Savouring Salvage

The following short story is a rare one for being about haiku poetry—one of only a few I know of (I would like to know of more such stories). Jane Yolen’s story was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1984. It also appears in her book, Sister Emily’s Lightship (New York: Tor / A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2000, pages 125–131). The story is presented here to focus a discussion on haiku through my extensive annotations. These annotations dwell on the story’s science fiction successes and especially on its treatment of haiku. For a piece written in 1984, the story shows refreshing understandings of haiku poetry, yet also persists in what I would call small but significant misunderstandings. My annotations, in the form of footnotes, are not previously published. I invite you to read each footnote as you go along. You might want to open the footnotes in a separate window. See also my review of Yolen’s children’s book, Least Things.


      by Jane Yolen

The old poet[1] lay in the bow of his ship, dying of space sickness and homesickness and a touch of alien flu. There was nothing to be done for him but to make him comfortable, which meant listening to his ramblings and filling his arm with a strange liquid from his own stores[2]. He had been the only one left alive in the ship when we found it and at first we had thought him dead, too. Only at my touch, he had roused up, pointed a stalk at us, and recited in a bardic chant some alien click-clacks that, run through the translator, turned out to be a spell against goblins and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night[3].

        Whatever night is.

        Ghoulies was his name for us.

        He had immediately fallen back into a deep sleep from which he roused periodically to harangue whoever had a free moment, calling us worms and devils and satan’s spawn. Most of us decided to leave his mouthings untranslated since what spewed out of the machine made little sense and we had no time to properly salvage it. The boxes, after all, were not yet full.[4]

        But one of the younglings, a two-year named Necros 29[5], chose to sit with the poet-traveler and translate his every word. Necros 29 called it salvage, but I wondered. He comes from a family of puzzlers, though, and they are slow to mature and mate. It may be that that side of the line runs true, for it was he who first understood that the creature was a poet, or at least a speaker-of-poems. It was soon clear that the alien did not make up his poems as would any true poet, but rather carried the words of others in his head. Disgusting thought, a crime against nature, this salvage of the mind. If we saved up all our poems, our heads would soon be so crowded with them there would be no room left for savoring new ones. What a strange race we had come upon, whose equipment is new and whose thoughts are so borrowed and old.

        But Necros, being a puzzler, kept at his task while we scavenged the ship thoroughly. It was full of salvage and the bones of the poet’s companions were especially fine.[6]

        “He calls upon the names of many gods,” commented Necros to me during report, “and that is fine for a poet. But he also says many not-found things.”

        “Such as?” I asked. My great-great-grandsire, Mordos[7] Prime, had been a puzzler on his matriarchal side, though my mother denies it when asked. Occasionally I am drawn to such things, though basically I am of a solider nature.

        “He speaks of night, a darkness that ends and comes again.”[8]

        I passed the bones through my mouth and into the salvage sack[9] before I spoke. They were, as I have said, very fine indeed. As the sack’s teeth ground the bones into dust[10], I said, “Is night then a birthing cave? Is it the winking of far stars against the Oneness of space?”

        Many who heard me laughed, their sections[11] wiggling greatly with their amusement.

        Necros shook his head and his eyestalks trembled. “I do not think so. But I will listen to him further. I think there may be some strong salvage in his thoughts.”

        “Pah, it is worthless stuff,” remarked my old mate, the long cylinder of his head shaking. His salvage sack was full and grinding away, and the rolling action of it under his belly excited me[12]. But now was the time of work, not pleasure. The boxes were not yet full and it would be days more of grinding before our organs descended enough to touch.[13]

        I went back across the boarding platform that linked the silent ship to ours. I emptied my sack of the fine silt, spreading it thinly over the mating box.[14] Days? It would be weeks if we did not fill the boxes faster. As Prime of this ship it was my duty to direct young Necros away from the live poet to the dead and salvageable parts. It is all very well to salvage a culture when the axes are full, but—and I remembered my old mate’s rolling sack—there is an order, after all, and poetry would have to wait.[15]

        Mouthing a small lump of unground bone out of the box, I swallowed it again. Then I turned back and crossed over the platform to the alien ship.

        “Necros!” I called out as I crawled[16]. “Come. I would talk with you.”

        He came at once though with a slight reluctance on his face, His stalks[17] drooping and his first section slightly faded. I think he already knew what I had to say.

        “The boxes are thin,” I said. “There is no time for him.” I gestured with a stalk towards the alien who raised on one side and was babbling again.

