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 saw, unusually, a pair of poems, chosen by Harrison Lightwater:power lines in a long row the road to Rome — Jerome Berglund Asahi Shimbun, Haikuist Network, 6th January 2023 and/or: casting a long shadow over the crowd below church spire — Michael Buckingham Gray tsuri-doro issue 12 November-December 2022
Introducing these poems, Harrison writes:
I chose these from a list that Keith keeps in case of eventualities — such as busy me being unable to put my hands on a good verse in the short time available. They stood out as a brave pair of poems illuminating the dark side of those who purport to represent the power and the glory.
These are hefty poems in admirably detached words that read well, dealing suggestively with the realities of secular and religious authority. Taking religion first — and the Rome poem too could be read in that way — in nearly every religion based on a humble and usually indigent prophet, their earthly leaders have subsequently adopted the habits and the trappings of power: fine raiments, costly ornaments, and magnificent buildings ostensibly in honour of their god, paid for by their flock. With Buddhism a possible exception (let me know), religions have sanctified war, torture, oppression, slavery, and the murder of heretics or apostates, often by vile means. They use fear (of hell, of excommunication, of death even) as well as notions of reward to motivate and control their worshippers. These things are the other side of the good they profess, and undoubtedly do also. The shadow of the spire, or of the dome.
I used to visit Antwerp, where there is a Catholic cathedral (Our Lady) with a very tall spire that took over 170 years to build. I would think about the workers who died in its construction, about the comfortable bishops who oversaw it; and about vanities — Ecclesiastes being a favourite text. On the one hand, it is admittedly magnificent. On the other, it casts a long shadow. Protestants sacked and defiled it in 1566. Religions remain divisive, and some exclusive, in several places round the world today. The word ‘crusade’ is still in use. Peace and goodwill be among you.
And so to Rome… Jerome’s verse, anchored as it is to the old expression “the road to Rome,” links the repetitive visual image of unattractive roadside power cables with the essence of authoritarian power. It remains of relevance pari passu with other like situations we see today.
To and from Rome the lines of power stretched long and straight during the Empire, and established too the ascendancy of the Roman church in Europe and thence beyond. In today’s Britain we admire the Romans for their enduring roads and bridges, their villas, baths, advanced civilisation, and their impeccable Latin. They provided stability, order, and protection against incursion by ‘barbarians.’ But generally we overlook the brutalities of their invasion, occupation, and colonisation. Roman roads were built long and straight for military purposes. Britons were enslaved.
Taken together, powerful poems, far removed from cherry blossom and butterflies.
What a rich set of poems on which to reflect this week. The clear visual imagery of parallel power lines stretching infinitely into the distance, leading one to Rome, was captivating. As was the idea of the spire casting a shadow over the throngs below. Initially, I was drawn to the idea of modern technology leading to an ancient city, where “technology” once meant aqueducts and coliseums. The new definitely exists alongside the ancient, much more so in Europe than in the United States, where I live.
My mind then tried to find a thematic link between the two poems. I landed on the commonality of Rome and church spire, which led me to think about Pope Francis’ recent hospitalization. Undoubtedly there were crowds outside his hospital, praying for his recovery. How wonderful that he is home at the Vatican for holy week and Easter celebrations. Having been raised Catholic, I have a deep-seated respect for the tradition of the church and the position of the Pope. I was one of the lucky ones to get to see Pope John Paul II land in Denver when he was here 25 years ago for the World Youth Day. Nearly a million people came to see him during that event.
Going back to the individual poems, I really enjoyed all of the assonance of the first. The author stretches out the poem by the long o’s of row, road, Rome and by the elongated imagery of the never-ending power lines. The second poem creates a somber mood with the long o’s of shadow, over, below and the imagery of a shadow being cast on the crowd.
Berglund and Buckingham Gray wrote two very evocative poems and it was an interesting challenge to read and understand them side by side.
My Latin teacher, Mr. Frerichs, would be so proud of me remembering this: “All Roads Lead to Rome” refers to Milliarium Aureum, which was this ancient monument from which all distances in the Roman Empire were measured. Berglund’s poem hints at that phrase. Juxtaposed against the power lines, one gets hints of something darker. I’m not sure if there’s a parallel between resource monopolies vs. centralized power as alluded to be the Roman Empire. Alternately, “Rome” here could be the church, and this is some commentary on Catholic power struggles. This could even be an allusion to the rows of Crucified martyrs lining the Roman highways.
The struggle with this poem, to me, is that L2 seems to add little to the poem. It’s a line used for sound (“Row” echoed later in “road” and “Rome,”) but makes little sense. It’s not a clear link-and-shift or pivot style haiku, nor is the juxtaposition clear. The images and allusion speak to something deeper, but readers aren’t given enough images to understand.
Jerome Berglund’s haiku is a multi-layered poem that can take us on a complex journey of time and place. There are many ways to interpret this poem: religious, secular, metamorphic, and philosophic.
