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re:Virals 53

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     a slight shake of bells
     as the harness comes off
     night snow
          Chad Lee Robinson, The Heron's Nest XI:2 (2009)

Mojde Marvast is struck viscerally by the poem:

The contrast of silence and sound in the scene of this haiku made me wonder why bells accompany the harness. It was so beautiful!

Marion Clarke too:

I simply love how this ku from Chad Robinson has transported me to another part of the world, when I can hear the sound of reindeer bells and watch falling snowflakes against the night sky. The “slight shake” of the bells lends a delicate touch, so that the scene becomes magical.

And Lorin Ford is reminded of a close parallel:

To my mind, this is a beautifully done homage to and extension of one of my all-time favourite ‘long’ poems, Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which never fails to move me.

In both poems, that shake of the harness bells lingers in the silence of the falling snow, the only sound to be heard. It’s a sound of waking.

I like to think that the long miles of the journey have ended and both horse and human have arrived at the intended destination, but of course the other possibility is that the horse is being released and the buggy driver stays in the snow and succumbs, by choice, to the snow sleep. That the ambiguity of possible outcomes remains attests to Robinson’s sure and delicate touch in his appreciation of and respect for Robert Frost’s poem.

Jo McInerney’s reply was too late for us to consider:

Chad Lee Robinson’s haiku is a beautiful fusion of sight and sound. The soft alliteration of line one gives us the jingle of bells and then with the reference to a ‘harness’ being removed we have a horse and the simple recognition that a sleigh ride has come to an end. Line three, ‘night snow’, supplies the setting, but more than this.

For readers unfamiliar with snow, it is like being drawn into a snow globe, where a shake of the clear dome gives not only a flurry of spangled white, but here, a simultaneous tinkle of sound. Perhaps some readers are placed within a Christmas cameo, where the beast being unharnessed is antlered.

Depending on readers’ prior experience, this haiku either creates a charming fantasy or evokes the familiar in a way that transforms it. Extending this scene from a realistic perspective, we are at a journey’s end. We have reached a haven of some sort and presumably a source of light as the snow becomes visible in the night air. There is the sharp cold and the sudden illumination of the drifting flakes, felt and seen more keenly as travellers move from sleigh to shelter.

What is transformative here is the way in which the snow crystals glimpsed against the dark seem to become one with the chinking of the bells such that, for just a moment, we hear the snow fall.

Alan Summers remembers it fondly:

I guess I am a winter person because I love fresh snow; and the Christmas/Yuletide festivities are the favorite time of the year for me. Attention to detail is such an important factor to me, and this haiku has it in spades, with activity and sound alongside rhythm and musicality, with tone and layers. Here we have someone back from a very long day ranching or herding, and possibly from the last night check.

There are bells either in the horse’s reins, or the harness, or saddle even, and I wonder if the rider has added them, as it is nearing the Christmas period of December? It is certainly no holiday for this person, or their horse, with a lot to do to make the wintering section of country successful in time for the long hard season ahead. And of course we could be tempted, and wish fulfilling, to believe that Father Christmas himself, St Nicholas, has ridden the prairie, and taken a rest from a pre-Christmas recce aka reconnaissance.

The prairie is mentioned by me as this superbly crafted haiku is now part of a collection titled The Deep End of the Sky. I reviewed this collection for Blithe Spirit (journal of The British Haiku Society) kindly reprinted by Saša Važić, the editor for Haiku Reality.

This particular haiku comes from “Home Early” (originally called “Shiver”) and is the fourth section of Robinson’s collection announcing winter. Robinson says: “It had 11 haiku in the original manuscript, but it was agreed upon that the collection would be stronger by making “Home Early” slightly longer to bring the reader out of winter, which can be long in South Dakota (I have seen snow as early as October and as late as May), and into spring, or at least hint at the coming of spring. As the section title suggests, many of the haiku found here are more introspective than in previous sections.” I concur as this is an intimate look at an everyday aspect of work on a ranch, or farm.

Tone and layer were mentioned earlier, and there is an anticipatory tone, of both Christmas and the end to a long physically demanding hard day’s night. It’s where a hot meal, superior to camp food cooking, is anticipated, with a beer, or decent coffee. Perhaps something even stronger such as A Dakota Coyote Light 100 Whiskey inspired by “white dog” otherwise known as “white lightning” or “moonshine”. The layers of the haiku are both the different meanings, that I can glean, and the pictures that are delivered up, as well as also how the lines layer into each other in a certain order.

The opening line gives us alliteration (slight shake) and consonance runs through the entire haiku (all the various words with an s or two) gathered in movement, and sound (bells) in concrete action and concrete imagery carried over into the second line. The third and last line brings a juxtaposition of imagery that may or may not be directly linked to the harness being undone. We are told it’s night snow, that maybe the snow has just started falling, not just off the harness, or cinch, stirrups, in particular, but freshly falling snow at night. It’s when the horse and rider have accomplished their duties in time, with a little of the night snow fallen from the harness, and doubtless from the stirrups and the rider’s boots as he dismounts: It’s that extra falling of snow, from sky to human and horse all acting together in a different type of partnership.

The idea of snow collecting on the rider’s boots and stirrups reminds me of the famous Buson haikai verse, and this reminds me of the other type of layering, that of allusion to another poem, in particular of the same genre, but four hundred years later, where both verses are as fresh as the snow.

Tethered horse;
in both stirrups

Yosa Buson (1716-1784) in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa, edited by Robert Haas

And yet again, there is yet another allusion to another poem, a longer one this time, that of “’Twas the night before” (or “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) by Clement Clarke Moore, especially with this line “More rapid than eagles, his coursers they came.” Were those coursers horses, or reindeer? Well in the poem there is a note here:

Note: What is a “courser?” A swift horse; a charger.

The poem works so well as a working day poem of the work on the ranch or farm on the prairies, and also as a Christmas mystery.

And Rose Ades brings it all home:

Right from the first, I’m awake and alert to an almost pre-industrial quiet, punctured only by the “slight shake of bells”, glad for now I am not to be blasted or hurried by some gaudy, ear-wincing jingle.

With the second line the pace quickens a little “as the harness comes off”. So far everything has been carried to that “off” which pinpoints precisely the end of a long hard day. The moment of relief for horse and driver and release from toil.

I found energy in the harness coming off that liberated my senses, memory and imagination, and brought me back to the bare-rumped physicality of horses. And space at the line break, to shift indoors, to thaw out from the wind and the cold to smell the hay and the stable, perhaps a wood fire, hot food, a place to rest, reflect and give thanks. A sense that all was for now well confirmed by the revelatory stillness and quiet of the final line “night snow”. On this night we are safe and we will sleep as the snow covers yesterday’s tracks.

A whole way of life attuned to the rhythms of nature, the seasons and manual labour, and rest from it masterfully suggested in 12 words, of which one has two syllables.


As this week’s winner, Rose gets to choose 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. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.

Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!

re:Virals 53:

     mid-life 	the afternoon rain	lingering
          David Jacobs, grandma’s chip bowl, Hub Editions (2015)
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