        “Fe-fi-fo-fum,” spewed the translator. Nonsense in any language is still nonsense. “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”[18]

        “What in the universe is bread?” I asked.

        Necros touched me, mouth to mouth[19], then raised his chin, showing me his neck section, the fine lumps of his heart beating a rhythm through the translucent skin. He could not have been more subservient.

        “I will work long into the third work period,” he said. “Do you not see that it is such things—bread, night, seasons—that we must salvage from him. Only with salvage,” he reminded me, is growth.”[20]

        I thought of the silty boxes where we would soon lie down and mate, starting the next generation wiggling through our bodies and out our mouths.[21] “Yes,” I said at last, “you are right this time. But still you will have to work the extra period to make up for it.”

        He quivered sectionally and scurried[22] back to the alien. Ai his touch, the alien fainted, though I suspected that he would revive again soon.

Necros 29 kept his word. He worked the extra load, and so much salvage quickened him. He entered maturity early[23] yet lost none of the enthusiasm of a youngling. It was dreadful to see.

        Once he came to me wriggling with joy. “I have come to something new,” he said. “Something not-found which is now found. It is called haiku[24].” He savored the word and gave it directly into my mouth.[25]

        I let the word slide down slowly, section by section, to my sack and the slow grinding began. Then it stopped.[26] “I do not comprehend this word, haiku,” I said. “It means no more than his fe-fi’s.”

        Necros shivered deliciously. “It is a poem that is worked in sections[27],” he said.

        “A poem in sections?” It was a new idea—and quite fine.[28]

        “There are seventeen sections[29] broken into bodies of five-seven-five[30]. And there are rules.[31]

        “That is the first your poet has shown that he understands order,” I said thoughtfully. “Perhaps I was right to let you salvage him.[32]

        Necros nodded, showing his neck section for good measure. “These are the rules.[33] First the poem must rouse emotion[34].”

        “Well, of course. Any youngling knows that.”[35] I turned partly away from him, to show my displeasure.

        “Wait, there is more. Second, the poem must show spiritual insight[36].” He nodded his head and his sections moved like a wave, enticing.

        “Still, that is not new.”[37]

        Necros drew out the last. “And finally there must be some use of the seasons[38].”

        “Fe-fi’s again.”

        “I am comprehending that piece of alienness slowly.[39] Digestion is difficult. The grinding continues.”

        “Perhaps,” I replied coolly, “it should not continue.”

        “But I am working triple,” Necros said, twisting his head back in such alarm that the lumps of heart were pounding madly in front of my mouth. “And we have salvaged all but the ship’s shell and the room where the poet lies.” His voice was strained by his effort to show me his chin.

        “It is true that the boxes grow full and my desires descend,” I admitted. “How long will this salvage take?”

        He shrugged. “The poet’s voice weakens. He speaks again and again of the night[40].” He dared to lower his chin. “Night is, I am beginning to think, the ultimate alien season[41]. Perhaps I will comprehend it soon.”

        “Perhaps you will,” I said, turning without giving him any promises.

The next work section I was sleeping, with my body pressed along the sleek gray ship’s side, dreaming of mating. I had grown so much with the salvage that I was now nearly half the length of the alien vessel, and my movements were slow.

        Necros found me there and quivered in all his sections. I heard a deep grinding in his sack which he coyly kept from my sight.

        “The poet is dead,” he said, “and I have salvaged him. But before he died, I made up one of his own strange poems[42] and sang[43] it into the translator. He liked it. Listen, I too think it quite fine.”

        We all stopped our work to listen, raising our chins slightly. To listen well is of the highest priority[44]. It is how one acknowledges order.[45]

        Necros recited:

                The old poet fades,

                Transfigured into the night,

                Not-true becomes true.[46]

What do you think? Does it capture the alien? Is it true salvage?”

        A small one-year[47] shook his head. “I still do not know what night is.”

        “Look out beyond the ship,” said Necros. “What is it you see?”

        “I see our great Oneness[48].”

        Necros nodded, letting ripples of pleasure run the entire length of his body. “Yes, that is what I thought, too. But I comprehend it is what he, the alien, would call night.”

        I smiled. “Then your poem should have said: Transfigured into Oneness[49].”

        Necros shivered deliciously and his sack began its melodious grinding again. “But they are the same, Oneness/Night. So Not-true becomes True. Surely you see that. Truly it is written that: With salvage all becomes One.”[50]

        And indeed, finally, we all comprehend. It was fine salvage, the best. The hollow ship rang with our grinding.

        “You shall share my box[51] this section,” I said.

