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 Harrison Lightwater, was:the plum tree by the job centre is flowering — Sarah Davies LEAF issue 1, June 2023
Introducing this poem, Harrison writes:
In the time available I found it difficult to pick a haiku that I like a lot and that is interesting and maybe unusual, but this one on the list Keith offered in case of need appealed straight away for its plain elegance and detachment. The insecurity of unemployment, the hope of finding a suitable job, the compensation of beauty, and the promise represented by the plum tree, are all conveyed in a few short words that I envy.
I think this is an excellent, gentle and evocative haiku the theme of which goes way beyond the simple words. Real images juxtaposed for the reader to intuit the relationship between their essences and arrive at insight. Here, on the one hand, the job centre where free help to the unemployed, or job-seekers, is provided (there are similar American Job Centers in the USA ). Counterposed, a plum tree in bloom, doing its thing.
Gainful work occupies such an important part of most people’s prime years. We picture the queue at the job centre hoping (possibly in vain) for fulfilment, for their own blossoming. Perhaps a plum job. While they wait, or search, there it is, the plum tree, fulfilling its destiny, quietly flowering. Like the lilies of the field, the plum tree “toils not, neither does it spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-31, KJV). The plum tree in bloom offers beauty, for all, even the unemployed and perhaps the homeless, and the prospects of personal flowering and fruit.
There is optimism in these plain lines of Sarah’s. There is also a touch of human humour, tinged both with irony and with empathy. This haiku does not follow the formulaic “fragment plus phrase with a clear cut between them” which some would hold up as a haiku sine qua non. It’s a single sentence without a grammatical break, although the linefeeds produce slight, subtle pauses slowing us enough to attend to each line: a single-line monoku would be less effective, I contend. Free-standing verses of this sort, a sentence nevertheless containing an effective juxtaposition, are difficult to achieve with success and some have suggested that the best are the works of a real master.
I think that Issa*footnote would have liked this verse; and, like Harrison, I should like to have written it.
I sure do admire the author of this poem. I assume a job centre is a place to help the unemployed find work and if I had just left a job centre I would be sprinting to a pub or tavern instead of observing blossoms. I believe the sight of the plum blossoms was a special moment for the author and helped to inspire her and give her hope.
Plum blossoms, often associated with early spring, signify resilience and strength. Their ability to bloom even in the harsh conditions of late winter symbolizes hope and renewal.
Plum trees and their blossoms have been portrayed in art forms ranging from painting to poetry. Artists have sought to capture the delicate beauty of plum blossoms on canvas and poets have used the blossoms as metaphors for life’s fleeting moments.
Plum trees and their blossoms are powerful symbols of hope, resilience, and beauty across cultures. I bet the sight of the blossoms reminded the author that even the most delicate of blooms can endure the harshest conditions.
I keep rereading this poem, hoping there’s something I’ve missed. “Plum” as in the fruit, or perhaps “plum” as in “a source of advantage.” Maybe something with “job centre?” One slang variation on “flowering” has to do with getting cheated by someone or something. All of these approaches require several layers of linguistic sleight-of-hand, and don’t add up to much to me, anyway.
There’s a vague metaphoric mapping between “job centre” and “flowering”: flowering <=> successful job search; something about the fruits of labor starting with the flower. But it’s very weak, with no sense of sudden awareness. The language is simply descriptive. I like it as an image, or as part of something longer, but I’m not sure it stands alone. With no metaphoric resonance, and no inventive language, why does this qualify as a haiku, much less any kind of poem? I’m very interested to hear what others, and the author, have to say.
I love this poem by Sarah Davies. I remember reading it on The Daily Haiku when originally shared, and again in the inaugural issue of LEAF this summer. Seeing it here in reVirals, it was like coming upon a friend whom you run into unexpectedly. How lovely.
There are three elements to this short poem that I’d like to comment on – the plum tree, the job center and the flowering. Having listened to Keith’s toriawase broadcast recently, I find that I’m noticing this trio nature of haiku more and more. I love the play off each other of these three elements, and their combined synergy to add deeper meaning.
There is an unwritten, yet given, fourth element – the narrator. In this case, it seems to me that the narrator is either the one noticing these three elements, perhaps on a walk in the area, or the job-seeker themself. Hard to tell. Feels more one-step removed, though, so I’ll go with the noticer-commenter role.
First, let’s look at the plum tree. In some cultures, plum trees symbolize hope, perseverance and good luck. One Chinese myth talks of us mere mortals feeding on plums to build up our vitality and strength. I learned on Tree Spirit Wisdom just now that the spirit of plum speaks to “the value of patience and the importance of remaining calm during challenging times.” So there is a rich and vibrant back-story to the two words: plum tree.
Next in the trio is the job center. To have a symbol of hope, luck, patience, perseverance and calm during challenging times is fortuitous. Those of us who have gone through an arduous job search in our lives, waiting for news on the job search is perhaps the hardest part. Well, that and not having the funds needed for daily living whilst looking for a job … When I was in the midst of a lengthy job search years ago, I took to looking for signs. I remember finding and buying a coffee mug with the quote by Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” It felt like if I drank my morning coffee out of this mug, I was somehow sending out my intention into the world. I don’t know whether it did anything for the job search itself, but it sure lifted my spirits during the process. And I’m guessing that those coming to the job center who saw the plum tree also might have experienced this sense of lifted spirits.
Which brings us to element three: the plum tree flowering. I typically think of fruit trees coming into season and flowering in the spring and summer. Some even come to harvest in the fall, like apples in Michigan, where I grew up. But plums are known as winter flowers and in many countries in Asia, they bloom as early as December and continue through the first few months of the year, into March. This makes me think that the plum tree was a very deliberate choice by Davies. To be blooming in winter means to be facing the harshest part of the year weatherwise, and to be persistent in new birth, new life, new hope. The plum flower is also a symbol of longevity, which is a good omen for job seekers, too.