Initially, with my childhood Christian upbringing, I was struck by flashbacks of images from television shows that depicted religious interpretations of the “road to Rome” that could lead to God. Moving to the present, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the Rome of today would include power lines, electric lights, and busy tunnels.
Conversely, in L1, do the power lines refer to intellectual, military, or technological powers that control or contribute to various levels of society? What initially was simply a quick flashback to childhood Christian stories developed one layer after another the more thought that was invested in it.
Thanks for this mental exercise, Jerome Berglund.
At first glance, commenting on two separate haiku seemed a monumental task. However, they began to meld for me, both thematically, and through the chosen wording. The “o” words – power, long, shadow, crowd – create a grounded , somber, yet expansive feeling in both haiku. Both poems create vivid linear images – the power lines, the church spire – within spacious outdoor environments. For some reason I picture these images in black and white. In the first haiku, the reference to ” the road to Rome” brought to mind the saying ” all roads lead to Rome.” I pictured someone walking , perhaps with a burden on their heart, looking up at the power line and then consoling themselves that whatever choice made, it would all be the same in the end. This same scenario could be applied to the second haiku; now the person looks up at the spire ( perhaps imagining a Higher Power), releasing the tension of decision making.
Power did seem to figure into both haiku, in both its positive and negative aspects. Throughout both haiku, the intricate systems that we humans create, center prominently. Our electric grid, the Roman systems of roads, language, and culture ( still figuring prominently in Western culture) the systems of Christianity and churches. Yet, there is much “white space” and sky to connect us to the more ethereal and abstract realms. These two haiku, from now on, will remain linked together for me.
Peter C. Forster:
The “power lines” open Jerome Berglund’s haiku/senryu with two meanings already. The ugly structures carrying electricity cables along the roads, and the notion of political “power” itself. Then its continuation “in a long row” suggests time as well as spacing, as we swish past the poles or pylons one by one. The third line picks this up with an ancient expression: the road to Rome…drawing us to the power of empire, emperors and popes. The lines present an unrelenting network of power from the past to the present, and suggest that it has an ugly side. I remember the row of crucified slaves along the Appian Way in Kubrick’s old movie “Spartacus.” Tied together by half-rhyme and assonance, power, row, road and Rome, the verse has a sonorous ring like a deep bell tolling.
Michael Buckingham Gray’s haiku/senryu also opens ominously with “long” — a “long shadow” cast over “the crowd below,” the ordinary folk. Then this shadow is revealed to be from the church spire — towering above them. Is this just a metaphor for the threat of hell and damnation, or something more? Conditioned by Berglund’s lines to think of power and empire, that fits too into the context of the church. Faiths have their uglier side and their authorities have exploited power in their search for supremacy. The will to power is everywhere. Many awful things have been done by men in the name of a god, to gratify the lust for power or grandeur, however disguised, of a leader, or to expand the influence of a church even by war (“onward, Christian soldiers”), or to suppress competition or dissent.
Serious themes. Long-lasting, not transient, and without humor. Some people who put faith in church or government could find them uncomfortable. The two poems go as well together as church and state. I appreciated the pairing.
Both the verses have an ‘o’ assonance and the word long. The first verse reminds me of the proverb, “All roads lead to Rome.” The power lines are almost like the roadways, they connect the different electric poles across a place just as the roads connect the different parts of a place. The roads lead to an important square or building, mostly in the city’s centre, likewise the power lines lead to transformers in substations and to the point of supply. The power lines too cast shadows on the road or the people on the roads but are narrow in diameter and are long (parallel) and can bisect another larger shadow.
Berglund’s is a short verse of 10 mono-syllable words. The fragment comes after the phrase and there is no verb. L1 is shortest and L3 is the longest conveying the long journey to Rome.
In verse two, something is casting a long shadow, so it’s high up and huge. L3 reveals the suspense, i.e the object. This shadow is almost conical (converging into a single point). It’s a long verse of 6-6-2 or 14 syllables but containing the same number of words (10) as the first verse. L1 is the longest and L3 is the shortest. The fragment comes after the phrase, starts with a verb and has two prepositions in L2. Long shadow is elaborated in a lengthy line which almost seems like it is casting its shadow on the line below. The church spire tip is almost the narrowest point of the whole structure which reflects in the third line being the shortest.
As a child, whenever we used to travel, what fascinated me the most were the power lines that ran along the length of the highways. I would follow them, never taking my eyes off them as they ‘ran’, now up, now down depending on the terrain. I would admire how taut they were and to what lengths they ran. And then, a pole would come up where the lines could ‘rest’, but just a while before ‘running’ again. Jerome’s ku reminded me of this childhood memory.
Patricia McGuire: detached observation, or a judgment?:
This week I have a question rather than a comment. But first let me create a bit of context. Harrison has nominated two poems for discussion this week, both of which in my reading, are speaking to the same subject. I’m pretty sure that Jerome speaks of the power of the church and if so, it’s clear which one, whilst there is an element of mystery about Michael’s.
