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re:Virals 63

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

     old steeple
     a turban of pigeons
     unwinds the hour
          — Beverley A. Tift, First Prize, San Francisco International Haiku and Senryu Contest (2004)

Mojde Marvast brings into play experiences many of us will probably never have:

A very clear image flashes like peaceful memory!

This haiku expresses to me a release of hope after a special visit to a shrine and the word “old” emphasizes the root of this need in someone like me.

Turban, like a whirling dance, feels like a vertigo brought about by rounds and rounds of questions and answers in spiritual turn-overs. Finally the hours of a tower clock are no more what they used to be, as if the freedom fly of many pigeons is like an expansion and as of now time will be different.

It was like a deep exhalation for me making space for the fresh air of a new life!

And David Jacobs ponders the larger themes:

Whilst I am not entirely sure about “a turban of pigeons” (original nonetheless), this haiku is just about packed with everything — age (the steeple), religion or religions (the turban), nature and the commonplace (the pigeons), time (the clock), sky (is it grey or blue?) and the ultimate revelation of the time of day, or has the steeple clock failed and remained frustratingly on the same hour for goodness knows how long.

I kept wondering about the latter point given I know two clocks — one the gate house clock on Billionaire’s Row in London which has stuck on 12 and another in my local cemetery on the lodge porch which has remained on 8 minutes past 4 for, dare I say it, an eternity. So have the pigeons unwound the correct time, time stuck from an indeterminable point far back or, possibly, both.

A well crafted haiku, detailed and thought provoking, and easy to see why it was a competition winner. Many will marvel at the pigeon turban but I remain unsure. . . .

While Kathe L. Palka finds resonance with another painterly poet:

In their intention to capture fully and imagistically a moment of experience, haiku can have a decidedly painterly or fine art photography quality. Tift’s haiku depicts just such a beautifully captured moment. Among the old Japanese masters this ability is perhaps best illustrated by Buson’s work, understandably so because he was in fact an accomplished painter.

A tethered horse,
in both stirrups.
Yosan Buson (translation by Robert Hass)

Here Buson captures a precise and surprising visual moment as snow gathers in stirrups and hints at a story. An invitation to the reader to imagine more. The horse has clearly been left to wait for its rider’s return, perhaps for some time. How full are the stirrups? The snow’s accumulation provides a visual account of the passage of time. The rider, although not present, is part of the story. What errand has brought him out in heavy weather? There is as well compassion to be felt for the horse waiting indefinitely in the cold winter weather for its rider’s return, so patiently that snow is accumulating in the stirrups. I’ve always felt a sense of melancholy or melodrama in this scene which I’ve often imagined in black and white, like a single frame isolated in an old monochrome movie.

In “old steeple” by Beverly A. Tift the passage of time is also a feature. I envision a long moment. A church bell chimes the hour and pigeons perched around an old steeple take flight in the metaphorical description of an unwinding turban. The sound, like the rider in Buson’s haiku, is not present but implied, inviting the reader to set the scene for herself. The sound is only present in the mention of the steeple, the mention of the unwinding hour and in the resulting flight of the birds. What city or town, what country, in what season is this flock of pigeons unwinding from the church steeple? One can imagine a myriad of locations in real time. This haiku expands like a detail lifted from a painting, closing in on the blurred wings of the birds in motion as the surroundings fall away. A lovely sense of traditional wabi sabi is conveyed as well in the age of the steeple. The hours have likely been unwinding for many years in this place in this way. “old steeple” is a wonderful visually stunning haiku with an implied soundtrack and endless possibilities.


As this week’s winner, Kathe 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 63:

     in the prison graveyard
     just as he was in life —
     convict 14302
          — Johnny Baranski, Convicts Shoots the Breeze (Saki Press, 2002)
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