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 Joshua St. Clair, was:distant horizon a dragon cloud watches over the mountains —Adjei Agyei-Baah haikuNetra 1.4, December 2023
Introducing this poem, Joshua writes:
The powerful imagery of this haiku made a strong impression on me when I first read it back in December. Since the author’s recent passing, I have revisited it several times. I am interested in how Agyei-Baah breaks the “rules” of haiku to make this poem a success. First, the cloud is presented as a dragon through metaphor. Second, the cloud “watches.” This is personification — an action only a person or animal, and not a cloud, can take. Finally, the use of the word, dragon, introduces an element of the fantastic that is typically absent unless writing in the speculative genre (and my reading of this poem is as a nature and not a speculative haiku). Metaphor, personification, and the fantastic (outside of speculative haiku) are generally verboten, but Agyei-Baah uses them so deftly here.
There’s a blur between animism, personification, and the related anthropomorphism in haiku which some giants of the English language genre deplore; but which collectively form too big a subject to address here. It suffices that there is a strong tradition of animism in haiku via Shinto beliefs, cf. for example David Grayson’s Notes on the Shinto Tradition and Haiku (2012). Animism is also a feature of African beliefs (Adjei Agyei-Baah being Ghanaian). You find it, and personification, in Bashō’s early works too.
On the meteorology: clouds frequently hang around mountains as a moist prevailing wind is forced up into higher, cooler air. People love to find shapes in clouds, and there are many photographs of dragon-like clouds if you google for images of ‘dragon cloud.’
On the associations: mountains represent to some the prospect of exalted peaks (of any kind), ascended with difficulty. The horizon, the limit of the world that can be seen. The mythical dragon (if one ignores iguanas and komodo dragons and the like) has a history as mixed as the animal components from which it is drawn. Commonly it represents power; imperial or military power in the far East (and in Wales); and prosperity, whether as the prosperity that comes with power, or as the gold hoarded by the dragon Fáfnir of the Norse and Teutonic myths, latterly reembodied by Wagner in The Ring cycle and as Smaug in Tolkien. In the anglophone world, dragons more often represent ominous evil and oppression to be overcome (although animated movies have lately reformed some of them into cute and cuddly with a social conscience). Either way, the feeling that there is a dragon watching over the distant mountains is not likely to make their conquest seem easier.
Make of that what you will.
When I first read the haiku I found it pleasant enough. I confess it did not move me. However, with the death of the lovable poet in the same month in which it was published, it has now become memorable to me. Quite possibly it may turn out to be Adjei Agyei-Baah’s jisei; the dark cloud that awaits a last breathless climb.
Amin Jack Pędziwiater:
In my first impression, I immediately noticed some inconsistency. How can a cloud watch anything? A cloud may look like something. The second line causes me real inconvenience in viewing and contemplating the full picture. So as such, I could see for improvement that the verb “watches” at the end of the second line does not work, just only spoils the impression due to incompatibility with the rule of the genre haiku that the image is real and does not contain verbal metaphors. If I see the verb “watch” at the beginning of the second verse as “watching” (“watching a dragon cloud”), then the whole works as a haiku, incidentally very beautiful and clear.
The first line, “distant horizon” depicts a skyline vista which is far away for perspective. Anything far away is indistinct or blurred. The poet leaves room for readers to weave and move further. In the second line, “a dragon cloud watches…..” Does a dragon watch over cloud etc. No; the dragon cloud is a huge dark cloud over the sky, a symbol of obstruction. Converting this dark cloud as a poetic metaphor or symbol: this a major obstacle for someone’s prosperity or growth, as “over the mountains” suggests man’s journey which encounters gloom and difficulty.
Yet another interpretation of this symbolic wording could be jealousy “the green eyed monster;” the dark cloud…a bad mood or thought ruining a vast perspective.
I love that this week’s haiku is by Adjei Agyei-Baah. It’s as if his poem is a final goodbye, spoken in poetic voice, after his leave taking. Makes me wonder if that is the role of all of our poems. To speak to others without us being present in our current form. Even if we are still “here.”
The poem is such a dramatic image with the combined elements of horizon, dragon cloud and mountains. It crystallizes in my mind’s eye, even as I read the words on the page. The words themselves and the sounds within the words are lilting and soft. Just like the images.
I see my mom, gone three years this month, in every gingko leaf that flutters. Now, when I see a dragon cloud, I will see Adjei on the horizon.
Just can’t still believe that Adjei Agyei Baah is no more. We have lost a shining star of the haiku world. His poems will stay with us fresh like the glowing sun and silent moon. Rest in peace Friend! In “distant horizon / a dragon cloud watches / over the mountains” I wonder whether he knew that 2024 is the Year of the Dragon when he wrote this poem. And I’m sure he must have had an intuition deep inside to share his expressions. So strange in saying that “is he that dragon cloud watching over the mountains?”
