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:an epiphany discarded by the curb evergreen — Roland Packer is/let, December 30, 2020
Introducing this poem, Jonathan writes:
When I first read this haiku it grabbed my attention and held it — though ironically, I didn’t understand it at all then. Returning to it later, I recognized its message in an ‘aha’ moment and was startled to realize I had attempted a number of senryu all on the same topic several years back, but mine lacked all subtlety. I find the discordant contrasts in this haiku perfectly suit the poet’s intentions, as I imagine them to be.
(Jonathan subsequently sent a full commentary, below)
Requiring less decoding than many, more disjunctive, lines that appeared in is/let, this verse draws on symbol and ritual for its depth. It raises ironic questions about the nature of faith, its adherents and practices. Is ritual understood, or just performed unthinkingly because it’s the thing to do? Is a religion, here Christianity, deeply and permanently rooted or just borrowed for a jolly holiday period of festive excess; is it dying out along the road? The poem’s broader travel is perhaps limited to those versed in Christmas traditions.
The mish-mash of customs with which nominal Christians celebrate Christmas, a date fixed by the Roman Church to appropriate older, popular midwinter celebrations in the pagan northern hemisphere, include the Christmas tree (now more associated with presents) and the evergreen wreath. Both derive from earlier rites. An evergreen bough brought into the pagan household symbolised endurance of life through winter to spring, as the turning of the year was celebrated with a feast from the barn and the barrel, and an animal sacrifice made for fresh meat during the twelve days of Yule. Meanwhile in Rome there was partying and song during the week of Saturnalia around the winter solstice, the date of which in the Julian calendar was 25 December.
The Epiphany, marking the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles on the twelfth day of Christmas, has come to be the customary day on which Christmas decorations are taken down. Possibly with a certain relief. The angel returns to the attic.
Both “epiphany” and “evergreen” have acquired more general metaphorical meanings, respectively of sudden revelation and insight (roughly equivalent to satori), and of enduring freshness or life. It is these that add tart irony to the verse as the evergreen Christmas tree is chucked out for roadside pickup and disposal, and people forget about Christmas until the shopping ads start mentioning the word around August.
All those millions of young evergreen trees cut down for sale and disposal, or, with a few remaining truncated roots, potted up with little chance of surviving. What does that say about us and our traditions now in a more rational and crowded world? Do you compete in size of tree with your neighbour? Are your festoons of Christmas lights visible from Alpha Centauri? Are you sure that rites and customs, their origins and reasons, are being properly observed? To what end?
The Christmas story is ever appealing, but its humility has been corrupted. Between epiphanies our little spruce tree lives in the garden, in the container it is grown in. I cannot promise it everlasting life, but when it gets too big, it will be planted.
Such a meaningful poem. To me, “epiphany” references an “aha” moment and also alludes to Epiphany, the liturgical celebration of when the magi visited Christ in the stable. I like that a haiku references an epiphany because the third-line “aha” is what hooks me most in a haiku.
“Discarded by the curb / evergreen” makes me think of a Christmas tree that’s put out for recycling or trash. Or maybe an advent wreath or evergreen bough. Anything evergreen and Christmasy would work here.
What I wonder is – what is the actual epiphany in this poem? It’s a bit nebulous to me. There are so many different ways to read it. I keep going back to it to wonder anew. Probably the intent, after all.
This poem also made me think of a funny memory. There has been some speculation that there might have been more than three kings who visited Jesus on Epiphany. There was even a sermon on that topic at church one Sunday at my church. So my son, who was a teenager at the time, sang new words to the hymn that day that got us all laughing: “We three-or-more kings of Orient are….”
Thanks Roland for making me think, for making me feel, for making me wonder and for making me laugh (at the memory of that reworded hymn).
On a literal level, epiphany is a Christian church festival associated with the birth of Christ. It is the 12th day of Christmas, when the Magi, three wise men, followed a star to find Jesus. It is supposedly bad luck to discard a Christmas tree until after this celebration, yet this poem seems to suggest someone finally throwing out their Christmas tree by the curb. In my own home growing up, we took this to extremes, not through an extra amount of religious feeling but just because none of us particularly wanted to take on the job of dismantling the tree of its lights, ornaments, and tinsel. So there was never any danger the tree would come down any time remotely before epiphany!
As with many haiku, epiphany could also be construed as another meaning of epiphany, when a sudden thought provides new insight or perspective. It can be seen as an aha moment, an important part of haiku. To me this is also a play on the whole concept of haiku, where there is a literal aha to start the poem. I enjoyed the clever double meaning, having fun with the essence of haiku.
The fashion for ignoring capital letters in English haiku may mean that the significance of Epiphany is lost on the majority of non-Christian readers. Without that, they may be perplexed by these lines. An “epiphany” in the meaning of a flash of understanding, “discarded by the curb,” yet “evergreen,” conveys at face value some or any revealed truth that remains valid despite being dumped by, perhaps, the materialistic or unintelligent. With the capital E, Christian beliefs and social customs are brought into play and we have what would have been an evergreen Christmas tree, turning brown on being discarded after the seasonal festivities.
As the song has it:
“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
We learn from all your beauty.
