Nightgown & Cloud
By Michael McClintock
white cotton nightgown
on the bedroom floor
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
Thinking of the chrysanthemums,
Being thought of by them.
—Shiki[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.