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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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.