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 two poems, chosen by Peter C. Forster, were:rough sea the vanished steamer appears again —Chen Xiaoou Asahi Haikuist Network, 4 August 2023 and/or: lifted from reading— a set of waves from a boat gone by —Jonathan Moskaluk The Heron's Nest Volume XXV, Number 1: March, 2023
Introducing these poems, Peter writes: These two haiku/senryu give a subtly disconcerting feeling of mystery and missing pieces that’s hard to put into explicatory words. I like them for that. I’m curious to see how readers plumb their depths.
Two more verses that stand out by their originality from the mass of formula haiku. Each of them deftly creates a hint of yugen (which I’ll render as partly-perceived “beyondness”), mujo (impermanence, uncertainty), and mono no aware (bittersweet sensitivity to the transience of things). Each is based on observation: many a sailor will have seen how huge ocean waves can make a large vessel disappear from view in or from a trough, reappear on a crest. The sight makes you think… And boating in calm waters, the wake of a vessel, usually a power boat, spreads out in a rippling vee on which other floating objects oscillate, are jerked around. A disturbance in the Force…
It is what the poets have added or left out in their phrasing that lifts these verses. Beyond the observed illusion, the “vanished steamer” also suggests an older vessel that may be presumed sunk, but which reappears in Marie-Celeste fashion during the storm; or the hull of which is thrown up in the shallows. There is thus a spooky feeling, a hint of doom, or of death and resurrection, in this poem, delicately conveyed. It is part of a story. There is also, perhaps, the notion that old fears, which you thought had been put away, reappear at times of stress or peril.
In Jonathan Moskaluk’s poem we have an original variant on the cliché-worn theme of a poet lost in some activity who is suddenly distracted by a beauty of nature, say a red dragonfly &c., or misses or forgets something he is supposed to do because absorbed in said beauty of nature (falling into a ditch while watching fireflies &c.) — a form of haiku virtue-signalling, perhaps. But here, the poet is firmly nudged out of reading by the wake of a boat, not distracted by the beauty of a swan. Moreover, by the time he is roused from his book, the cause of the waves has “gone by.” This gives a feeling of opportunity missed, life passing by; of failing to be in the real world while absorbed in a world of bookish words.
Very delighted to go through the haiku in third person by Chen Xiaoou, ending in a positive note. The haiku begins with the mention of rough sea, leaving the rest to the conjecture of readers. Yes, high tides, tossing waves, unsteady ups and downs, panic and fear among the ship sailors, why even onlookers on the beach. Stormy waves, high commotion. In the second line, “the vanished steamer” disappears, where, how long, how far, these are questions propelled from within. Imagine for those involved, how uncertain the future. Nevertheless, just as a miracle from Above, just as a Divine saying, or prediction or even clairvoyance, the vanished steamer “appears again.” What a relief! The haiku concludes with a total positive end note; even in the most dangerous situations God’s intervention should take the upper hand; a philosophy also with a metaphor: life’s eddying currents will not always yield to pressure, time comes when one is submerged, subsided totally. One recalls the poet’s saying “ if winter comes can spring be far behind?” A positive note is essential; a happy ending.
I initially thought of my nightly reading when I first read Jonathan Moskaluk’s “lifted from reading – / a set of waves / from a boat gone by.” Enjoying a good novel, one can start surface reading or just skimming the surface of the text after a time. Realizing this, I will take a deep breath and return to the spot where I wasn’t paying close attention and read it again. Sometimes I let something slip by, but my mind wouldn’t let it go. It deserves a pause to reflect on. In this poem, the boat has sailed by, but the subconscious has noticed an idea or detail or color or texture that deserves closer inspection. Though I’ve used a novel to illustrate my point, it could be a painting or sculpture, opera or…a fine haiku just waiting to be noticed.
Rough sea tugged me in a different direction. Though I could extend the metaphor along similar lines, it made me think more about rough times in a person’s life. Trauma from before making another appearance when a person experiences some rough times. Another fine haiku deserving notice.
In “rough sea/the vanished steamer/appears again” the scene is perilous, no two words about it. But there are two picture frames the poet Chen Xiaoo highlights within. A disappearance and then a return into view of a ghost of the seas. The key element here is the “steamer” that disturbs the poet twice over. The rough sea, seen through a poet’s eye is disturbing their unhurried stream of thoughts and that mind yearns anxiously for a “cessation of hostilities” at once. Too much of optimism however doesn’t bring solace to impatience, though, and the poet keeps watch over the horizon when suddenly the scene changes. Enter the steamer, its hazy outline barely helps to make it out, but from the long lost times of the past it comes back into clear view for a brief moment and that’s when the poet is aware of the sighting of the ghost of the seas! Steamers reigned and ruled over the seas and oceans before the Titanic started their debacle like the Hindenburg signalled the ending of the hot gas airship supremacy of the air, two events that changed the path of progress of mobility of mankind. To the better, sadly yet happily one may say, the contradiction notwithstanding. Aptly then Xiaoo has come out with a fascinating piece of short versification that could take us into the past in an instantaneous slip of imagination set against an ever changing world still governed by the elements which never care. Read any certificate of insurance and we’ll inevitably find a clause which says “this guarantee does not cover (among other things) Acts of God.”
