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 Ann Smith, was:front row seats the long eyelashes of circus elephants —Valentina Ranaldi-Adams The Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, 14 June 2023
Introducing this poem, Ann writes:
I loved this verse which was published recently in The Haiku Foundation’s Haiku Dialogue for the prompt “Foreground Focus – Blur the Background.”
Look forward to reading others’ commentaries…. Oh and I didn’t pick it just because I read this in the Dialogue comments thread written by a certain K Evetts: “I hope someone puts it forward for re:Virals (hint!).”
Time was, only the rich travelled farther than the nearest town. When the circus came, it was a thing of wonder and excitement; a place to be thrilled by vicarious danger, to marvel at the high trapeze and the fire-eater, to feel the whipcrack frisson of a head in the lion’s mouth, to laugh at clowns; and to be astonished by performing animals, especially great elephants circling the ring trunk-to-tail. Indeed I read in Wikipedia that it was an elephant, “Old Bet,” who started things for Hachaliah Bailey at the beginning of the 1800s shortly after John Bill Ricketts first brought circus to the United States from Britain. I remember Billy Smart’s circus; and in the days of black and white television seeing magnificent circuses on the small screen.
Times and mores change. While circuses of sorts still exist, our views of the propriety of keeping and training animals for the circus have moved towards pity and care, and away from wonder. Moreover, how could Barnum and Bailey now compete for our headshaking marvel with the grand circus of the daily television news?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Valentina has tapped into some very rich key words in this beguiling senryu, irresistible from the first reading in that strange way you know must be poetry. Front row seats are not only the closest viewpoint; they convey eagerness for the spectacle. And then…from the giant pachyderm to the small detail: the protective long eyelashes, suggestive of appeal, with an undercurrent of gentle femininity, and perhaps, in the subconscious, of the word “lash.” The revelation that these are circus elephants, noble and intelligent animals from antiquity subordinated to our amusement, returns us to the front row seats that now make us complicit.
In some strange, seductive way we become fellows of the ponderous circus elephants with wrinkled thick grey skins, and if anyone looks closely enough, soulful eyes.
I find this a very haunting haiku. In this day and age, it’s sad that wild animals are still viewed as entertainment for us. Getting a front row seat implies someone is very enthused about going to the circus, sitting so close that they can see the eyelashes of the elephant. To be honest, they would probably be visible from many rows back, too. Their eyelashes are 5″ long, the longest of any animal, which matches their large size. I imagine in only a semi-fanciful way these huge eyelashes could be used to blink back tears of elephant sadness. Many years ago I read a book called When Elephants Weep and imagine their tears at being forced to perform at the threat of pain in a needless display of dominance. I also imagine them using these eyelashes in their natural homes far away, to protect them from dust and dirt as they live in their natural world.
The majesty of this poem is palpable. Front row seats at the circus – a luxury at any age. But I am somehow transported back to age six and it’s my first time to the circus. A front-row vantage point would have been inordinately magical. Looking up at these enormous animals and noticing their eyelashes. That’s something a child – or someone filled with childlike wonder – might notice. I love the whimsy of this little poem. To be honest, I’ve never noticed or pondered elephant eyelashes. But I will now.
As a side note, I believe this poem might have been from the blur the background prompt in THF Dialogue. I like that it was selected for reVirals so close to when it was published. There’s a nice synergy in that for me as a reader-writer-person trying their hand at commentary. That was a powerful prompt to try when writing haiku and when thinking about one’s focus in general. I continue to reflect on my focus when photographing, painting, writing, living.
Using this lens through which to read Valentina’s poem, I like the opening line so much: “Front row seats.” I like the imagery of having front row seats and noticing the juicy bits – at the circus as well as in life.
The second line, “the long eyelashes,” stands out as it introduces an unexpected and delicate element amidst the flashy show of the circus. The contrast between the massive presence of the elephants and the delicate feature of their eyelashes creates a sense of beauty and wonder. It also made me think of what such an intelligent and sensitive creature as the elephant must feel in such an environment.
L1 talks about seats nearest to the stage from where the view is the best.
Elephants are the largest land animals and have the longest eyelashes. So, from the front row, we can see the elephants’ eyelashes and eyes quiet clearly. When I looked up on the internet with the help of my mother, I found that the ladies performing at the circus wear false eyelashes.
Through the eyelashes of the elephants, we can see the eyes and in them we can see sadness and frustration. This is because they treat elephants and any other animals with utmost cruelty in circuses (I saw this too in the internet with the help of my mother). Now they have banned using animals in the circuses which is a very good step to protect the animals (and also the humans who are prone to sudden attacks by these animals).
Valentina Ranaldi-Adams presents us with a curious moment that builds towards wonder. This is an interesting senryu with a lot of surprises, and the poet has made some interesting craft choices that affect the reader.
