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re:Virals 445

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 Dan Campbell, was:

     empty bird’s nest the span of a pianist’s hand
     — Richard Tindall
       The Heron's Nest Volume XXIV, Number 4: December 2022

Introducing this poem, Dan writes:

I always stop and observe bird nests that I see on my walks and hikes. An empty bird nest especially makes me wonder how the birds are doing in their new life and I always wish them well. A bird’s nest the size of a pianist’s hand makes me think of a small and delicate bird that is out there somewhere, flying and singing. In a world filled with noise and chaos, an empty bird nest makes us pause, if only for a moment, and marvel at the wonders of the natural world and stirs feelings of  appreciation for our feathered friends. So let us cherish the empty bird nest, for in its emptiness lies the promise of new beginnings and the enduring beauty of nature’s design.

Opening comment:

The charm, depth and beauty of this deft and sensitive haiku in a single line comes from the harmonious (as contrasted with a purely disjunctive or disruptive) juxtaposition of its two images, plus the word that gives it mysterious depth: it is a “pianist’s” hand.

On first reading, it is a straightforward comparison of the diameter of an empty bird’s nest with the size of a spread hand. But that it is the hand of a pianist invites other thoughts, other harmonics, as the reader revisits the first part. The nest is a light and delicate structure, and we imagine the pianist’s hand too is delicate and sensitive. This is not the ham hand of a farmer or truck driver. The nest which has nurtured birds is empty. So is the pianist’s hand. Without the birds there’s no song. Without the piano there’s no music —the hand with all its capabilities is just a hand. That the nest is empty also invites the thought that it is past its use, and perhaps the pianist too can no longer play. “Empty” and “span” hint at ephemerality.

To offer all that (and possibly more) in a line of eight words that flows so well and is so open to meditation is, I suggest, masterly on the poet’s part. And on that note…

Pamela Garry:

It is a poem of two noun phrases and the conundrum of how and why they connect.

The first noun phrase- “empty bird’s nest”- perhaps the eggs hatched and the chicks moved on. Perhaps it is available for the next expecting hopefuls. Perhaps the birds and eggs suffered under teeth or talons or such. Empty nest also evokes the sadness or discomfort sometimes associated with transitioning to life after offspring have sprung, of lost bearings.

The second noun phrase- “the span of a pianist hand” – right off, I imagine a relatively large span, as a pianist exercises her/his hands to reach full chords and to control a variety of fine movements, hammering, flowing and in-between. Of course a pianist might have small hands and still be a virtuoso. When I think of the span of the pianist’s hand, I imagine fingers stretched straight and separating to maximize length and breadth. A feeling of yearning for maximal reach, perhaps becoming an instrument inclined toward percussive and primitive sound and movement.

What is the connection? I try to imagine the pianist’s hand caressed in the nest. The pianist finding comfort and inspiration in nature. I also try to imagine the emptiness of the nest filled with the creativity from the pianist’s hand- be it sound or touch or both. This one line haiku invites me to reflect on the vicissitudes of the interdependence of humans and nature. I like that it zooms into just the hand and just the nest and leaves the rest to us!

Adam Graham:

The speaker holds the empty nest in his hand, the buzzing vitality of life emptied out of the now deserted entanglement of dead sticks. A melancholy mood of that which is gone, yet knowing the beauty is now release into the world. The simple elegance of the architecture of a bird’s nest, the elegance of a pianist’s hands, her delicate fragile fingers, graceful and precise. The ephemeral essence of the that architecture, designed to bring into the world the beauty of the wild, let us say the wild of the song of bird, and the music of that other nest, the piano. The sounds of piano music once played are forever gone. The music leaves the instrument, the child leaves the nest, both never to return. Beauty untethered and free, lost into the wilds.

Jennifer Gurney:

I love the concrete imagery of this monoku. It leaves so much room for the unspoken to emerge.

The span of a pianist’s hand is such an evocative phrase. At first, I pictured just the width of a hand at rest. But then I realized, as a pianist myself, that the span of that hand would be outstretched. The breadth of it could be a wider range, depending on the stretch of a particular pianist. Alas, mine is only about an octave plus one key. Typical piano stretch is usually a bit wider, sometimes much so.

An empty bird’s nest congers up the season beyond eggs hatching, mama and papa bird taking turns rustling up grub for babies, and the fledgling phase of letting go and moving on. Such a busy season for birds and humans, alike. I remember those days fondly, in retrospect, as a parent. Wistfully, even. Although in those sleepless days, it was utterly exhausting.

For a short time, maybe five years or so, I was a rather avid birder. Learning about bird behavior, like nest building, was one of the most interesting aspects of that adventure. Bird nests were a wonderful clue to the type of bird in the area, along with bird calls and seeing flashes of color from the birds themselves.

The questions spin in my mind about the nest. What is to become of it, now that it’s abandoned? Will another bird take up residence and become a bird-squatter? Or will a ballsy cowbird lay its eggs there and hope some unwitting other birds will raise them as their own? Or, will the wind whip it down for a wide-eyed child to find and keep it on their dresser as the first of many items to collect along life’s path? Where are the birds who lived there now? Do they have nests of their own and have they already become the adults in the equation?