Jerome, at least for me, gives us a detached observation, we have a long line of power lines, and a road to Rome. He leaves us to read into his juxtaposition whatever we want. He is not offering us a judgement. Michael on the other hand, and I should stress this is in my reading and perhaps not what he wanted to achieve, guides us a little more than Jerome. “Long shadow,” whilst an observation, has something of the sinister about it. Juxtaposing long shadows with the church spire hints at an opinion — something not in Jerome’s power lines.
So what’s my question?
Should haiku poets be aiming for a poem which observes and allows the reader to formulate their own opinion, Jerome’s poem; or do we use the haiku to more blatantly address issues, which I think Michael has done, albeit in a gentle manner?
Maybe nobody cares, but I’d be very interested to know the opinion of other haiku enthusiasts.
Author Jerome Berglund:
Over the last year I’ve been making frequent trips with my family to support an aunt in Iowa courageously combatting Parkinson’s disease, and on the 500 or so mile roundtrip route one familiar sight travelers cannot help noticing again and again are recurring patterns of distinctive poles and power lines of varying shapes, which — depending on the particular ones you are scrutinizing — bear anything from passing resemblance to an overt unnerving similarity to a column of towering wooden crosses. The image becomes more disturbing for history buffs familiar with the Third Servile War, in which enslaved persons revolting under command of onetime gladiator Spartacus found themselves captured, and 6,000 victims aspiring for liberation were summarily crucified along the Appian Way (“queen of the long roads” as the ancient critically strategic artery was famously known) between Capua and Rome.
I reside in Minneapolis, a city which throughout recent times in the global spotlight has become infamous for, its name all but synonymous with, brutal suppressions of proletarian unrest, associated with enormous inequality and disruptive gentrification creating powder kegs of confrontation whose sensational explosions are capitalized on by both prevailing political parties opportunistically, rendering our citizens and their city collateral damage exploited by each side’s leadership — amplified by respective media polarities to a fever pitch — to win votes, fundraise, and further divide working class neighbors ideologically along partisan lines. The horrors of two thousand years past continue to haunt and plague our present, sanitized and rebranded with their modern Orwellian flavoring. With the Washington Post tallying 1,176 fatalities due to deadly force by law enforcement in 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union that same year determining 800,000 prisoners in our nation had been forced to work, with compensations ranging from 13 to 52 cents an hour, such statistics truly inspire the conscientious citizen to ask themselves why constituents continue to elect representatives who permit these atrocities’ perpetuation, what we might do to promote freedom and security equally across our country and correct these vile repetitions of antiquity’s worst injustices.
Author Michael Buckingham Gray:
Two things came together to make the haiku ‘casting a long shadow’. The first was coming across Joseph Massey’s ‘television light’ haiku:television light lies on the American lawn
This haiku made me think about the broader social implications of light and shade. And the second, was watching a large gathering out the front of a church one day, covered in shadow.
So my first draft read:
But this was rejected by an editor. Often, I write and leave a lot out, asking the reader to join the dots. After that poem was rejected, I revised it. I rounded out the details, and worked to keep the alliteration, to arrive at the current haiku.
Thanks to the poets and 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!
An empty plate Smashing it Autumn clearer — Masaya Saito Ash, TELS 1988
Note: this also appears later in Snow Bones, Isobar Press, 2016 as:An empty plate
smashing it autumn clearer and the first (Ash) version was a poem selected for "Haiku in English – The First Hundred Years” (Kacian, Rowland and Burns, Norton, 2013) p.1
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A graduate of the University of Southern California’s Cinema-Television Production program, Jerome Berglund spent a picaresque decade in entertainment before returning to his midwest home. Also a photographer of repute, Jerome’s original haiku and shahai are widely published and you may track them on his website. He’s authored and published several collections, and latterly edits the paid-for journal Heterodox Haiku.
Michael Buckingham Gray is a poet, writer, and creative writing tutor whose work has appeared in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Presence, Meniscus, the Fortnightly Review, and the Mainichi Shimbun. His work has also been profiled by PerthNow, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Haiku Commentary. Here’s the link to his website.
The week saw several engaging commentaries including Jerome’s own impassioned comment and Peter’s commentary. Newcomers who take the plunge and send in commentaries are welcomed and congratulated. It was not easy to award the golden apple, especially when one commentary echoed my own thoughts; and when one was very tempted to discover what Jerome’s own choice for next week might be. In the end, re:Virals is a place to examine some questions concerning haiku as well as to extol or criticise individual verses. With a pair of verses that were fairly easy to interpret, Patricia’s wider question is pertinent and yes, we do care! How would you answer it?… To what extent is the choice of “shadow” and “below” a judgment, or an observation? Do they nudge the reader gently towards an interpretation, communicating it, or are they a shade too explicit? Shadow is as frequently used in contemporary haiku as other words with an emotive trigger or ‘a message’… like ‘grey’ or ‘rain’ or ‘mother.’ And if the conclusion is a judgment rather than an observation or reflection, then is that formed in the mind of the reader or of the poet? Jennifer’s reading shows that there’s more than one interpretation of Michael’s poem.
Over to you, imagist poets.