store, used furniture market — no hyphens needed. Is this just an American English thing?

          1. Matt: no, I don’t think this one is an American English thing. But then, I may have been corrupted by three years in New York. We would have used car, and used-car salesman. But let’s think: on this side of the Atlantic we probably wouldn’t say used book store. More likely, second-hand bookshop. How would you see second-hand book store? As second hand book store?

            In the case of used book store, I think it’s pretty clear that it is the books that are used, rather than the store. But because book store is frequently contracted to bookstore (bookshop in English English) it may be that there is a little ground for semantic confusion. And used-book store would clear that up.

            Getting into the long grass here!

      2. I think ‘dusty’ has both literal and literary meanings. I don’t think used books are literally either dusty or covered in fingerprints.

        1. Most of the books I donate to second hand bookshops have never been read and have only been minimally fingered.

    2. Lorin: A good discussion! I always look forward to your trenchant comments.

      Musicality being an aspect of poetry important to me, I agree that adding ‘dusty’ gives the line a more engaging rhythm, to my ear; and as you say, it makes the balance of the lines more like the haiku pattern.

      I agree about the hyphenation. Also, on adjectives, and for that matter adverbs, fine if used sparingly and if they add something worthwhile without “telling” the reader what to think, and are not merely for decoration or syllable-padding. There are plenty of masterly precedents. Here, ‘dusty’ adds another visual element, dust, so that the fingerprints can be seen. A white tablecloth covered in fingerprints would be a significantly different image (and also benefits from an adjective, white). I think each word should do its job, bring something of value, be missed if taken out, whatever its part of speech.

      Making rules is always risky; understanding principles I think is a more useful approach.

    3. I agree about ‘ma’ – currently fashionable, and easy to achieve through the deletion of words at the expense of meaning.

  6. Matt Cariello comments via the submission form:

    “Patricia McGuire’s revision, which shortens the poem by only two syllables, nevertheless eliminates what I felt was a semantic contradiction. “Dusty” implies untouched; “covered with fingerprints” implies well-handled. So which is it? Remove “dusty,” and we’re left with only the possibility that this section of the bookstore is all-too-frequented, which we can interpret as a kind of social commentary on peoples’ obsession with reading true crime stories (though not, perhaps, buying those true crime stories as a way of supporting the local used bookstore, which I’m sure needs all the help it can get). As a final touch, I’d remove all the hyphens, as they are grammatically redundant. “

  7. What those commenting seem to have missed – in my opinion – is that dust is applied to objects in order to collect fingerprints and identify suspects. Therefore this raises the possibility that the true-crime section is not just a collection of dusty books but a crime scene itself (perhaps someone has been stealing the books?). ‘Dusty’ is essential in this haiku, not just to create an atmosphere within the store, not just to define the books as old and having been leafed by many fingers, but also to make the fingerprints visible. Without ‘dust’, and without ‘used’ – in a modern bookstore selling nothing but shiny paperbacks – how would we see any fingerprints? I much prefer John’s clever version.

    1. Yes, I think the dust’s necessary to reveal the prints, here. And Amoolya raised the possibility that a crime may have been committed in that very section…which has the makings of a TV episode! Perhaps a vengeful author armed with a paper knife?….my imagination is running away.

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