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, chosen by Maurice Nevile, was:
broken Wedgwood the bowerbird collects another piece — Gavin Austin Echidna Tracks #7, Light and Colour, June-September 2021
Introducing this poem, Maurice writes:
In its focus on an object, and its fate, this haiku touches on creativity, value, purpose, loss and new life. In the opening line we are prompted to think of human creativity and artistic craft, a Wedgwood item, a piece of British fine china/porcelain, perhaps it is a cup, a bowl, a plate, or even a delicate figurine, that is now broken, and so has lost value, or is even unusable. Wedgwood originated in the 18th century, and people are known to collect Wedgwood pieces – but this haiku speaks of different ‘collecting’ and different ‘pieces’. Lines two and three shift to a male bowerbird and his elaborate task to find and collect interesting and brightly colored things to build an impressive structure, a bower, to attract a mate. Males even steal items from the bowers of nearby rivals. So, the Wedgwood collected here, ‘another piece’, is really just a fragment, but still is highly valued for its new purpose. In the bower this ‘piece’ is now displayed not on a shelf but alongside sticks, stones, shells, feathers, bits of plastic, and anything else that can appeal to female bowerbirds by demonstrating his efforts, ingenuity and originality. Maybe this piece is shiny or has just the shape or colors his future mate might prefer. Nature can make use of what we discard or destroy, and in one way or another everything returns to nature. As an Australian, and given that Australia is an ex-colony of Britain, I wonder too if there’s a hint of symbolism there, at least it’s fun to think so, that what came from Britain crumbles in new changed and harsh conditions, but nevertheless is locally re-shaped, re-purposed, and re-valued.
The lengths males go to attract females..! Or vice-versa. Schooled in the natural sciences, I have a certain detachment when contemplating mating behaviour, and relating our own to that of other animals. Of course, we find the male bowerbird adorable with his collection of little objets-d’art, and his dancing: of course the female falls for him. Similarly with the Japanese puffer fish that makes delicate rings in a sandy depression to seduce a lady. It is easy to extrapolate to the many and various ways in which human sexes set out their stalls, some of them equally bizarre.
The haiku, with its bits of “broken Wedgwood,” suggested to me how some of these outward displays are less useful in life than other qualities the male has; yet the male has developed them because the female responds to them. Equally in our own species, displays of various kinds have evolved mutually (in both principal sexes) geared to success or failure in selective mating and breeding.
Gavin Austin has created a wonderful haiku by observing another lesson from nature.
The bowerbird may be the ultimate practitioner of wabi-sabi which sees beauty and value in simplicity and the incomplete. While humans require the “golden rejoining” of kintsugi, the bowerbird is more than satisfied with fragments sans repair. The Australian bowerbird has absolutely no need for expensive Wedgwood due to the dishware’s size. But break it down to a manageable size and it takes on great value to the bird. The male decorates his avenue of upright sticks to attract a mate. The beauty of Wedgwood which humans so admire means nothing to the bowerbird until it is broken.
Humans value Wedgwood by locking it in a tea cabinet. The bowerbird sets it out surrounding its prospective bower. He’s not afraid to use it.
In L1, the b-k sounds in “broken” give a sharp edge to “Wedgwood” pieces. Then the simplicity of the who (bowerbird), doing what (collecting), and finishing with “another piece”. The “another” is important in that it’s not just a piece, but a continuing process for the bird.
There’s much to learn from the bowerbird.
Many thanks to Maurice for selecting this poem about the fascinating bowerbird. I bet the broken Wedgwood pieces were colored blue because blue seems to a vital part of the bowerbird’s love life. The male bird decorates his residence exclusively with blue objects; the blue tail-feathers of parakeets, blue flowers and berries and blue souvenirs from people such as blue plastic caps and blue candy wrappers. These he arranges on a platform in the front, where he performs his ecstatic courtship dance whenever a female enters the bower to consider him as a mate.
Perhaps the bowerbird senses that no color is more precious or seductive than blue. Its courtship ritual is so decorative and labor-intensive because the stakes of mating are so high. Most bowerbird pairings are monogamous, produce very few eggs of enormous size relative to the bird, and the males take an active part in rearing the chicks.