        But so full of his triumph, Necros did not at first realize the great honor I had bestowed upon him. He chattered away. “Next time I must try to use all the alien seasons in a poem[52]. Seasons. I must think more about the word and digest it again, for I am not at all sure what it means. It has sections, though, like a beautiful body.” And he blushed and looked at me. “They are called Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.”

        I ran them into my mouth and agreed. “They are indeed meaty,” I said. “Next time we meet such aliens we will all salvage their poems[53].” Then I spoke the haiku back to him, once quickly before it was forgotten:

                The old poet fades,

                Transfigured into the night.[54]

                Not-true becomes true.

        Smiling[55], I led the way back across the platform to the boxes, leaving the one-years who were not yet ready to mate to finish salvaging the ship’s hull.


[1] We soon learn that this old poet is going to be “salvaged” by aliens. It seems that this poet is from earth, but we never learn what nationality or race he might be. And perhaps that doesn’t matter.

[2] A blood transfusion?

[3] At first this seems to be a corny cliché. But the author rescues it with the next line, which emphasizes what becomes a vital focus in the story.

[4] I love how these mysterious boxes, and why they’re not yet full, help to create a sense of mystery and alienness, as do so many other details in this story.

[5] “Necros,” of course, brings to mind necrophilia and necrology, and is of course derived from the Greek word for a dead person or corpse. The author is not subtle.

[6] This reference seems macabre on the face of it, but its matter-of-factness helps to make the aliens feel truly alien.

[7] Like the word “Necros,” the word “Mordos” brings to mind “mortuary,” which derives from the Latin “mortu,” or dead. The names Necros and Mordus, together with the description of their “salvage,” therefore suggest that this is a species that feeds on dead people as their means of sustenance. This is not cannibalism, but merely an extension of the inter-species food chain. They are perhaps like buzzards that feed on carrion rather than killing live animals (or live humans).

[8] Now we are beginning to see the significance of the previously emphasized “night” reference.

[9] Such an alien thing, but perhaps simply like a stomach.

[10] Apparently the teeth of these aliens reside in their “stomachs,” unless a salvage sack is external to them, and each sack’s teeth merely grind up the bones for their later consumption.

[11] I like the suggestion of insect parts here.

[12] It does indeed seem as if salvage sacks are like stomachs.

[13] I find this reference confusing. What does it mean for these organs to descend? And why does it matter that they would descend enough “to touch”? Touch what? Or to be touched? And why? The answers do not really matter, because the phrasing here presents information as given, as if it would normally be perfectly clear, which helps to create an even deeper sense of alienness in these characters.

[14] Another alien strangeness, all very intriguing.

[15] Here we have an initial suggestion of priorities, that poetry is of less importance than food, but this perspective is challenged towards the end of the story. I think of the Judy Collins song “Bread and Roses,” which reminds us that hearts starve as well as bodies—“give us bread but give us roses.”

[16] It would have been so easy (perhaps even lazy) to say that the alien walked, but the author gives us another little surprise by saying that he crawled. The verb also helps us see these creatures more as insects than anything humanoid.

[17] This reference again suggests an insect-like appearance to these creatures. They are, in a way, like cockroaches, yet of an advanced, intelligent evolution.

[18] This statement, offered as if it’s a maxim common to this species, is the only hint that they may eat other species even when they are not yet dead, and thus are not purely scavengers.

[19] The oddness of this gesture, in human terms, emphasizes their nonhumanness.

[20] Another alien maxim, this one underscoring their scavenger proclivities.

[21] This revolting description more clearly depicts the insect-like natures of these aliens.

[22] The verb here points once again to an insect-like creature.

[23] This reference suggests a rapid growth cycle for this species. The mating that they prepare for also seems to be quick or frequent, also suggesting a rapid growth cycle—and also, correspondingly, a rapid approach to death.

[24] We now have our first reference to haiku, which is what motivates my interest in this story. It is perhaps telling that the author chose haiku poetry rather than, say, sonnets, or some other form or genre to represent poetic expression from the salvaged species. Is haiku therefore the fundamental essence of poetry?

[25] It is unusual and unexpected that this word, or any word, could be passed from one creature to another as a physical object. The salvaging process seems to make even words become physical. I think of Mark Strand’s poem, “Eating Poetry”: “There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry.”

[26] The grinding of the consumed word “haiku” stops quickly because the poem is so brief. Is it therefore unfilling? Or is there more substance to it, more nutrients and other benefits, than would seem to fit its diminutive size?