The blossoming plum tree is offered to the job seekers as they arrive at the job center in pursuit of turning that new corner in their lives. It’s as if the plum tree had a sign hanging on its branch, quoting Thoreau (echoed from my coffee mug): “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”
I confess here that I read Keith’s commentary when the first issue of Leaf was released.
My own first reading of the verse was that it’s a complete sentence and so how it could be considered a haiku? However, I got to understand the many layers this verse holds after I read the commentary in the journal, and I find the poem having many meanings.
One is the literal meaning that a plum tree which is just in front of or beside or opposite to the job centre, is flowering as it’s spring season. This also could mean that there may be many job vacancies in the centre and hence the openings are now filling up and hence the job centre too is flourishing just as the tree is flourishing. There may be young love blossoming in the office just like the buds blooming, may be young workers are reaching pinnacles in their respective work and hence going places.
The more I dwelled on it, the more insight I found. The use of the word ‘plum’ instead of any other tree, the use of the word job centre and not office or workplace, and also the usage of ‘flowering’ instead of the usual ‘plum blossoms’, each of these has made a succinct description and the difference that raises the verse to an insightful haiku.
Jonathan Epstein—shedding supernal light:
Structurally, this artful haiku is a straightforward declarative sentence with an adverb phrase modifying the subject — “The plum tree by the job centre is flowering.” A simple fact of nature is announced— spring, after a seasonal sleep, is back again.
Praise for the effective use of toriawase. Image 1 (plum tree), the protagonist, plus image 2 (job centre),the foil, plus the catalyst (flowering) combine to create a magical moment.
When I learned (L3) that the plum tree was in bloom, I wanted to figure out why this haiku had moved me. First, the mention of “the job centre” triggered a stream of doleful memories from my youth. I had to stop and re-play each in slow motion: me lining up with a dozen other sad, unemployed adults; scanning a wall of scant index cards offering low wage jobs, routine queries by a counselor to see what I’d done to find work. Leaving a dingy building feeling lost and sorry for myself. The shame of walking away with what I felt was an unearned government handout.
Once I learned the plum tree was in bloom, a clear image of it appeared — a gnarled Arthur Rackham tree covered in cotton candy-pink blooms. Seeing this image and the halo surrounding its crown brightened even the drab government job centre.
With the British spelling of “centre” (“center” in the US) this haiku likely puts us somewhere in the UK in mid-April. We are in the full flush of spring — time for a Canterbury pilgrimage — and well out of the long, often harsh winter common to countries with snow and ice. People who were weary of white landscapes, slipping on city slush, and craving the return of nature’s colors are now exulting in the coltish spirits aroused by spring. The flowering plum exudes the joy of hope and renewal at the same time it sheds supernal light on the job centre, blessing all who enter it dragging their forlorn hearts.
While the poem ticks enough boxes to declare it a skillfully crafted haiku, I value it most for its effect on me. In a mere five seconds it has elevated me to a higher plane.
Thank you, Sarah Davies, for writing this haiku. Thank you, Harrison Lightwater, for proposing it for this week’s commentary.
Author Sarah Davies:
This work came about as a way of tying in a traditional object – the plum tree – with its connotations of fruitfulness, harvest and perhaps rebirth, with a more tangential everyday hope – the chance of a new job, a new life.
Perhaps it is a tying in, perhaps more of a juxtaposition or contrast. The plum tree has flowered, but the person’s chances have not improved. It has a touch of how, when difficult times or events occur, life and especially nature continue their cycles and processes, unstoppable and sometimes pitiless. I have also tried to link in the natural, seasonal world with the man made and urban.
I tried to choose on purpose, simple and spare vocabulary, the better to evoke and conjure an image.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. Two stood out, Jennifer’s and Jonathan’s, and I had to toss a coin. As Jonathan (heads) came up, he 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:bonsai the way we shape one another —Alvin Cruz Contemporary Haibun Online Journal #19.1 August 1, 2023 (note: though this verse appears at the end of a haibun, please take it as a freestanding verse)
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Sarah Davies is a Merseyside poet living near London. She writes longer form poems and has been published in a range of magazines. She has written haiku regularly for a while and started to do this as a discipline more seriously in Facebook’s Daily Haiku group after COVID struck. She has had more than one remarkable poem selected for commentary in The Haiku Foundation’s Haiku Dialogue.
LEAF is a recent inaugural publication of The Daily Haiku, under the editorship of Ravi Kiran. It is intended to appear at six-monthly intervals, free to read online, and accepts submissions from group members: but anyone may join the group which is entirely free. With an international group membership of some 13,800, an inclusive approach with a wide range of standards and interests, and the journal’s circulation extending beyond the group, there’s a sizeable, supportive and enthusiastic readership.
*Issa: the haiku of his that Sarah’s brought to mind, although it’s not directly similar but has a related theme, is: “the daikon-picker / with a daikon / shows the way.” It’s effectively a single sentence with the cut at the end, and translated likewise. It has Issa’s typical good humour. The juxtaposition within it is gentle and implied: Matt’s metaphor mapping may not be so useful a tool in such cases. Behind the slightly humorous aspect of using a large radish to show the way, there’s also the much wider (unspoken) thought that one uses whatever comes to hand in one’s own trade and experience to “show” (also “teach”) the way in a much broader sense. A subtle piece of Issa.
Amid the contemporary welter of formulaic haiku couched in fashionable tropes, with emotion oft-times written on the front cover, I find it greatly heartening that a modern one can be found which the grandparents of haiku would immediately recognise as being in their spirit. Just as with Chloe Chan’s artful, plain, one-breath haiku last year. It is still possible to write them.