The breeding period for bowerbirds is spring to early summer. The male bowerbird’s behaviour in decorating its open-ended nest with coloured objects is well-known to anyone who watches wildlife series on television. So, to find additional meaning that may have been intended by the poet I concentrated on the selection of “broken Wedgwood” and “collects.” Wedgwood is a prompt for things that attract people. A bowerbird would not be interested in the manufacturer. Collecting things is a habit of many people (which Freudians associate with anal retentiveness IIRC). Accumulating valuable things is seen by some people as a signal of success. Wealth attracts some kinds of women. In Gavin Austin’s poem the broken Wedgwood is no longer of value to humans, but remains of value to the male bowerbird, which possibly has learned that females are attracted by the colour blue.
Apart from this comparison of behaviour I was unable to find deeper meaning in the haiku. I look forward to interpretations drawn by readers who have more imagination!
This poem has a calming sense of circularity, subtly spiritual going from a broken piece of Wedgewood (which obviously is broken and of no direct use) into building a home for the birds. “Another piece” on the third line makes a passing statement as this is just a part of an ongoing process like this world. The birds, the free flyers, carry on with this diligence piece by piece patiently throwing a clue at the reader that nothing in this world is useless, and at the same time the contrast between the fragility of Wedgewood and the construction of a new abode.
The first word ‘broken’ entices the reader who looks forward to what would come about. Wedgwood would take us elsewhere when suddenly the picture of the bowerbird is cast. The alliteration and the lyrical quality of the verse are noticeable while the hard sounds of ‘b’ and ‘d’ in L1 and hard ‘c’ sound that repeats in ‘collects’ in L2, enhances an evocative feeling in the reader.
Wedgwood is a manufacturer of English fine china, porcelain and luxury accessories. The company was one of the largest manufacturers of Staffordshire pottery. It was successfully producing fine earthenware and stoneware that were accepted as equivalent in quality to porcelain (which Wedgwood only made later) but were considerably cheaper. Wedgwood is especially associated with the “dry-bodied” (unglazed) stoneware Jasperware in contrasting colours, and in particular that in “Wedgwood blue” and white, the most popular colours, though there are several others.
Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchidae) are renowned for their unique courtship behaviour. The males build a bower to attract mates. In and around the bower, the male places a variety of brightly colored objects he has collected. These objects — usually different among each species — may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass. The males spend hours arranging this collection.
The phrase could be taken literally as a bowerbird collecting another piece for its nest or metaphorically as a human being picking up broken pieces of earthenware at home (due to the many reasons it could happen) while also picking up broken pieces of their heart (for a variety of reasons) and collecting the small pieces in grief and for safekeeping in whosever memory.
Could it also be the company Wedgwood itself collecting another piece of it’s own self? After World War II, the business began to contract. Hence, after buying a number of other Staffordshire ceramics companies, in 1987 Wedgwood merged with Waterford Crystal to create Waterford Wedgwood plc, an Ireland-based luxury brands group, in this way, picking up its own pieces!
Jonathan Epstein—our intimate kinship with all beings:
Bowerbirds (20 species in Australia, New Guinea) are the superstars of avian courtship. First, the male gathers thin sticks which he firmly fixes into the ground, creating a cozy over-arching arbor (bower) for a potential mate. It will serve as a love nest, not the actual nest the female will build elsewhere later for her eggs. After the bower, the male creates courtyards fore and aft of the bower and fills them with a careful scattering of selected items (depending on species), among which, flowers, berries, shells, plastics, bottle caps, leaves, dead beetles, shiny objects. He sings inside the bower to attract a mate, and when a curious female comes by, performs a mesmerizing wing-dance — she looking out from inside the bower, he “on stage” in front of her —accompanied by a medley of the male’s throaty vocalizations. In the bird world, he is an installation artist and vaudevillian par excellence.
