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 Ruth Happel, was:stillness not even a peep from the peepers — Robin White Frogpond volume 43:1, Winter 2020
Introducing this poem, Ruth writes:
As a child every spring I would go into the swamps of upstate NY with my dad and his sister, my aunt, in search of spring peepers. It was our ritual to venture into the night, searching for these tiny frogs with their deceptive ventriloquial voices. Sometimes our search would take minutes, sometimes hours, and standing in the half-frozen water with leaky boots I would temporarily immerse myself in their world.
This poem captures the essence of peepers on several levels. Since they call from ponds, marshes, and swamps, these habitats in early spring are totally silent when peepers aren’t calling, since not even the water makes a sound. Their voices create the entire soundscape. Stillness means there is no sound or motion, and on nights when they aren’t calling, or when they are paused between calls, there is a weight to the quiet which use of the word stillness captures perfectly.
I like the humorous touch of using the phrase not even a peep, which is especially relevant since peepers communicate with peeps. Looking at the history of the word peep, it seems to have multiple proposed origins dating back to the 1400s, referring to a soft sound especially by young birds. Today’s usage suggests the phrase not even a peep would refer to an often-vocal person, or creature, having nothing to say.
The use of the word peep is also a play on the volume of sound. A peep is often associated with the barely audible peep of a chick, which is a very soft sound. Peepers, though only about 1 ½ inches long, call at 90 decibels when you are within a couple feet of them. This is the same as a motorcycle heard 25 feet away. When I record nature sounds it’s often necessary to turn down the standard microphone pre-amp settings for peepers. Clearly their calls, when in full volume, are way more than a peep.
This haiku seems to really distill the meaning of stillness. It evokes the dawn of spring when a sleeping earth starts to move and speak. Peepers are like the rooster of the spring season, providing a passage between the silent and motionless world of winter and the frenetic movement and sounds of spring.
Spring peepers are adaptable insectivorous tiny frogs in North America, the males of which chirp on spring nights to attract mates. From the absence of peeps when peepers are known to be present, we might infer this isn’t spring; but that reading would make the verse rather flat. The poet has drawn attention to the presence of peepers and to the unusual silence on, we assume, a night when they are expected to peep. This strangeness intensifies the sensation of stillness. To use a contrast in related things to intensify an experience is a technique/observation in the poet’s toolkit — and in other poetry as well as haiku: William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens.
In Robin’s poem, the still quiet is intensified by the absence of the expected peeps, a more subtle, in-the-mind contrast. There is also an eerie feeling that “something” unknown, unstated, of which the tiny frogs are aware but the implied human presence is not, has caused them to remain silent. The word “peep” also has a different meaning…
The whole engenders a feeling of deep stillness and spooky anticipation.
A very lovely haiku. These 8 words convey the onset of winter. Peepers dig down into the soil in late fall, they are quiet. Nature itself seems to “bed down” in late fall, and a quiet stillness blankets everything. Time to rest. Living in deep east Texas, I could immediately feel this while reading this haiku.
So there I am as a peeper by a still pool my own noise and jabber stilled, my body trying to match and failing the stillness. And yet… I sense there is something more murky here, more unsavoury, less nature more basic instinct, that word ‘peepers’! And who are they peeping at, suddenly I am not beside a still pool, attempting to be at one with nature and failing but being peeped at, where the peepers are intent on peeping at…. me or you or someone who has not seen them there. This sinister tone lingers with re-reading but oh how I do want it to mean something more ethereal. It is that juxtaposition of stillness and peeper, the sandwiched moment of ‘not even a peep’ that quiet intimation that suddenly becomes something less with the addition of ‘ers.’ So there I am again returning to my initial desire that this is something beautiful, a stolen and found moment, where stillness transfixes and stills our own insistence and business. No not a peeping Tom but a peeping shyness, a yen for the stillness of being. I think this will be something I return to and re-read, perplexed and yet at once bursting with clarity of thought until I rest upon a meaning, stilled and at peace. Can it be that there is something of the Eliotesque ‘still yet still moving’ conundrum glimpsed here in Robin White’s words or is it after all just an innocent game of hide and seek or sardines where the peepers force a stillness that will decide winning or losing. Ah found you and you were peeping!
