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Viral 6.3


Viral 6.3

Nightgown & Cloud
By Michael McClintock

                                                     white cotton nightgown
                                                     a cloud
                                                     on the bedroom floor

                                                               —Jean LeBlanc

I am a lover of clouds, even this one made from a white cotton nightgown.

Poems like this seldom get the essay, short or long, that is due them. They touch on the mystery of things and the deeper reflections within the human heart. They defy paraphrasing and resist any kind of satisfactory exegesis; they cannot be explicated by traditional Western means involving the surgical examination of segments and parts, inspection of phrasal structuring, investigation of allusions or close probing of metaphor.

In most haiku, nature dominates the imagery and is the thing we attempt to experience directly, without distraction or intellectual noise. This haiku is obviously different from that norm. Every object in it—the entire scene—is an artifact of human life. That cloud on the floor, for all its likeness in weight and form to a cloud of the air, is a white cotton nightgown. Things are only what they are, yet what they are depends on other things around them: This is not philosophy but how the mind experiences the world of objects and phenomenon, and how it “feels” emotion.

A poem of contrasts and likenesses, this haiku belongs to a tradition that runs as a strong thread through the entire literature. It is not a haiku about nature but human nature, and exhibits the same kind of subjective reality out of which the old masters, using imagination and the faintest, most attenuated form of metaphor, crafted these poems:

     Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
     Of the warrior’s dreams.


     Scooping up the moon
In the wash-basin,
     And spilling it.


     The temple bell dies away.
The scent of flowers in the evening
     Is still tolling the bell.


The willow leaves the boat
     Far behind.


     Every year
Thinking of the chrysanthemums,
     Being thought of by them.


[translations by R. H. Blyth]

In the LeBlanc poem, it is that (metaphorical?) leap from nightgown to “a cloud” that leaves the intellect behind, and that at the same time opens up for the heart-and-mind a universe of endless possibility and potential within the simple framework of the poem’s imagery.

What is the emotion we feel here? The sensuous, experiential dimension is delicate, intense, very immediate. Hence, it is “real,” meaning solid. There is not one emotion but many, and they shift over time and with each reading. An immediate, subjective reality reels its objects and impressions through our psyche: motion in stillness, urgency in quietude, a cloud out of a nightgown. One thing becoming another, the endless fecundity and beauty of things: it is useless and perfect.

With each reading, between the poem’s first word and last, a kind of portal opens through which our stream of consciousness may pour, like water through a sluice gate. There is a rich and complete story here, to be sure, but what is the story? For me, it is as ever-changing as any cloud in the sky.

Re-reading the poem—at different times, in the day or at night, in different seasons, in different moods and personal circumstances—the poem seems always to tell me a different story about the owner of the nightgown, about the person who sleeps in that bedroom, or who remains awake on top of the bed in the stifling heat . . . Who is about to take into their arms a lover on a cold winter night or, perhaps, with a last kiss, has just let the lover go, to sneak over the wall in the garden . . . Or who, disappointed in love, gazes in sadness at the nightgown tossed lightly upon the floor, all anticipation deflated and a lonely night ahead.

In this poem, the implicit works more deeply on the mind than the explicit. The emotional content is huge, but unstated. The poem’s eroticism is delicate and as much spiritual as physical. While on first reading one may be arrested by the absence of human beings from this bedroom, all that passes in the glimmer of a moment. When reflection begins, we realize that LeBlanc has made a poem in which the presence of human beings is the more powerful and immediate for their absence!

Endlessly various in its possible interpretations, in what it conveys in feelings and experience to a reader, this is one of those quiet, stunning pieces that can shut our mouth and still the chatter in our brain.

[“white cotton nightgown” is from Just Passing Through: tanka, haiku, haibun, by Jean LeBlanc, The Paulinskill Poetry Project, 2007.]

As featured poet, Jean LeBlanc will select a poem and provide commentary on it for Viral 6.4.

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.

Viral 6.1 (Metz ➝ Robinson)
Viral 6.2 (Robinson➝ McClintock)

This Post Has One Comment

  1. white cotton nightgown
    a cloud
    on the bedroom floor

    What I’d like to explore may end up somewhat at variance with some parts of Michael’s lovingly intelligent presentation of a wonderful poem, but not so much, I hope, as to tread disrespectfully upon it. Actually, I suspect that what I have to say is somewhere implicit in what he has said. Perhaps Michael will tell me.

    Two images are presented in the poem, one after the other: “white cotton nightgown” and “a cloud on the bedroom floor”. While it is true that a connection will most likely be discovered, is it not also true that both images can claim their separate places in our perception, in our imagination? For me, to say the white cotton nightgown is a cloud on the bedroom floor is an instance of the imagination’s capacity to be reductive; perhaps this is a *tendency* of metaphor in general: to open the imagination but in a directed way. This is something, of course, which haiku usually avoids, which is not to say that metaphor cannot be used effectively.

    At any rate, one can easily see that the overt use of metaphor in this poem would have destroyed it. What I am wondering about is the tendency we may have to grasp the implied metaphor and stop there, to hold onto what we have grasped. Part of the poem’s charm for me is the second image presented: a “cloud on the bedroom floor” which I perceive as *literal*, precisely because it is not directly linked to the first, equally (within the world of the poem) literal image: a “white cotton nightgown”. We may give one more “reality” than the other, but why?

    I can’t say if this way of perceiving/reading can be generalized as the way perceptive reading works, or if it is just my preferred way of seeing things, but the poem presents *two* images (as haiku often do, and as we know, the imagination as much as nature itself loves, or at least is riddled with, the play of two). But it does not by any means tell us what to do with them. It gives us a freedom we may or may not feel comfortable with. We may be comfortable with a real nightgown, but what about a real cloud on the floor? It may be only momentarily real, but we are dealing with moments, no?

    In one way then, the poem (and haiku or poetry in general) speaks to the need we often have to make sense of things, to make connections. We don’t want to feel that images are arbitrary or only fantastic. But if I can hold both parts in my imagination, they have the opportunity to talk to one another, to move in and out of each other’s sphere, to change and be changed in surprising ways, directed neither by the writer *nor* by the reader. The poem is good enough, real enough, to inspire this effort, though effort is too strong a word: closer to embrace. On the other hand, if I lump them together, I lose sight of each, and I lose sight of the whole they are continually becoming. (Similar, maybe, to how we see married couples we’ve known a long time). Which is all probably just a different way of saying what Michael has already said and another way of talking about the genius of this poem and of haiku.

    So I’m grateful to him and of course to Jean LeBlanc for giving me the spark to think out loud a bit, and make a couple of discoveries for myself along the way.

    I’ll end this with a poem by Yeats:

    HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
    Enwrought with golden and silver light,
    The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
    Of night and light and the half light,
    I would spread the cloths under your feet:
    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

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