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Viral 6.1

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.

Abyss  by Scott Metz


soldier unfolding the scent of a letter

Chad Lee Robinson

What we have here is a timeless, universal ku that plays effortlessly and intriguingly with language, images, memory, distance, and the nature of our world, if not the entire universe. This ku is expertly sculpted, and not a word is wasted or needed.

The one line format is perfect for this ku and allows the poem to open up and achieve its greatest impact and resonance. By leaving out punctuation and not forcing line breaks upon it, the words are allowed to play off of one another, unfolding and building meaning as it moves along. If, for example, the ku were broken up or split into, say, three lines, it would impede in many ways on the way in which one would read it—or, even more, how the words and images would build in the reader’s mind and imagination. Punctuation or line breaks would also ruin the playfulness of the language and syntax Robinson has created and lose a great amount of its edginess. By leaving out clear and definitive breaks and punctuation (inviting the reader, instead, to decide where they may or may not be), the language is allowed to be non-sensical, and surreal in that the sum surpasses the parts as well as ordinary life.

For example, as I read the words “soldier unfolding,” and softly, naturally, pause, my mind goes in many directions. The soldier might be unfolding: a uniform, a flag, a sheet, a map, a rifle, a bodybag, a manual—what will it be? What we come to learn, of course, is that it is the actual soldier (neither man or woman, but universal and timeless in this poem) who is unfolding: her or his heart, mind, soul, memories, imagination, etc. But this we learn only with the last word of the poem, “letter” (which I am pricked, in one reading, to imagine possibly being a play on “let her”), and is what we are left to contemplate and imagine ourselves.

Because there is no break or punctuation though we are taken smoothly and directly into (what we think will be) something more concrete: “the scent”—perhaps our strongest source for triggering memories. This undoubtedly, yet pleasantly, confuses the reader. How can someone unfold a scent? A kind of creative misreading takes place (did I miss something? Was there supposed to be a break/cut somewhere?). And again, if we were to softly pause after “solider unfolding the scent” I am sure our minds would go in many directions concerning what that scent might be: dust, sweat, blood, cloth, rain, smoke, plastic, earth, metal, oil, etc. There is also, I might add, the possible homophone reading of “the scent” as “the sent.” Knowing that it is the scent of the letter, we are then left to ponder the scent itself from the sender. Could it be perfume? Cologne? Incense? Or that unique smell every home in the world and family seems to have.

Ultimately then, the one line format allows the ku to become a visual poem: not only has the letter been unfolded and flattened out but also the soldier. Whatever was inside the letter, which certainly must have traveled some distance, moved the soldier in such a way that their mind-soul-imagination-memories-reality was opened up and spread out. The toughness and resolution of the soldier is transformed by the letter’s contents and where those contents take their consciousness. The ku becomes a spear struck into the heart of things.

And, though the poem is about a soldier, and one might naturally think of a military soldier of war (personally, my mind leaps to a scene from Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line), I am reminded of a quote by William Butler Yeats: “Why should we honour those that die upon the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” And so, in this ku, in being taken into the abyss of this soldier, we are also hurtled into the abysses of war, hate, peace, the soul, mind/consciousness (imagination, memories, reality), life, death, destruction, violence, loneliness, distance, beauty and love, and, ultimately, into ourselves.

“soldier” was first published in Modern Haiku 37.1 (Winter-Spring 2006)

As featured poet, Chad Lee Robinson will select and provide commentary for Viral 6.2.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. If put into three lines here are some possibilities:

    (a) soldier
    the scent of a letter

    soldier unfolding–
    the scent
    of a letter

    unfolding the scent of
    a letter

    Since the eye and thus the brain–all in a few milliseconds–entertains each possibility, the text accomplishes what Richard Gilbert says happens in good haiku. The writer has orchestrated misreadings, and in the multiple re-readings register dynamically (unfolds) on one’s consciousness.

    Putting the ku into one line makes it harder to know where the flow, and flow of perception, pauses to turn. I like it.

  2. Dear Scott (and Chad Lee),

    First off, Chad Lee Robinson is one of my favorite young haiku poets. We have been publishing him for some years at The Heron’s Nest.

    Scott, it is of course what makes horse races, but I disagree with a number of your points in this exegesis of Chad Lee’s poem.

    Bluntly, I find the poem to be a fine inner verse of a renku (a two-line stanza), without enough internal comparison to make of it a fine haiku. I cannot split hairs of definition, it may be haiku by someone’s lights. To me it seems an element short and has not enough material for apposition or juxtaposition. It is in the space afforded by this technique that haiku can be found. I wish to enter in to the image(s) and share them through my own actual or at least imagined experience. A number of one-line haiku shown here in the Haiku Foundation’s output are fine haiku. And, before letters start to be typed to me, yes, there are single-image haiku (in however many lines), but good ones are not common and are difficult to pull off. Internal comparison seems key.

    I see no doubt that it is a perfumed letter, seemingly from a wife or girlfriend to a male soldier. The figurative language of unfolding a scent is less mysterious than literal. As a letter is unwrapped and unfolded, its olfactory content escapes — more at each step of the process. It is very nicely put by the poet.

    This form encourages, nay, demands a quick linear reading — right off. Nothing is folded except the letter. We must learn that directly and quickly. If nothing stops the reader (of English), one reads through at a gulp and intends to make sense of what words are tangent, and in line as a group. It reads fast — and is done. Subject, verb, object. Read and done. It must be seen this way and this quickly. I am all the way to the end of this line before Scott is contemplating the second word and who or what is unfolding. It is the way it is put to the page and the connection of word to word. It fits; it’s done; what’s next? Having a scant level of content is not disguised by casting the poem in one-line form. For me there is no hiding it. There is a man with a letter from home. The letter is perfumed. Nothing more. Just as (a different poem and circumstance) a haiku with two of its lines inverted does not make of it a fine haiku, unless it was such without the inverted phrase (which might merely make it appear “poetical”).

    I imagine this practice of perfuming predates WW-2, but literature and film from that period surely shows the scented missive. I can imagine it today in wars in or occupations of Bosnia, Korea, Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Afghanistan, or Iraq — even boot camp.

    I find the brevity of the opening somewhat off-putting. I wish that Chad Lee had added what the late Bob Spiess taught as those little polite words of our language. A soldier — or — the soldier. Beginning with just: “soldier” is quite abrupt, unnecessarily.

    A break or no break? The one-line form works against this phrase we consider. There is no pause for me at any word’s end. That is why, as I began, it flows just as a good inner verse of renku should. That flow is meant to advance smoothly from one linked stanza to the next. This is not to say that in renku some of the three-line verses cannot be a method of slowing the flow. Variety is King and some slowdown is to be looked to.

    I do not see that the one-line form allows this verse to be visual in and of itself. I see the letter and I see the soldier (uniformed and possibly armed). But above all I smell the perfume as he does. He is drawn to memory of his loved one. I find no politics, no antiwar message. Rather the obvious one of army members since Biblical or Roman times (having literature and possible mail from home) missing home, and missing their true loves. I suppose a stay-at-home husband/boyfriend could have doused a letter with his AquaVelva or cologne? But it seems less likely. The man could be soldiering in a boring checkpoint, a bivouac on the DMZ, working behind the lines stacking supplies, and not be the stuff of danger under fire — no death and destruction, just a couple separated.

    – Paul (MacNeil)

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