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re:Virals 454

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 Leena Anandhi, was:

without a bed ...
a river wanders
city streets
—Marilyn Ashbaugh
 Haiku Foundation Haiku Dialogue, April 24, 2024

Introducing this poem, Leena writes:

I am writing to you from my home in Kerala India. We are having heavy rain, and the monsoon hasn’t started yet. The rains are a regular for Kerala, but this flash flood is unprecedented. It has left us wondering why. The prevalent reasoning is that the rain water has no place to drain out due to over construction, conversion of swamps into residential areas and blockage of water canals ( a unique feature across Kerala) due to garbage dumping. All this and more has left us to grapple with “rain rage,” flooding homes and stagnant waters on the streets, disrupting normal life and sending people to look for refuge.   

All of this reminded me of Marilyn’s recent haiku that featured in the Haiku Dialogue longlist of selected poems.

Opening comment:

This thoughtfully-crafted and free-flowing verse in plain language was in response to a prompt for haiku about floods. It stood out immediately for the artful juxtaposition / suggested comparison with homeless people. An established river has a bed, whether or not it leaves it during flood times. Here, I picture a flash flood, where the deluge of rainwater looking for a home makes a river of the streets. I see detritus and the flotsam of the city picked up by the waters, to be deposited who knows where, just as the cold tide of life forcefully picks up and leaves the derelict, the destitute and the vagrant who tend to be regarded as the unwanted flotsam of city society. Detached yet full of meaning; essentially a single-sentence verse, even with the ellipsis, in the overlap between haiku (it’s the season of the rains) and urban senryu; and very good indeed.

Biswajit Mishra :

A bed is where one rests after a day’s work and a bed is where a plant grows and a bed also is where a river flows. The first two lines have a literal meaning of probably the flooded river flowing through the city but they also have a tinge of surrealism in the sense that a nocturnal being romps the streets or an insomniac wanders. Most importantly, it probably talks of the human disregard for nature and how random construction has usurped lands blocking the free flow of rainwater.

This is a layered poem and depending upon how and when I am reading, it can offer different connotations.

Penny Lowery:

The thing that’s striking about this haiku is its ambiguity – ‘without a bed’ sounds like – and therefore is – a comment about humans and homelessness, but in this case the river lacks a river bed… instead it wanders the city, a scenario we will no doubt see more often as climate change creates disruption to our ecosystems.

But the poem feeds back into itself – for flooding and the disruption it causes will also lead to homelessness, people adrift from their moorings. It is not only the river that is without a bed.

I love the intelligence of this ku, its understated suggestion of calamity and human suffering, offering us social commentary that also embraces the natural world.

Alan Harvey:

Rising water overwhelms its riverbanks. The floodwaters collect in the streets of a city. For its population, flooding is a mind-numbing disaster.

But the language used in “without a bed… / a river wanders / city streets” is the personification of a flooding river as an insomniac, sleepwalker, or unhoused person. The soft sound of “w” in without and wander add to the disorientation of the flood waters.

We feel the river is lost and dazed while it wanders through the asphalt jungles of human creations. The citizens of this city have suffered lose and disorientation while, at the same time, the river has lost its orientation and wanders along looking to return to its bed.

Luckily, Marilyn Ashbaugh didn’t lose her way while composing this wisp of a poem.

Melissa Dennison:

What an imagination, to visualise a river wandering city streets. This haiku is quite striking, and it speaks to me as an urban dweller. Why? I think it’s the sense of loneliness and isolation which I feel when I read the first line ‘without a bed’. This suggests homelessness, and it is not an uncommon sight to see a tent or a homeless person in our city centres. How many of us stop to speak to or help a homeless person? It must feel incredibly lonely and alienating.

Of course this poem is also playful and smart as bed has two meanings. Rivers after all have ‘beds’ rich with life, transporting nutrients and aquatic life out to sea. Rivers shape our landscapes and have a profound effect in shaping our lives, societies and history.

Perhaps this poem can help us to stop and consider what it might be like to wander without a bed amongst city streets and consider what we can do as members of society to change this.

Ashoka Weerakkody:

The Ashbaugh haiku is such a masterpiece, and it opens with the fragment “without a bed” and an image “a river wanders” and thirdly the poet points at the “city streets” finishing off; and to grab the haiku moment some may need a minute’s
spatial cognition if not gifted when born!

Ashbaugh is casting a bit of witchcraft over the whole image, camouflaging with a “bedless river” the plight of a man displaced from his restful, homely existence and forced to wander aimlessly in the “city streets.” the poet’s view of the hopelessness in the poor soul that finds himself thus all of a sudden. Life is “les miserables.”

Amoolya Kamalnath–poverty in plenitude:

The harshness of life is depicted in the hard t and d sounds and the flow of water with its current comes through nicely with the lyrical w, r and s sounds.

Reading the fragment, the picture given is of a poor or downtrodden person who has no bed to sleep, no comfort of a home. The line already evokes an emotion and moves me.

The phrase actually literally is bringing a river to the city’s streets. The water is wandering or flowing all over, leaving its bed, the river bed, where it was or where it has always been. There’s abundance! So much water, so much so, it’s a flood and is destroying homes and properties and maybe even the beds inside homes (at least the ground floor). Water comes into the huts and homes during floods, after cyclones, in many parts of India.

Metaphorically, I also see ‘without a bed…/a river wanders/city streets’ as a homeless person who’s without a bed wandering about the streets in the city, looking for a place to sleep, and hopefully some kindness in the form of food and/or money.

If not before, after the inundation too, a person could become homeless (without a bed), again especially the destitute, resulting in them roaming the streets seeking alms.

This is such a masterfully crafted poem showing poverty in plenitude. A masterstroke where penury and opulence is deftly portrayed.

[In Haiku Dialogue that week, the prompt was ‘Floods’. When I first read L1, I wondered about the connection between a bed and the prompt but the remaining two lines both came as an ah/aha moment for me (surprise in a poignant way). The whole verse has rich imagery].

Author Marilyn Ashbaugh:

Thank you for selecting my haiku for commentary. Much like the merging of rivers, a confluence of ideas birthed this haiku. The land a river flows over is called its bed. A river naturally changes its course, and hence its bed, and under normal circumstances this is a slow process. Human endeavors have hindered this process: walls have been built and wetlands have been drained for other uses, thus leading to flooding in urban areas and beyond.

A parallel displacement has occurred with the destruction of low-income housing and neighborhoods leading to a catastrophic number of unhomed families and individuals “without a bed”, left to wander city streets.

fireworks image

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, 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:

deep night window light lonelier than moonlight
John Zheng
Failed Haiku #99, April 2024

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.


Marilyn Ashbaugh is an active and widely published haikuist. Her short bio may be read here in Haikupedia.

Not much time for research this week — a three day district internet and cable outage left us cold turkey.
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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Marilyn comments via the submission form:
    Leena, Biswajit, Penny, Alan, Melissa, Ashoka, and Amoolya,

    Thank you for your empathic and poignant commentaries. Special thanks to Keith and The Haiku Foundation for re:Virals and the continued support of our global haiku community.

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