[27] We now begin to get a sense of what haiku is, or at least this alien perception of it through the process of salvaging it from what is presumably a human being. So a definition of haiku is beginning to emerge: It is, to begin, a poem with sections.

[28] This reference would suggest that the alien poetry does not have sections.

[29] Here we can infer that the “sections” are equivalent to . . . what? Words? Syllables? In Japanese, of course, haiku traditionally consist of seventeen sounds (not to be confused with syllables, despite popular misperception).

[30] It would be a mistake to assume the pattern here is referring to 5-7-5 in English. We do not know if the “old poet” is even a human being, let alone whether he is Japanese, and speaking in that language, or of some other nationality and tongue. If Japanese is indeed meant to be suggested here, the reference to 5-7-5 is perfectly correct. Assuming that the same pattern is true in English is where linguistic misunderstandings distort the genre. In adapting literary haiku into English (or any other language), certain compromises are necessary, such as English not having kireji, or cutting words, although we have effective equivalents. Nor do we have quite the same tradition for kigo, or season words, in that the overtones and codification of seasonal references in English has not had as long to develop as it has in Japan. And of course, in adapting haiku from Japanese to English, poets must figure out what is the best approximation of the go-shichi-go (5-7-5) pattern in English. Since they do not count syllables in Japanese, the vast majority of literary haiku in English is not 5-7-5, but instead seeks to be “one breath” in length, usually with fewer than seventeen syllables, sometimes with a short-long-short three-line cadence (even using three lines is not Japanese). Just as the word “haiku” counts as two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese, so too the 5-7-5 pattern counted in Japanese haiku is not equivalent to seventeen syllables in English. Nor, of course, is 100 yen equal to 100 dollars.

[31] The apprehension and even appreciation of haiku has been hampered by a repeated emphasis on “rules.” I believe a better term is “targets,” which suggests that you aim at particular targets, and may be closer to the center of particular targets with some haiku than with others—and that you may choose not to aim at some targets each time. With haiku, poets have multiple targets to consider aiming at simultaneously, including season word, cutting word (a two-part juxtapositional structure), primarily objective sensory imagery, and more. But rules? No, that can be oppressive. As one observer has said, the point of haiku is not to capture image-moments, but to set them free.

[32] The alien leader is softening, beginning to see virtue in the poetry that the youngling has salvaged.

[33] Now we are launched into the “rules” for haiku. Let’s see how this perspective measures up. The perception presented is not just that of the alien creatures, but ostensibly of the story’s author as well.

[34] An excellent start. Wonderful that haiku is defined first in terms of emotional effect.

[35] Intriguing to think of other poetry by this alien species. I can’t help but think of cockroach poetry, and what that might be like. Perhaps it’s time for a Kafka-esque dream.

[36] Okay, now we’re veering off track. Haiku typically has a leap or intuition, but this intuition is not necessarily “spiritual.” Nor is this leap necessarily any kind of “insight.” Here the author (writing in 1984) is showing the prevailing influence of Beat poet perceptions of haiku, the era when haiku was first popularized in the English language as an exotic, Zen-like art of meditation and revelation. Influential writers such as D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts contributed to this narrow perception, as did the monumental translator, R. H. Blyth, who championed the Zen perspective more than anyone else—and was the chief influence on Beat poets in spreading this gospel. More recently, Haruo Shirane and others have written extensively to debunk the notion of haiku as a Zen art. But Jane Yolen is, in 1984, no doubt still under the prevailing influence of Zen exoticism that overtook haiku in the years just before this.

[37] Again, one can speculate in wonderful ways at what cockroach poetry would be like to be “spiritual” and “insightful.”

[38] Wonderful—an awareness of kigo or season words appears as a chief characteristic of haiku. This is rather remarkable in a story published in 1984, when much less information was available about haiku than is true today. What is unfortunate, however, is the complete lack of reference to kireji, or cutting words—and presumably a lack of understanding of this vital technique. The hardest aspect of this difficult art is to create a meaningful juxtaposition that implies something valuable by what is deliberately left out. Without this characteristic, haiku risks being trivial, perhaps even worthless. Yet this essential characteristic of haiku is not even mentioned here.

[39] Yes, it is difficult for many poets new to haiku to comprehend how important seasonal reference is, not just in compressing the poem, but in facilitating allusion and placing the poem’s now-moment in the grand scheme of time. The difficulty in comprehension here, however, is not in how seasons are important to haiku, but, in this alien world, what seasons even are. I once taught a haiku workshop at a minimum security juvenile detention center in California. I talked about the importance of seasons in haiku, and was saddened when one teenager raised his hand and asked, “What are the seasons?” He honestly did not know. Bless him for his brave question.