I’ve had the luxury several times of watching birds build a nest. One was in the eave of my deck and we watched as a family at dinner over the course of a week. Another was in the roof of my patio, during a rainstorm, with a cup of tea in hand. A few times, the birds came over quite close to me to pick up bits of twigs or grass as building supplies. But my all-time-favorite nest-building occasion was when my piano teacher and life-long friend, Phyllis, put out bits of brightly colored yarn and we watched as they were woven into bird’s nests in the trees all around her back yard. I can still remember her laughter and hear the birdsong, across the ensuing years.

The empty bird’s nest is silent, save for the remembered birdsong. But the pianist’s hands continue the melody.

Ashoka Weerakkody

Richard Tindall’s verse “empty bird’s nest the span of a pianist’s hand,” likely a quick snap of a sudden overshoot in the vigilant mind of a haikuist, is somewhat dramatic in single line expressionism of things mundane and superstitious at the same time. A set of words emanating, unpunctuated and fast as cognition labels each word, one by one before the brief spell stops almost instantly, making time seem to stand still; the whole event takes the reader by stunning surprise. It’s a new found liberty of haiku poets, especially the English language sect which has devised the new standard monoku variant which, though seemingly “plug and play” and easy to handle, is absolutely a master’s game within the domain of haiku, and here I dare not say haiku poetry as my mindset right now doesn’t allow the deployment of the venerable word. Poems have come to my mind as rhythmic chantable lines, more than one that is, with a genetic belonging of its own differentiation from other forms of literary expression.

Getting back to Tindall and his material objects of interest: “empty bird’s nest,” and the “span of a pianist’s hand” one loses the way fully marooned within an island of helpless solitude, unless he believes in the divine gift of Music! It dawned on me that a pianist’s hand needs to be just the span the instrument seeks to let him play the keyboard as the composer decrees to bring out the piece intended in its universal genesis. They say music is a universal language and a god-given gift to some among its dwellers. Exceptions like myself are awe-inspired by the music maestros the world has produced and their breathtaking musical wonders. Tindall has induced in us the mutual symphony between a bird song and a piano recital with this monokue in a very scintillating snap of a moment in time. He has matched the proportions of an empty bird’s nest and the span of a pianist’s hand to speak with a quickly devised notation to suggest that music is nature’s gift to the world and in absence of the sparrow song the god-given musical span of pianist’s hand stands in.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

This is how I see the line break:

empty/bird’s nest/the span of a pianist’s hand

There’s a lyrical quality to ‘the span of a pianist’s hand’ and the monoku is alliterative.

The bird’s nest measures as much as the span of a pianist’s hand (5.8 to 9.2 inches) and is empty. The chicks/fledglings have fledged. Likewise the pianist’s home is empty and his children have flown off too. Only the piano gives him company in his solitude.

The empty nest is a reminder of the liveliness that once flourished – daily occurences, squeals and groans, food frenzy etc both in the bird’s home and the pianist’s home. The piano also symbolizes the same liveliness – learnings, teachings, parties, happiness, flourishing, abundance. Now the same nest and piano are a source of despair due to being alone and also older, more aged, the age when company matters the most.

Lakshmi Iyer:

Amazing juxtaposition and wondering about the deepening autumn. The reach of one’s fingers from one key to other is the span and to measure likewise an empty nest and determine the cause of that emptiness is indeed appreciative!

The wider the nest the wider the span but can’t stretch the fingers too much. The smaller the nest, the songs’ tunes will be limited with just a limited span. I liked the way the poet has connected music to an empty nest, the sadness, the sorrowful sight of the birds leaving their nest to return back home or it must be the heavy harsh winds that must have brought the nest to fall. Whatsoever the scene, the span of the pianist hand creates the magic to recreate the sound, an empathy of this empty nest.

Jonathan Epstein:

There’s an ethereal quality to the juxtaposition of a pianist’s long, delicate fingers extending an octave or more to gauge the size of a bird nest, suggesting — if we see the hand held over the nest — a priest in the act of blessing.

The empty nest image is enhanced by the pianist’s hand, a poetic device that deftly shows both the nest’s notable size and its exquisite delicacy when placed alongside the refined fingers of the pianist. The effect of this toriawase is to elevate the unadorned nest to an exalted level.

As I ‘view’ the nest, I am struck by the power of its emptiness. It is a chalice-like cup nest and thanks to the hand’s blessing appears as if spot lit in a Vatican museum, a symbol of the mystery and power of spring’s eternal return.

The season is late spring or early summer, when the fledglings are gone; though winter, when trees are bare, is a likely time to discover such a nest. The word “span,” indicating fingers spread wide to take the full measure of the nest, conjures up the full wingspan of an adult bird in flight. As for the “pianist’s hand,” it belongs to no ordinary human but one of notable accomplishment who can easily draw out a range of feelings from a concert hall audience. Likewise, the empty nest arouses tender feelings that can arise from witnessing new life emerge after a season of seeming death. As this haiku was offered for commentary during Easter week, it casts a supernal light on the eternal source that gives life to the ephemeral.