The second verse is equally fascinating: “lifted from reading—/a set of waves/from a boat gone by.” Evidently, poet Jonathan Moskaluk is enjoying a level sea of blue waters under blue skies: a holiday mood prevails. What he’s reading is rather absorbing too. Alas the peaceful tranquil sea front is somewhat nibbled by the criss-cross activity of the speed boaters. An expensive hobby, they add life along the coastline. But a brief moment of privacy is not bought for money, and that’s what J. Moskaluk is likely writing about.
In this haiku too, the poet catches a glimpse from the past, though not in the same wide scale. They see a “set of waves, from a boat gone by” and in here the term “gone by” takes us through that narrow window into the recent past that is partly still lying in the present.
That’s where more or less effectively these two haiku intercept.
Paired, these poems —one set in a stormy sea, the other on a calm lake — are foils for each other. Both the fear of a watery death and relief from a last-minute reprieve are intensified by proximity to an image of safety and repose — an engaged reader on a boat in still waters.
I see myself in that person “lifted from reading” by ”a set of waves/ from a boat gone by.” The words of a gripping book draw me in. I lose myself in another world…until my small craft rises from the wake of a passing boat and I recall the world around me. The feeling is meditative, edenic, but I cannot cling to my newfound peace; the universe sends “a set of waves” — a disturbance, a desire for what is not, a challenge to my tranquility.
The waves of a “rough sea” often arrive super-sized and without warning. Any small thing can send us into a panic. Incoming mail from the mobile phone vanishes and doesn’t reappear, a letter in techno-speak submerges us, a baleful look from the neighbor sinks our heart.
Or front-page news tosses us overboard and we see that it is humanity huddled on the imperiled steamship. We struggle with our feelings. Overwhelm happens. The freshwater poem reminds us we can settle the turbulence of our inland sea, and if we don’t learn to ride the waves, they may engulf us.
Amoolya Kamalnath —metaphors in the sea and boats:
Such subtle similarities and differences in the two ku. Both are in simple language and talk about the sea and boats but in different ways. Both have metaphoric implications and make use of unobtrusive devices: alliteration in the first, and the repeated “from” in the second.
In “rough sea,” the presence of the poet is implied. The steamer which could not be seen, is back in sight after the storm or after a huge wave passed. It has survived. Metaphorically speaking, a person who was probably depressed due to life’s problems and not active in social circles reappeared onto the scene after things got better. Tough times don’t last but tough people do. The opportunity reappears, in whatever way may be, after the difficult period is over. If one is still waiting, the steamer can be seen again and a new opportunity can once again be utilised.
In “lifted from reading,” though in an indirect way, the poet is mentioned. However, the poet’s ego is left out. After the boat left, the person happens to look there. Opportunity just went by. Sometimes one wakes up only after some noise is made and it’s too late.
One is taken out from their focus, to see that something has gone by them while they are busy with something else.
If all these commentaries were combined and condensed, the result would be wizard. Succinctness was urged this week and as the contributor of the commentary reckoned best all round, Amoolya 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:lying face-down in frozen-slushy-muck an old love poem —Connie Pittman-Ramsey LEAF, Issue 1, June 2023
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In the Zhuangzhi Outer Chapters, written a few hundred years BCE, we find: “What the world thinks the most valuable exhibition of the Dao is to be found in books. But books are only a collection of words. Words have what is valuable in them – what is valuable in words is the ideas they convey. But those ideas are a consequence of something else – and what that something else is cannot be conveyed by words.” Similar ideas permeate Zen. In the last century Zen poet Takahashi Shinchiki grappled with the uselessness of words “created arbitrarily in our brains” even while he himself was a short-form poet. He concluded that words could do no more than approximate to the truth, at best. One of his verses ends with the statement “All words are imperfect: they are footnotes.”
And so, there may be more in being nudged from a book into the external world by the waves of a passing boat, the realm of the mind surpassing both; perhaps more even than the poet consciously intended. Seek what the ancients sought…
Prof. David McMurray, commenting on the communication from Chen Xiaoou in the Asahi Haikuist where the poem was published, wrote: “the haikuist momentarily lost sight of a ship. … The haiku then wrote itself.” Chen’s bio and some poems may be read here and here.