We’re presented, at the beginning of the poem, with the fragment “front row seats”. So the readers know they’re at an event with seats, and presumably the “front row” will be more expensive or privileged because they’re closer to the performance and the action, as it were. There’s a lot of anticipation in this fragment, and while it’s vague (we don’t know what performance, yet), it does serve to build up the tension.
The next line, the first half of the phrase part of the haiku, is a shocking image. “the long eyelashes” is not something one would expect from a “front row seat” performance. This is a unique image, certainly something that readers will not see coming, and so we’re caught off guard. The tension is further heightened because we’ve gone from “performance” to “eyelashes,” and are in need of some logical resolution here.
This release is provided in L3 “of circus elephants.” Of course–beautiful, magnificent creatures slowly plodding and blinking. What wonderment to be found! What excitement! And the circus, too! Ranaldi-Adams has not only relieved the tension, creating what some would call the “haiku moment,” but has also now invoked a host of images. “circus elephants,” as an image, invokes a host of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. Furthermore, the focus on the eyelashes of the elephant means that despite all the distraction and chaos of a circus, the speaker is drawn to a small part of this giant creature–the eyelashes.
There are so many layers of juxtaposition in this poem that work well–small eyelashes vs. giant elephants, circus chaos vs the slow blink of elephants, etc. However, that’s not the tool Ranaldi-Adams seems to be leaning into to create this moment. Rather that focus on juxtaposition, she’s built up tension over two lines, only to burst it in L3. However, rather than making this a joke or punchline, she conjures up a world of excitement and overwhelming joy, but immediately quiets it with this soft haiku moment. Readers are put through a gamut of emotions in this piece, all thrilling and joyful, and it’s an interesting senryu to read.
Jonathan Epstein — charm and intimacy:
Before Disneyland got on every child’s dream list, there was the traveling circus. Sitting in “front row seats” in this poem, I am a child again and discover “the long eyelashes/ of circus elephants.” The poet certainly noticed the elephants’ eyes as well, and with eye contact that day may have created a lifelong bond with elephants; but it is the eyelashes that anchor in her memory and trigger the ‘haiku moment.‘ Such a singular, surprising and endearing detail as “the long eyelashes/of circus elephants” gives sweetness and heart to this verse.
Recently published in Haiku Dialogue, this poem was inspired by the prompt “blurred background.” It offers a feast for the senses — iconic circus music, hot buttered popcorn, animal parades, daredevil acts. The Greatest Show on Earth is a grand venue for a tiny poem.
We can pinpoint the moment when the activities taking place in the sawdust arena — bareback riders, trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns, tigers jumping through flaming hoops — become “blurred background.” It is when the elephants slowly pass by the “front row seats” — so close we can almost touch them. First one and then another elephant’s eye — seen in profile — catch our attention. Now the wild and colorful excitement of the big top world is hidden behind by the enormity of the elephants. In wide-eyed wonderment, all the poet can see are “the long eyelashes/ of circus elephants.”
Besides the dizzying visual background blocked by the circus elephants, another type of ‘background’ makes an appearance, this one by association. In 2016, Ringling Bros. Circus, following allegations of animal abuse, banned performing elephants. Since then, mounting evidence of cruelty in animal training practices and stressful living conditions have led to a widespread ban on performing animals in circuses. Though the image of “the long eyelashes/ of circus elephants “ holds our attention with its charm and intimacy, the dark history of circus elephants hovers in the background.
Once in India, a trained temple elephant, impressively draped in embroidered vestments, took a monetary offering from my hand, gave it to her trainer and blessed me by touching the top of my head with her trunk. Whether cruelty was involved in her training, I do not know, but the unexpected joy of our connection was a high point of my trip and remains a treasured memory. In a similar way, I see “the long eyelashes/ of circus elephants,” imagine the elephants’ gaze — their shadowed history at a distance — and touch something ineffable in the majesty of earth’s largest land animal. Such is the power of haiku that we can embrace the beauty of nature’s least celebrated detail and through it find “a world in a grain of sand.”
Author Valentina Ranaldi-Adams:
When I wrote this straightforward haiku, I never expected that it would be chosen for commentary, for the esteemed column “re:Virals”. A good haiku captures a moment. Sometimes that moment is a memory from the distant past. The experience I recounted in this poem happened exactly as I stated it. The other aspects of that long-ago circus have been forgotten except for that one learning moment. Before that occasion, I had not known that elephants had eyelashes and I will never forget that they do.
My sincere thanks to Ann Smith for selecting my haiku so that other poets can reflect on their own recollections, both good and bad, of circuses.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Jonathan 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:an epiphany discarded by the curb evergreen — Roland Packer is/let, December 30, 2020
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Valentina Ranaldi-Adams was born in the USA to parents from Arpino, Italy. After taking a B.Sc. in Mathematics, University of Akron she worked as a computer programmer for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. She has been widely published in journals, and edits and disseminates Stardust Haiku.
There’s a short interview with Valentina Ranaldi-Adams last year at Café Haiku.