Thank you, Dan Campbell, for selecting this haiku and thank you, Richard Tindall, for writing it. A verse that honors the sacred nature of life and reminds us that images can convey what words cannot.

Vidya Premkumar—the power of poetic brevity:

Exploring Richard Tindall’s monoku, “empty bird’s nest the span of a pianist’s hand,” through various literary theories is like looking through a prism of interpretations, each lens illuminating different facets of this compact yet profound piece. At its surface, the monoku presents an image that bridges the natural world with human artistry, encapsulating a moment of reflection on absence and presence, on the transient and the enduring.

From a New Criticism perspective, the monoku’s tightly woven structure and the deliberate choice of imagery demand close textual analysis. The juxtaposition of “empty bird’s nest” with “the span of a pianist’s hand” suggests a poignant contrast between the emptiness of loss (the vacated nest) and the potential for creation (the pianist’s hand). This interplay between absence and presence invites readers to delve into the text’s intrinsic properties, examining how its imagery, metaphor, and connotation convey a layered meaning beyond its brevity.

Marxist criticism might interpret Tindall’s monoku as a commentary on the alienation from nature that characterizes modern life. The bird’s nest, a natural home built laboriously by its avian architect, now empty, could symbolize the displacement and environmental destruction wrought by capitalist expansion. In contrast, the pianist’s hand represents human creativity and labor, perhaps suggesting that art remains a tangible connection to the natural world, a way to bridge the gap that industrialization has widened.

From an Eco-criticism standpoint, this piece beautifully foregrounds the interconnectedness of human and non-human worlds. The empty nest, a sign of life cycles in nature, contrasts with the pianist’s hand, a symbol of human culture and creativity. This contrast could be read as a call to recognize and respect the delicate balance of our shared ecosystems, emphasizing that human achievements are deeply entwined with the natural world’s rhythms and conditions.

Feminist criticism might focus on the implicit gender roles suggested by the imagery. The nest, traditionally associated with femininity and nurturing, stands empty, perhaps reflecting on the emptiness or loss experienced in the roles traditionally assigned to women. The pianist’s hand, with its potential for creating beauty, might symbolize a reclamation of agency and the capacity for self-expression beyond traditional roles, hinting at a nuanced exploration of gender, creativity, and freedom.

Through a Post-structuralist lens, the monoku’s ambiguity and open-endedness highlight the instability of language and meaning. The juxtaposition of the bird’s nest and pianist’s hand resists a singular interpretation, instead inviting readers to construct their own meanings based on their personal experiences and cultural contexts. This fluidity underscores the poem’s richness, demonstrating how meaning is not fixed but emerges from the interaction between text and reader.

Tindall’s monoku, then, is a masterful encapsulation of complex themes—nature and culture, loss and creation, absence and presence—inviting readers to engage deeply with the text and explore its multifaceted interpretations. It stands as a testament to the power of poetic brevity, where a single, carefully crafted line can open a world of reflection and meaning.

fireworks image

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, a remarkable one offering us several different frameworks for extending meaning, Vidya 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:

     the mother my summer died
     — Susan Antolin
       Mariposa #49, Winter Issue 2023

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.


Richard Tindall has published haiku in a number of quality journals, and won the British Haiku Society award in 2019. Alas in the time available over the holiday weekend, I was not able to get contacting details for him and hope that he will see this and add his comment on the genesis of the poem, and any other aspect, in the thread below.
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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. What is the presence of absence and the absence of presence? “Philosopher Jacques Derrida’s metaphysical concept of the absence of presence is by definition inconceivable and difficult to trace. Sometimes we can begin to find meaning in the incomprehensible when we view it through our own lens of personal experience. ”
    That’s more or less what came to me when reading this haiku: “the presence of absence and the absence of presence” : Absence: there are no birds or eggs in the nest. Also absent is any knowledge of the type of bird, so it could be a tiny nest or a very big one.
    “the span of a pianist’s hand” (which pianist? The spans of pianists’ hands vary, as do their shoes sizes., their nationalities and their gender. As do the spans of birds’ nests.)

    So I must compare this haiku with the famous koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There are some questions that are unanswerable, that inherently have no meaning. To clap, we need two hands.

    I can intuitively relate to Richard Tindall’s wanting to “write a poem about her passing that said something about the grief I felt without actually saying it.” But, to me, that wish is (sadly) paradoxical.

    I am amused by, but also appreciate, Vidya Premkumar’s essay (which leaves no stone unturned!) on this haiku.

  2. The haiku was written soon after my mother’s death. For several weeks I’d been attempting to write a poem about her passing that said something about the grief I felt without actually saying it. I was on the verge of giving up on achieving that aim when I wrote the haiku. Its appearance on the page took me by surprise. I immediately recognised it as true to my experience of loss.

    1. Thank you, Richard.
      Congratulations on a sensitive poem. Might I ask whether you are the pianist or your mother was?

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