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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 6.4

What Isn’t There, Is There

BY Jean LeBlanc

                                                      rising from your bed
                                                      the train whistle

                                                             —Judith A. Christian

I tell my students in Freshman Composition, “As with any poem, you can write a two to three page analysis of a well-crafted haiku.” Their eyes grow wide with . . . terror? Disbelief? The excitement of a creative and intellectual challenge? Well, terror, then. That is what I feel now, as I try to find the words to describe everything I hear and see and experience in Judith A. Christian’s elegant, simple, complex eight-word, thirteen-syllable haiku, “rising from your bed.” 

I have lived in two places where the sound of a train whistle could be heard late at night, a freight train passing through my nondescript town on its way from someplace wonderful (Montreal?) to someplace else wonderful (Boston? New York City?). Christian’s haiku brings me back to the lonely nights of adolescence, in my third-floor bedroom in our house on a hill above town. Not far below, the train tracks followed the Nashua River through north-central Massachusetts, a north-flowing river meandering its way to the Atlantic, a river that suffered the indignities of everything a hundred little milltowns could throw at it—and into it—before finally reaching the Merrimack and eventually the sea. Everything—train, river—going somewhere, anywhere. “Somewhere, anywhere”—the refrain of one’s teen-aged years. And every night, the train whistle, which made the going sound just as forlorn as the staying. What a first word: “rising.”  The “I will arise, and go now” of Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The rising sun. A rising from the grave of one reborn, resurrected. All images of light and hope; not the stuff of this haiku. The words “darkness” and “night” are not present in these lines, and I have risen from bed in broad daylight after many an afternoon nap, but somehow we just know that this poem is set in the wee hours that offer only insomnia and longing to the one rising from bed. 

Or am I wrong? Is this a poem about inspiration? The act of “remembering / the train whistle” making the poet get up immediately to write the poem about the act of “remembering / the train whistle”? And so, it could be a poem about light, after all, the light of an idea pulling into the station of one’s consciousness, initiating that flurry of activity, the gathering of belongings, the disembarking, the looking around for familiar faces or landmarks. 

The train whistle is present in this poem, while being absent from this poem. The whistle is not heard in actual fact, but in memory. Had the actual sound reached the riser’s ears five minutes earlier? Five years earlier? Fifty years and five hundred miles distant from where the bed is now located? Yes, to all of the above? 

I keep coming back to this being a poem set in the dark of night. As I tell my literature students at some point each semester, I am an optimistic pessimist. Each moment, I tell them, can offer an experience of beauty to the aware observer, or to the observer who is open to the possibility of beauty. At the same time, we all know—we all know—how this journey ends. To that ending, and beyond, is where this haiku takes me each time I read it. Someone rising from bed in the middle of the night, made restless or perhaps even momentarily crazed, by the memory of something that has been lost. That something is I. This present-tense haiku is about the future, and the past. Everyone who reads this poem becomes both the rememberer and the remembered. Every barrier established by the laws of physics is meaningless, here within the world created by these eight words, by these thirteen syllables, by this gentle trickster poet. 

As featured poet, Judith Christian will select a poem and provide commentary on it for Viral 6.5.

Viral 6.1 (Metz ➝ Robinson)
Viral 6.2 (Robinson ➝ McClintock)
Viral 6.3 (McClintock ➝ LeBlanc)

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. The words, “remembering/train whistle” … when I read these words I just feel a deep longing… I feel a sensation that may or not be related to the words. These feelings that arise within us as we read/hear haiku… to me, it seems, are what make the haiku real for us. And I would guess we each have differing feelings/sensations according to our indivudual experiences and inclinations.

  2. ‘… I’d say it shows how flexible this very brief poetic form is … because it successfully “makes new” a central erotic narrative and does so with almost unimaginable brevity.’ Tom

    That’s putting it nicely & succinctly, Tom, but explication is how we find our way into a poem, whether we do it in thought or type it out, as some of us have done here.

    There are things that are unavoidably implied, though, with ‘remembering/ train whistle’. Since the train whistle is no longer present, it’s logical to assume it was last heard as a ‘leaving’ train, gaining distance from the pov of the hearer and the quality of the sound changed by that. (‘Doppler effect’/ ‘redshift’)


  3. I’m curious about the status of the text as opposed to all the interpretations. Do the interpretations in fact determine the ultimate “meaning” of the text? Isn’t this haiku — which I really like — just an old country music song? Rather than conclude that it means whatever the interpreter feels it means, I’d say it shows how flexible this very brief poetic form is not because it sponsors various and even conflicting interpretations but because it successfully “makes new” a central erotic narrative and does so with almost unimaginable brevity.

  4. Late coming to this…
    I agree with the “your” as getting in the way for me.
    My take on this haiku is one of wistfulness, of lost and half remembered freedom, briefly caught sight of in the middle of the night. Bed, decidedly tunes one into home and all it’s cozy but confining obligations.

  5. I’m with Adelaide; I LOVE the variety of interpretations here!

    I’ll throw in my two cents: I live in the country, where we are likely to hear freight train whistles mainly in the middle of the night. It reminds us that there are other people in the world. So to me rising from my/your bed to remember the train whistle is a moment of comfort.