What a delightful poem! Line one invites us into the poem gently with the word “stillness.” The indentation of lines two and three set it off nicely. It’s almost as if the author intends for us to take a breath after the word “stillness.” I like that. It’s kind of like when my pastor invites us to begin the service with a prayer to quiet our minds and let go of all that we brought with us to the service. The poet invites us to be still in order to enter the poem.
Robin uses a fun play on words with peep and peepers. It’s also a very clear auditory image of just how still it is. I have noticed when walking to my little lake in the summertime evenings that even when it is very still, or probably still-ish would be a better description, the frogs croak in the background or there are cicadas chattering or birds chit chatting. There’s typically a constant layer of nature sound or sounds to accompany my walk. To have it be so still that there is not this layer is unusual. The silence gets my attention.
I also chuckled to note that it appeared in Frogpond.
I love this little poem.
An enclave of frogs herald spring’s arrival, creating a choral cacophony that stops after mating season, leading to the deep “stillness” that opens this haiku.
I can still hear the raucous, inch-long coqui frogs — similar in size and louder (100 decibels) than Spring peepers —their voices blasting from the edge of the Puerto Rican rain forest where I once lived for a year. Whenever I approached them at night, instant silence. A perceived predator, a snake, for example, can silence frogs, as daylight, the cessation of rain or increased temperatures. Silence can also mean mating season is over. It is the male frogs, after all, who create the chorus to attract a female; and when mating is accomplished, the calls have served their purpose.
But this poem is not about frogs mating; it’s about the silence that follows it; and also, perhaps —am I reading too much into the poem? — that holy silence when egg and sperm meet to create new life.
There’s lightheartedness in the repetition/alliteration — joy even —“not even a peep/ from the peepers.” What a contrast between the exuberantly noisy chorus frogs and the ‘stillness’ of two cells meeting in a microscopic crucible to create new life.
While this is still a poem about lusty frogs and the joyous renewal of life in spring — I cannot help but sense “stillness” as a metaphor for the quelling of the mind’s “peeps” — its desires and fears and noisome chatter. When this happens — by whatever means — we experience “stillness/ not even a peep/ from the peepers.”
Robin White’s notable haiku, “stillness / not even a peep / from the peepers ” perhaps revisits similar elements encountered by Matsuo Basho, found in “Narrow Road to the Deep North” a travelogue from his excursions to religious places undertaken in the Spring of year 1689.
” Such vast stillness
Even the cicadas’ cry
Sinks into the stone”
The English translation I really liked was by David Bowles (July 2013). There’s no doubt that Basho had a deep grasp of the silence which prevailed within a particular temple he entered discovering the place hidden in natural surroundings in Japan’s ‘deep north,’ and it mesmerized him. A rock-walled place of worship, the sounds from outside couldn’t penetrate the shrine but the cicadas’ cry was emanating from somewhere with its shrill notes cutting through, like high frequency waves do, but Basho couldn’t hear them too in the end!
What is the message he leaves for us through this haiku then? I think that may be the same message we recover from the present three lines Robin White writes, also beginning with “stillness” forming the entire first line. And the second line by White, “not even a peep” signifies the inactivity, the total lack of life as we don’t see any curiosity from a living soul. Peeping is in essence an inquisitive glance and when the haikuist says “not even a peep” and adds the last line “from the peepers” we glean that the world we knew it had changed drastically within the confines of a moment of stillness. The phrase “even a peep’ is very significant here since the overall view we already have had is that there are many ‘peepers’ around but not one among them acts performing the task of peeping. Peepers are not born to the world but any man or beast can be one at any time. so the latent meaning we don’t quite see is that there’s no one, not a single entity except ‘stillness’ that reigns.
