Virals is a section in which one person choses a haiku by another person and comments on that haiku. Then the author of that haiku is invited to select a haiku by someone else and comment on that poem, and so on. For an introduction to this section, see Virals.
The Disjunctive Kittens by Scott Metz
on this cold
2 night 3 4
— Marlene Mountain
Marlene Mountain’s use of irruptive and disjunctive qualities, as well as concrete poetry techniques, elevates this poem into a meditation on birth and creation, fusing images and feelings together, ultimately pushing the envelope of what a haiku is and can be through experimentation of language, form and space. It was ahead of its time when it appeared in Mountain’s the old tin roof in 1976. It would more than likely raise an eyebrow or two of a few even today.
For the reader, this poem unfolds gradually, gaining clarity in fits, piece by piece, fragment by fragment (kitten by kitten?), with the line breaks and numbers startling and jarring us along the way. The first line is simply, “on this cold,” and feels blunted or cut off, but also has a lingering and anticipatory feeling. What is “this”?
Only towards the end of the poem, at line four (“kittens”) are we given an insight into the meaning of the numbers, though this insight still lacks certainty and concreteness: with the word “kittens” the four creatures are now there, and the numbers make sense, but how and why? These numbers, at least the first four, through disjunction and irruption (appearing out of nowhere almost, nonsensically), force upon the reader an alternate reality, a second world within the poem, playing with the reader’s consciousness, pulling and pushing the reader in and out of the poem, while being part of the poem. And yet we are not done with the poem when “4” is revealed, and so there is still an element of surprise and revelation, and thus a need to continue with the unveiling for further understanding and meaning. It is not until “5”, the fifth kitten, is revealed at the very end, line six, that the reader is allowed to rethink and reevaluate the entirety of the poem and the worlds within it, and then come to a more solid interpretation and understanding of the whole, as well as the emotions and feelings it creates.
The six line format is itself jarring in that it is non-traditional for western/English haiku, which has, for the most part, been traditionally strict about sticking to the three line format. It also strays from Mountain’s standard practice of the one line format, though this example is from her earliest period ― a period that saw more experimentation with concrete techniques such as format and spacing. The way the last two lines read, “kittens/wet,” is also grammatically jarring, but lends itself to the poem finishing with wetness, and also allows the mother to be with the last of the litter, thus solidifying the overall concrete image. Using “wet/kittens” would have completely ruined this effect.
Upon coming to “5”, the fifth kitten, we are rewarded with both a concrete picture as well as the theme and very experience of birth and creation. The concrete: a female cat surrounded by its newborn kittens — the numbers in the poem, instead of being written out as words (one, two, three, etc.) are instead presented as their mathematical symbols (“2” being playful in that it could also be read as “to” = “2 night”/”tonight”). And so, the symbols become the kittens themselves, startlingly small and of almost the exact same size, nursing. The first line, “on this cold,” is the mother’s tail, “5” being the newest kitten at its mother’s mouth, being cleaned. It is a poem that is both a creation, is about creation, and also a poem which is created in the reader’s mind, coming to us in pieces, slowly, as if through the birth canal into the world, into existence, into consciousness. Holistically, the poem becomes a meditation on new life, birth and creation.
Lastly, the use of “spring night” adds great depth to this event. A kind of symbiosis occurs in that the nature surrounding the cat, kittens, and poet is giving birth and is breeding new life and renewal as well. And then, of course, the kittens are being born into this world of new life, this newest spring. The naming of the season also adds to the poem’s sense of wetness — the wetness of the kittens, of the mother, the wetness of the air and the season ― making this a visceral poem, something the reader can almost touch and sense through their own fingertips on the page. The coldness only increases the warmth, and the disjunctive and irruptive qualities magically seems to form an amulet for meditation on life and birth.
As featured poet, Marlene Mountain will select a poem and provide commentary for Viral 4.2.
This Post Has 10 Comments
well, my favorite poem of Marlene’s is still about never seeing
2 birds screw.
Seriously, you will often see two birds during a matting display,
but the odds of catching 2 birds in the act is pretty rare. They
are both promiscuous and screamers… 🙂
Just as the numbers spring into being so do the kittens. The word “kittens” is also given special emphasis as being the only two syllable word that is spelled out in this ku, whereas 2 night is broken in to two parts. I also thought about how the mother will be eventually be separated from her kittens even though they are still 2gether for this moment in time. For me the down-word-ness direction of the ku is representative of each kitten’s journey into this world. The image reminds me of a spring raindrop falling from a cloud. There’s also a contrast of images between the cold spring night and the warmth of the kittens being born.
Always good to see something about Marlene Mountain, she keeps non-Japanese haiku on its toes.
That’s not just logic. That’s really seslbine.
Thoroughly enjoyed the analysis, thanks Scott, although the first thing that struck when I read the poem – and that wasn’t mentioned in the commentary – was the obvious link with the “five little kittens that lost their mittens” nursery rhyme.
I thought that this saga of mother-child interaction over the age-old problem of lost clothing (lost anything, really) was perhaps why Marlene had chosen to use 5 kittens, as opposed to 4 or 6.
Yes? Or am I off on a tangent?
Vasile: You may not be aware that the word “pussy” has a sleazy connotation in English, being a euphemism, and generally wouldn’t be used! 🙂
the pussy nourihes them
at her dried-up breast
I can’t add much here to the rich analysis. A cold night, yet definitely a warm experience. The warmth is conveyed without abstract language.
A favorite poem. I particularly like how the shape of the poem adds to its meaning. All things come out of the word ‘cold’, an easy stand-in for the mother cat. Mountain could have easily left-justified all the words, but their shape, bulging, back and forth on the page, ending with that last kitten, alone (also in the cold), helps us pace the reading and see(!) it. It would be possible to remove the numbers and still get a nice classical haiku, but the numbers add a lot. A poem of the senses and intellect.
Superb reading, Scott. Very much enjoyed it, and like good criticism should, it enhanced my appreciation of this poem.
I love that final revision in the last line–great comedy, really: “4/ kittens/ wet”–er, hey, no, 5! Ha!
We’ve probably all had that kind of experience at some point. Just last night my wife & I were counting mule deer, partially obscured by trees at the top of the hill. “Look! A mule deer.” “Oh! Two, actually.” “And that one lying down.” “Hold on, I see four.” “And that one there”. “Whadyaknow, five!” (Actually, there were six…that we saw.)
Btw, I’ll be juxtaposing some of Marlene Mountain’s one-liners in the next Montage (“Forms”) with 5-7-5 haiku by O Mabson Southard and vertical poems by John Martone.
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