  6. On a less romantic note, although it was a spectacular journey from Paris, France to Madrid, Spain:

    the night train passes
    along the mountain trail
    garlic snores

    Alan Summers
    Azami #51 Osaka, Japan (September 1998)

    le train de nuit passe
    sur une voie de montagne
    ronflements d’ail

    Alan Summers
    French trans Serge Tomé
    Temps Libre:
    A bilingual site (French and English) , a bridge between the international community and the French speaking world.

  7. How true, Adelaide. ;-)

    In fact, I live not very far from a commuter rail line, and in early childhood lived within earshot of another.. The only train whistles I hear, if I happen to be awake, are those of the ‘early train’, around 5am, and the one about half an hour later. Still, they do have that soulful sound, and the ku at least suggests separation, whether temporary or not, after the intimacy of lovemaking.

    A train whistle, to me, is a reminder of ‘elsewhere’. Perhaps that elsewhere might be simply the workday world and its unromantic demands?


  8. The different interpretations of this haiku shows that haiku is a poem begun by the poet and finished by the reader according to his own experience or imagination.


  9. To me, “rising from your bed / remembering / the train whistle” suggests that the speaker was distracted (understandably) while making love, and only realized later that a train had passed, with its whistle blasts sounding a bit like love-cries.

  10. To me, this poem embodies the tension between intimacy and its opposite…distance? Most of us experience a yearning for intimacy, but also, when we have too much of it, a yearning to untangle ourselves from the other. ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness’…something I recall from Kahil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’, from way back. The 2nd person address seems essential. If ‘your’ was replaced with the 3rd person, ‘his/her’ etc., this poem would lose its tenuous balance and tip toward the ‘distance’ end of the scale.

    The train whistle, I think we can say, has generally become a symbol for the attraction of distance, of leaving, of ‘moving on’, especially on those continents where the railway system provided opportunities to travel far from ‘home’, relatively unencumbered. The sound of the whistle is soulful; air travel has no sound with such emotional pull.

    I find a loneliness in this ku, a remembrance that one is essentially alone despite our relationships with people we love or like and share our lives with in many ways.



  11. I enter this poem at its center. Here is a remembrance triggered by a train’s whistle of a past lover. But it is also a deeper remembrance of that distant train whistle not in the present time. Trains evoke a sense of journey–where we’ve been, where we’re going– and in the context of a relationship, a romantic sense of where we end up.
    For me, the poem succeeds because the reader can enter this emotional journey free of any opinionated baggage. The poet’s skill is clear in this regard. She can suggest someone’s own adolescence or another time and place completely. Couldn’t the speaker just as easily be harkening back to those wild, adventure-filled days in Paris when two young lovers lolled in bed half the day– when the passing train was their only concept of time and responsibility and even that, like their hearts, raced amid the mundane.
    But this poem is about loss, yes. The lost lover, probably, “your bed” is not “our” bed, but it is also about the lost journey begun but unfinished except for this haiku that captures the adventure of a love affair that’s still alive, if only for a shrill moment.
    Thanks Jean for your musings on this one. Love and poetry do keep us guessing.

  12. I see this as a woman leaving her lover’s bed with regret, not for the leaving, but for having given in to her feelings. A train whistle is a warning, Watch Out, Danger, a warning she ignored.


  13. I feel a differentiation… a returning from being so much a part of someone else to the indiviuation of self.

  14. As Tom (D’E) mentions, the use of “your” makes this haiku difficult to share in. Quite the opposite of paul miller, I think this particular pronoun inhibits expansive interpretations. I think of this kind of haiku as an “address” poem. Written _for_ someone — not really for me as an unaffiliated reader. Like a Hallmark Card: A Poem For You. Perhaps “his” or “her” or “my lover’s” bed (“a lover’s”) would lead us in the same directions but make the relationship more plain. As it is, I’m led to ask who the you of “your” is and away from the memory of a train with a bed with someone in the here and now, or the train whistle now as I (poet and reader) remember the warmth of a lover.

  15. I agree. “your” is very powerful here, and seems to hint at a struggle of staying vs. going, between freedom/movement and domesticity. And while no emotion is mentioned, the poem overflows with it. This apparently simple series of words says a lot.

  16. About the future and past, and yes, memory and the remembered. One way to read this haiku (senryu?) was, I think, alluded to by Tom. The bed could belong to someone else, perhaps a lover, and the words of the haiku could address that other. “Your bed.” And the thoughts and feelings behind the words? The impulse to be alone after intimacy? Train whistle reminder of schedules, passing time, independence…

  17. The ethos — the assumed values — behind contemporary haiku are elegantly expressed by Jean LeBlanc’s commentary. The assumption favors multiplicity of interpretation, though the commentary seems to favor one; that favoring is almost — almost — apologized for in terms of personality. But I do wonder about the force of “you” in this haiku. That little pronoun puts some constraints on interpretation, doesn’t it? But we shall see how the conversation goes. It’s always very interesting!

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