Going back to where Basho met with stillness in the deep North we may now see that in those precincts too there was no cicada song but the calm, quiet and static, sound of silence. The faintest presence of disturbing thoughts had disappeared and the mind was free from all defilements, which may be the ultimate bliss a haikuist aspires for.
Looking for hope
There are eleven syllables and eight words. In the fragment, the l and s are stressed upon. In the phrase, there’s a stress on the long e sound in even, peep and peepers.
Stillness represents a long snowy winter filled with dullness, no movement, silence and perhaps death. Was this poem written during the pandemic? Does this represent the pandemic, especially the first wave, stillness when everyone was so scared to even peep outside lest we inhale those viruses? When will all of it be over, will it even subside and get back to normalcy? Can we even as much as look forward to having a normal life?
There probably had been lots of activity in this house which suddenly seems to have disappeared. May be the house was filled with children and who peeped in quite a lot? May be they played I spy. Or is it after a war or an earthquake where there is complete stillness and noone to peep around like some neighbours do. My daughter suggested to me it may be afternoon when even the peepers are taking a nap. Finally, I’d like to go back in time to the 80s when I was around my daughter’s age and there was a certain stillness all over the country on Sunday mornings when our epics, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, were telecast, everyone used to be glued to their television screens.
Is the poet waiting for spring? Is it the poet’s observation that not even a sprout or bud is peeping out but there’s only layers of snow all over?
Sushama Kapur — hiding from It:
Spring peepers (frogs) are loud when they peep. In this haiku, stillness is defined by the non-existence of sound. There is total abstinence from the peepers. Not even one peep. Why would such a situation be? Is this the lull before a storm? The silence before something momentous about to happen? Perhaps a predator on the move? The stillness seems loaded and not natural simply because it is being noted and experienced by the poet. A distinct sense of waiting is interwoven in the eight words that make this poem. We could even assume, considering that the phrase is about a small species in nature, that the poet is outdoors immersed in the moment, all instincts attuned. She is part of the stillness, heavy with anticipation. This fact takes me back to my own forays in the wildlife sanctuaries of India, where the first rule of the many that are drilled into you before you enter the jungle in vehicles with the sanctuary guides, is the need for utter silence, stillness and quiet. Only then can jungle life be experienced as is.
One notes almost a sense of wonder in the way the phrase is expressed (in an onomatopoeic way), especially with the word: “even.” Perhaps the peepers do not want to give away their positions in the surroundings if they want to survive the moment? The length in the double letters, consonants and vowels, aligns itself to meaning, in the lengthening of the moment, as if life is suspended in a huussshhhh.
Although not in the context of this haiku, we could also note another meaning of the words: peep and peepers, this time human. However, it is not related to sound in any way, but movement and stealth, because such peepers generally would peep secretly and silently. In a weird way though, for me, awareness of this meaning adds something to the poem. In a digressive way it reminded me of how such moments as in the haiku, might unfortunately exist even in human life when stillness is necessary to hide from human predators, or in a lighter vein, of play, in a children’s game when you hide from IT.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Sushama 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:helping to cook the dinner Bob Dylan — Helene Guojah Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue 17 May 2023
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Robin White is the founding editor of the subscription journal Akitsu Quarterly. Her poetry has appeared in various publications including Modern Haiku, Rolling Stone, bottle rockets, Frogpond, Woodnotes and Moonbathing: A Journal of Women’s Tanka.
Robin has an entry in Haikupedia, and featured in the Mann Library’s poet of the month in May 2015, where some 31 of her verses may be read.
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I must say I love Amanda’s wonderful reaction to the verse: very tempted by this eloquence!
As always, an enjoyable and instructive read.
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”
Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47546/the-listeners
come to mind.
A poem that may require a search to explain a regional term (‘peepers’), the universal meaning of which may be taken quite differently by readers unfamiliar with that country, its terms and customs, as the range of commentaries shows.
For me, given the repetition of high pitched vowels, the poem is less about stillness than about how loud silence can be.
What a wonderful read this morning! Each commentary had its unique delights and ways of reading the poem. Thanks to each of you for the journey.