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:a birch tree a lichen archipelago — Warren Decker The Heron’s Nest Vol XXV, Number 1: March, 2023
Introducing this poem, Jonathan writes:
This poem struck me immediately as not only innovative and out of the ordinary but an inviting and rewarding challenge for re:Virals devotees to explore in depth. I was intrigued by how the poem avoids the usual two haiku sections of image and contrast/connection. Instead, we have three parts, all nouns, with no help connecting the dots. Is the poem suggesting a new metaphor for interconnectedness — the world as archipelago?
(A composite image zooming in and out, my instructions to Dall-E and processing in Adobe. Showing that it works better in words…)
Apropos: lichens are very interesting organisms; symbionts between fungi and algae. Their reproduction is also interesting. As with many other organisms, including more developed ones such as molluscs and some fish, lichens are gender-fluid, and indeed fungi have multifarious sexes — thousands. This has not gone unnoticed in academic society. You may be interested in A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals, Gilbert, Sapp, & Tauber (The Quarterly Review of Biology vol 87 #4, 2012): “we are all lichens…”, and possibly more interested in Queer Theory for Lichens, Griffiths, UnderCurrents: Journal of Critical Environmental Studies (York University, 2015): “This symbiotic view of life can also work to denaturalize the primacy of heterosexual biological reproduction in discourses of normative and non-normative bodies, practices and communities.”
Each individual able to make love with every other individual. An archipelago of genders, too.
This haiku works on a magnification level. The speaker sees a birch tree. The use of the indefinite article means that this is one birch tree of many or, alternately, a solo birch tree, but nothing particularly special of notice about it. This creates a lackadaisical attitude that works to create an initial emotion for the reader.
The shift comes in the phrase in L2-3. It’s still an indefinite article, so still not focused or specific, but “lichen” in L2 zooms us in until L3, when we shift our perspective. Readers move closer and closer, until an archipelago is revealed across the ocean of tree bark. Readers’ perspective shifts from any ordinary tree–one of many–the magnificence and individual spots of lichen creating the archipelago. The brilliance and striking nature of this archipelago is meant to draw the readers’ attention and create the moment of “a-ha” or “awareness” or “shift of consciousness.” This moment, the realization that any ordinary tree could possibly contain multitudes and multiple islands and worlds on its surface is the theme of this haiku, shifting the mood for the reader.
There’s a distance here, too, for the reader. The images are presented with no fluff or addition, as Pound wrote: “no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.” It’s a sparse haiku, almost too sparse, that lets all the imagery do the work. And the articles help, moving the reader through the magnification process, zooming in towards that last line of perspective change.
There’s a gentleness in the observation, too, or a lightness of approach. “The” or “that” or “our” or any other word describing the tree or the archipelago would add too much, possibly making it too direct or too personal, adding meaning or weight where there might not be. The point of this poem isn’t to make a point or an argument, simply to observe softly and present that moment of close attention and intimate discovery to the reader. It’s a solid approach, and while not the most striking of poems, I’m not sure its meant to be. I see this as more a delicate moment, a slowly zoomed in observation that shifts our perspectives slightly.
I love when poetry stretches me, emotionally, intellectually or vocabulary-wise. Warren Decker’s poem does just that.
I’ll be the first to admit that while I had heard the word archipelago, I needed to look it up to make sure I knew its meaning. (And I really had to listen to its pronunciation a few times to get it down pat.) Birch and lichen, I had, from my days growing up in Michigan and my summers as a camp counselor to young campers. In fact, the birch tree is the symbol of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, where I roamed the woods my whole young life.
My mind circled around a few times, searching for the connection between the three – a tree, a form of fungi and a series of islands. I reflected on the symbiotic nature of lichen, where there is mutual benefit to both lichen and tree or other host. Until it dawned on me that perhaps the lichen formed a trail up the birch tree that resembled a series of islands. Not sure whether this is where the author intended me to go, but then again, am I ever truly certain with poetry? Isn’t one of the true joys of poetry that it leaves space for the reader to connect the dots and fill in the empty spaces left for just this reason?