Each species of bowerbird has a slightly different approach to bower-architecture, courtyard art and courtship display. Whether Gavin Austin has seen a bowerbird pick up a piece of china, let alone Wedgwood, is moot, but the poem is anchored —artfully so — by the word Wedgwood and its attendant associations. The poet could have opted for “broken china,” but that lacks poetry. The evocative phrase “broken Wedgwood,” however, impresses with the cachet of the Wedgwood name, which exudes an aura of social status and refined elegance, associations that increase the wow-factor of the bowerbird’s impressive courtship skills.
“[B]roken Wedgwood “ also conveys the idea that what was once precious to humans — Wedgwood china — is now worthless to them (broken). Values are relative, and in lines 2-3 , we understand the value lost to humans in “broken Wedgwood” is now redeemed by the bowerbird, who values the porcelain as a love offering, “another piece” of crockery to attract a mate. With line 2 we might smile at the inference that “broken Wedgwood/ the bowerbird collects” points to the bird as a collector of fine china, but in line 3 we see that “collects” shows the bowerbird is merely picking up “another piece” of pottery to dazzle his hoped for mate. This choice of “found art” reflects the bowerbird’s discerning intelligence and points to a sense of vision and careful planning, additional attributes of intelligence and creativity. This avian artiste is no Wedgwood connoisseur, but he has a practiced eye for what will please a mate. His species has honed their courtship skills over millennia of natural selection, thanks to discriminating bowerbird females, who select their more gifted or seductive suitors.
We first learn about natural selection when Charles Darwin (“On the Origin of Species,” 1859) documents how nature favors those animals most fit to survive and propagate. In this case, natural selection leans towards bowerbirds with superior creativity in bower construction, decorating courtyards, and wooing females with (in human values) a wild and wacky song and dance.
There is an allusion to natural selection in “Wedgwood” that comes through genealogy. Darwin was the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood, 18th century founder of the chinaware company. The connection is strengthened by Darwin’s wife and first-cousin, Emma, the daughter of Wedgwood‘s son, Josiah II.
It is no stretch to see ourselves mirrored in bowerbird courtship behavior. We too gather objects of perceived value to attract a mate. We too offer things of beauty — words, flowers, gifts, candlelight dinners — in the pursuit of love, and while we may see ourselves in control of our courtship practices, we are more conditioned in our values and actions — by family, culture, and social class —than we admit, and closer to instinctual animal behavior than we own up to. Haiku and senryu consistently remind us of our intimate kinship with all beings.
Author Gavin Austin:
Firstly, a big thank you to Maurice for selecting my haiku for commentary in re:Virals. And thank you, too, to the poets for taking the time to share their thoughts here.
This haiku came about after a trip a few years ago to the Barrington Tops National Park, a World Heritage-listed wilderness area located in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, Australia. It is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including the bowerbird.
The Satin Bowerbird is the best known of all the bowerbirds in Australia, and may be encountered in the east and south-east of the country. This bird gets its name from the male’s practice of building and decorating a bower to attract females. The bower consists of two parallel walls of sticks, built on the ground, and used as a courtship arena. The male decorates it with bright, blue-coloured objects collected during the breeding season. Males often steal from other bowers for the best and brightest items to lure the female.
Coming across a bower on my trip, with its litter of bottle tops, bright feathers, and pieces of broken crockery, gave me the notion to write this haiku. Humans collect various things too; Wedgwood porcelain is among them. The irony occurred to me that the broken pieces of fine china, discarded by a human, should be the highly prized treasure for the male bowerbird. And, in its way, contributes to the continuation of the species.
‘the bowerbird collects / another piece:’ is the bird raiding the rubbish or another male’s bower? I shall leave that with you…
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.
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Poem for commentary:dawn walk my daily shiver at the dip in the road —Cynthia Anderson Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, May 17, 2023
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Gavin Austin, lives in Sydney, Australia. Gavin writes short fiction, short plays, poetry, haibun and haiku. His work has appeared in many Australian and international publications.
Josiah Wedgwood (the spelling in the haiku duly corrected), the doyen of English potters, was Charles Darwin’s grandfather, and a noted abolitionist of slavery.
The name of the poetic naturalist inspired to give the bird its popular name “bowerbird” deserves to be known, but it appears to be lost to history…