I have always been fascinated by these cloud characters that define so much of our lives of past, present and future. One such is the ‘distant horizon ‘ of which we often speak about, the futuristic element and the outcome of our actions. Somewhere Adjei had this fear of nature and environment being the target of global warming, of the shifts of weather and atmospheric conditions. And I have a strong feeling that his only hope was the force above, the sun, the stars, the moon and the passing clouds. And when everything is lost, we rely on these forces to guard and guide us through. One such is the “dragon” that silently watches protecting from all evil. The perspective of the poem is to take us beyond the horizon where such a character of the dragon exists. Adjei outclassed every level of understanding the farsighted vision of his absence in the near future. He is there in everyone of us.
Nairithi Konduru (aged 9 years):
This is a very interesting haiku with a wonderful fantasy theme. It describes the moment when all is calm and the villain is plotting something bad in a movie. Or it could mean that in a fantasy story there is a dragon on a mountain and watching us all? It could even mean that there is a giant cloud above a mountain…
Mountain ranges beyond the ocean… Seeing dragon-shaped clouds over those mountain ranges…. May be the voice of the inner child of the poet or his child’s observation… Whatever it is, it paints a mystical picture.
Metaphorically, a few images may be perceived. The Creator keeping an eye on His/Her creation… A mythical dragon watching over a part of the territory… In today’s modern age, a parent observing or tracing his/her child through the various Apps on their phone…
Lastly, with much sadness, Adjei, the poet, watching over the haiku world from above or wherever he is. Just like, our ancestors watching over us from above or wherever they are.
Sometimes humans see the clouds taking different shapes and forms. It is said that the images one sees can portray what’s in the person’s subconscious. Dragons are said to be the ultimate power symbol and may be said to be indicative of success.
Slifer the Sky Dragon, known as Sky Dragon of Osiris in the Japanese version is a character version of the card “Slifer the Sky Dragon”. Slifer appears in the manga and anime, as one of the most powerful monster spirits, the Egyptian Gods.
“Dragon cloud,” is a region of active star formation about 20,000 light-years away from the earth. The Dragon cloud is what’s known as a massive infrared dark cloud. Within the Dragon cloud, several sites of ongoing star formation and two quiet cold cores at the end of a long chain of newly forming stars in the center of the complex appearing as solitary lumps, disconnected from their environments, have been found. (https://www.space.com/dragon-cloud-clues-giant-stars-birth)
NASA has called the smoke plumes (‘pyrocumulonimbus plume’) produced by raging fires as the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds”. They are akin to fire-triggered thunderstorms, and they are of deep concern to firefighters. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/05/pyrocumulonimbus-clouds-wildfire-mckinney-fire)
The day after New Year’s, I sit on a bench overlooking a meadow at the top of the hill where I live. It’s a sunny day after an evening rain; perfect conditions for a parade of cumulus clouds on the “distant horizon.” In the lead, I spot “a dragon cloud.” As I watch the clouds slowly cross the sky, the wind picks up and quickly transforms the dragon into a pig. My perception of the cloud as dragon is a Rorschach response; I don’t see it as a portent, though I am aware the Chinese New Year (February 10) will soon replace the outgoing rabbit with the dragon.
Unlike the pig (or boar) and ten other zodiac animals, the dragon is the only mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac system and in its most positive capacity symbolizes spiritual power and auspiciousness. This haiku reminds us that a new year is around the corner and with it hope for positive change in the world, as seen in “a dragon cloud” that keeps an eye out (“watches”) for external threats as well as protects (“watches/ over”) its territory and people. With the dragon cloud on the “distant horizon,” the tone is non-threatening. All fresh energy for change is held in check until the new year arrives and dragon energies can be released.
The shape-shifting of all forms is constant and eternal. Stay tuned for what the dragon year brings.
This is one of those haiku that is a simple but effective piece of imagery. Upon first reading, I immediately jumped to that famous summer activity of finding different pictures in the clouds – pictures that are often more imagination than reality. This poem brought to mind someone stopping to admire a mountain view and seeing the rough shape of a dragon peeking out from behind. A very lighthearted and playful haiku, emphasized by the fact that dragons are fantasy creatures from myth and legend.
However, when I read it again, its tone shifted. I could see this haiku as being far more ominous and overbearing than before – perhaps the “dragon cloud” watching the writer is a thunderstorm heading that way, overshadowing even the mountains. After all, mythological dragons are often not the friendliest beings – powerful and strong and ruthless. The combination of this dragon being both the “distant horizon” and watching “over the mountains” took on a darker meaning rather than that of a fond childhood memory.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Chloe 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:carousel pony straining against the spinning world — John S. O'Connor Golden Triangle Haiku Contest 2023, selected.
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We salute the late Adjei Agyei-Baah whose short biography appears in Haikupedia. There are several of his poems here in the Living Haiku Anthology, of which my favourite is the spare, plain and evocative:
as I canoe by
(David Mcmurray, Favorite Haiku, 4th Japan-Russia Haiku Contest, October 18, 2015, Akita International Haiku Network.)
There’s considerable intelligent and informative discussion of personification, anthropomorphism etc in this THF Forum thread.
There are no “rules.” Reasoned and helpful guidelines, yes. Tastes, certainly. But every “rule” has been broken by one master or another.
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