Your bright green leaves with festive cheer,
Give hope and strength throughout the year.”
Junked! What more needs to be said?
The verse starts in the present in L1, mentions the past in L2 and the present and past go on to meet the present and future in L3.
The meaning of epiphany is a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation. This has probably occurred for the poet for that singular moment, I presume, in the midst of his busy life, may be as he was on a morning or evening walk. A curb/kerb (American vs. British English) is a raised path or a stone edging to a pavement, so the poet may be talking about a beautiful flower which is now discarded by the user after utilising it or it may have been a flower, having bloomed to it’s full glory, now fallen from the plant near the curb/kerb. A moment of realisation or a fully open and aware mind (consciousness) or a even a full-bloomed flower, removed/taken away from the mind after that one moment in time, has driven the poet back into the real world. However, the moment is frozen as an evergreen moment and he can go back to it at any time to savour it again and again.
This can occur in day to day life with the most pleasant of sights, smells, hearing, taste and feel. It could also occur as a part of a spiritual journey one undertakes in their life. Sometimes, this epiphany occurs which then takes one on a spiritual path. However, though it is a single unit of time in which it occurs, it is timeless, eternal. It may have been discarded physically but it is not separated, it is in union with oneself mentally and spiritually.
This poem captures time in a time capsule – the past, present and future.
On neighborhood walks the last week of each year, I come across quite a few Christmas trees “discarded by the curb.” It’s always a shock to see these holiday joy-bringers scattered near the gutter waiting for the garbage truck.
The epiphany of L1 refers to the object “discarded by the curb,” which turns out to be (L3)an “evergreen.” Once we realize this evergreen was once a Christmas tree, the riddle of this haiku is solved. L3 shows us some kind of fir tree (balsam, spruce, Douglas), likely farm-raised and sustainable with each year’s new crop of trees; still, it is disturbing to discover it “discarded by the curb.” A precipitous rise and fall for the tree, from the sacred to the profane.
While “discard” may be understood as a neutral action, as in discarding or disposing of a card in a poker hand, carting the tree outside and leaving it on the street — left on its side as I see so often —shows a callous disregard for the tree, a lack of gratitude for the gifts it has given.
Even without mention of the word Christmas, countless images and associations arise from the “evergreen,” for people of all faiths as well as Christians. My first memories of Christmas come from a Christmas Eve family tradition. At nightfall we (parents, six children) squeezed into the family car and cruised slowly around the block to ooh and aah at our neighbors’ brightly-lit trees displayed in their living room windows. What envy we had for the children in those homes. Our religion forbade such things in our own home.
This haiku conveys a profound sense of “mono no aware,” the bittersweet feeling that all life is impermanent. Here the sight of a denuded Christmas tree on the street heightens awareness of its brief days of glory. This reversal of the more traditional “mono no aware” effect evoked by images of nature in the fullness of life and beauty — full moon, cherry blossoms — highlights the fragility of life and, for most creatures, its brevity. The spotlight is on the tree’s stark end of life. It’s winter, when the appearance of death in nature belies its return to life in spring. This effect would lack drama had focus been on the image of a fully-lit Christmas tree. Yet this haiku is not about death after all, but the cycle of life, signaled in the word “evergreen,” for the ancients a symbol for the eternal.
Dan Campbell – the nature of epiphanies:
Roland’s poem inspires the reader to consider the nature of epiphanies. The line “discarded by the curb” invites reflection on the fleeting nature of profound moments of revelation. The final line, “evergreen,” suggests that while the epiphany may have been discarded or forgotten, its significance endures. After reading the poem, I tried to think of what epiphanies could arise from seeing a defrocked Christmas tree tossed to the curb and came up with these:
The Epiphany of Materialism: Observing the tree thrown away so quickly after the holiday season makes me realize how consumerism and materialism have overshadowed the true spirit of the festivities.
The Epiphany of Impermanence: The sight of the discarded tree teaches me about the impermanence of all things. This realization encourages me to cherish the moments and people in my life more deeply.
The Epiphany of Creativity: Instead of seeing the tree as waste, I consider the various ways the tree could be repurposed or recycled into new, useful items or turned into mulch to nourish other plants.
The Epiphany of Appreciation: The sight of the tossed tree makes me realize how easily we take things for granted and encourages me to cultivate a greater appreciation for the beauty and value of nature in all its forms.
The Epiphany of Gratitude: The sight makes me aware of the effort and time that it takes for nature to grow such magnificent trees, urging me to be more mindful of my ecological footprint
Author Roland Packer:
The image in the haiku comes from discarded Christmas trees lying at curbside as early as the next day after the 25th (Boxing Day) in my neighbourhood, perhaps a symptom of commercial pop culture. In the traditional 12 days of Christmas and the liturgical year of the Christian church, they would be on display until Twelfth Night, January 6th – Epiphany (the arrival of the Magi). Contrast this with the more generalized (secular) meaning of epiphany as “a sudden revelation”, and the pagan “always green” of the pine trees and boughs, and the tone is set for the reader to reverberate with meaning.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. For his original and thoughtful commentary this week, Dan 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:shaving above the ear to fly better — Barbara Anna Gaiardoni Bones: Journal for the short verse, April 2023
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