I will also readily admit that I am a word nerd. I absolutely love when one line of a haiku is a five- or seven-syllable word in and of itself. I started playing the alphabet game with family and friends after seeing it in one of my favorite movies, Words and Pictures. I love word games in general, but this one stretches me to identify longer words by their first letter. I can’t wait to play the next time and will keep archipelago in my back pocket.
An archipelago of lichen on a birch tree. Imaginative though it is, is this more than a single straightforward metaphor?
I love the way this poem plays with scale and perspective: collapsing it, expanding it, obliterating it, putting it back together, each and all depending on where you land/stand. Macro in micro and vice versa.
First impression: a birch tree is ocean to an archipelago of lichens.
Next: I don’t know, but I suspect that birch trees resemble certain lichens. At any rate, some lichens are like miniature trees. (“Lichens with a well-developed, three-dimensional growth form, often looking like miniature trees or columns, are called fruticose lichens.”)
Two living things, very different in size, are nonetheless part of a chain (an archipelago) of seemingly separate creations, each dependent on and rooted in the earth.
One last impression, which may be the first for someone else: an archipelago, a group of islands on the sea, seen from a great distance may resemble lichen. And, turned around, lichen seen from a distance (actual or created by relaxing one’s perspective) may resemble islands.
Tree, lichen and archipelago are multiples and varieties of one thing called life, rooted in one thing called earth.
I feel clumsy trying to articulate this, and of course there’s more.. But it’s all there (what can and cannot be said) in the little poem.
But how does it make you feel? someone might ask. Does feeling connected count?
Peter C. Forster: out of the ordinary…:
The world in a grain of sand. An archipelago in a birch tree. A classic. The poet’s observation focuses in, then expands out, with an insightful comparison. Each birch tree, each patch of lichen, even each poet is separate. Yet together…an archipelago, joined by a sea of things. Donne’s “No man is an island, entire of itself” surfaced in my head.
In some ways it is a recipe (take a birch tree, a lichen, and what do you get) but there is no fat on this verse. There is no intrusive ego or personal emotion. There is art and haiku craft. It contains three distinct parts, not the usual two. They work together without conspicuous disjunction and without poetic effort being apparent. The lines are visually and sonically linked across with the repeated “ch” in birch, lichen, and archipelago, which unobtrusively unifies the three images. The writer has not used a definite or indefinite article to qualify “archipelago.” This helps both to detach it from the observed birch and lichen as a conceptual image, and to link it with the first two if the reader chooses to run lines two and three together as “…a lichen archipelago.”
For the things it is and the things it is not, the haiku this week is raised out of the ordinary. Thank you Jonathan Epstein for bringing it to attention.
Author Warren Decker:
I’ve always liked lichens. They have the power to reawaken my sense of wonder for everything in the world. One day, after riding a bicycle all day in the summer heat of Wakayama, I was camped out along a river and I remember staring at a lichen on a boulder, when it suddenly somehow morphed and seemed as vast as the cosmos. I thought to myself: “We have the word ‘lichen’ to describe this phenomenon, but I actually have no idea what I am looking at, and it, like everything else, is profoundly beyond my simple mortal human comprehension!” I assure you, the experience of this thought was far more elegant, spiritual, instantaneous, and visceral than I can convey in prose, but the word and image “lichen” pops up in my haiku drafts often, most likely because I have been longing to convey some portion of this sensation to readers.
On a more grounded note, I was excited about the “ch” in archipelago. I’d like to claim that it was entirely intentional from the start but there was definitely some serendipity involved too.
Thank you Jonathan for choosing this poem, thank you Keith for editing this creative space, and thank you all so much for taking the time to read and make comments!
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, a close call, Peter Forster 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!
Poem for commentary:moon shot the american way — Helen Buckingham Bones 25, April 2023
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Warren Decker’s short bio and samples of his haiku may be read in the Foundation’s Haiku Registry.
His website gives further material, which also reveals a humorous side and a penchant for rhyme (two facets I favour). “Not entirely without literary merit,” as one referee commented.