[40] Again we are pointed at the concept of “night.” In interstellar space, there would of course be no such thing as night. It is a bright universe, but because nothing exists in the majority of the universe, it looks black. Night is only relevant from a planetary perspective, of course, so we are given a fresh awareness of our planetary myopia when these aliens do not understand what night is.

[41] For the sake of the story, the aliens are allowed to misunderstand the meaning of night, and to misapprehend it as a season. But is this really a misunderstanding? Just as, on earth, we go through a seasonal cycle each year, so too do we go through a cycle each twenty-four hours. Not just night and day, but night, dawn, morning, noon, twilight, evening, and night again. Are each of these not a sort of season? For a creature like a cockroach, or some other insect that lives briefly, the daily “seasons” would seem to be just as relevant as the yearly ones. For a cockroach—and these alien creatures seem to be pretty similar to cockroaches—interpreting seasons in terms of daily rather than yearly cycles seems to be an appropriate adaptation of haiku understanding.

[42] I love it that Necros is eager to try writing a haiku for himself. If you’ll pardon the pun on his salvaging work, it shows that he has internalized what he has learned.

[43] An interesting choice of words here, to say that he “sang” the poem, rather than reciting it. This may suggest that the alien poetry tradition is related to singing. At the very least, this stance emphasizes the aural nature of poetry—that it is to be heard, not merely read on the page. The salvaged old poet was, after all, a “speaker-of-poems.”

[44] One could hope for nothing more for any kind of poetry.

[45] Order is obviously important to this alien species. This might explain the author’s presumption of a particular “order” in haiku—what she refers to as “rules” rather than targets or fashions.

[46] So here is the story’s only haiku. It is just the youngling’s first attempt, so its failings can be excused for that reason. Yes we could also assume that the author might have deliberately made the poem better if she could have, so judging it is problematic. Nevertheless, I can say that it follows a 5-7-5 form unnecessarily (in English), and it lacks a season word, except that the story itself defends “night” as the “ultimate” alien season. Although the story makes no mention of the virtue of cutting words or a two-part juxtapositional structure, the poem does essentially have two parts, with the last line being grammatically independent of the first two lines. But the poem fails (is it the character’s failing or the authors?) by the inclusion of a judgment in the last line—usually avoided in haiku. The first two lines also tend to tell rather than show, so we don’t see how the old poet “fades,” nor see how he is “transfigured” into the night. But the last line is the poem’s greatest shortcoming, because it is purely an idea, a judgment, an analysis that exists in the mind. Haiku, instead, should not be ideas or concepts or judgments, but experiences, moments that we apprehend through our five senses, not through our intellect. Here, therefore, the poem can be said to violate what was first proposed as a goal for this “alien” form of poetry, that it should arouse emotion. This poem does not dwell in emotion at all, but in intellectualization, thus it fails as any kind of traditional haiku. Okay, so it’s by an alien cockroach, writing its first haiku. But that’s no excuse.

[47] To me this reference is a misstep. What is a “year”? It’s too easy to interpret this reference in terms of earth years, and if this species is unaware of what night is (a daily cycle on a planet), then how would they be aware of a yearly cycle (also on a planet)? I would have used a different term or phrase here to suggest a youngling (one that is younger even than Necros 29).

[48] This veneration of a great Oneness is perhaps akin to the veneration of transcendence and sublime unity that sometimes occurs in haiku. Is this what is meant by a “spiritual insight,” in the way haiku was defined earlier in the story? I would say haiku can have these insights, but I would not say that they should aim at them. So often aiming at them causes haiku to miss them terribly.

[49] I am amused that this alien species is already debating haiku and how best to write it. Are we not much different from these cockroaches?

[50] The maxim presented here applies not only to the way this species consumes other species, thus becoming “one,” but also applies to becoming “one” with the universe through haiku. A good haiku creates a sort of transcendence, a unity of being where every detail has fallen into place, creating a sense of utmost rightness.

[51] The boxes, it now seems clear, are compartments that this species fills with ground bones for the sake of mating. The youngling is thus greatly honoured here, and all for his diligent discovery—salvage—of haiku. Even if mating together is not the intent here, the youngling is still honoured, but it seems clear from the story’s remaining details that mating is intended.

[52] Of course, using all of the seasons in a single haiku would be a violation of its tradition. We can excuse the alien for not yet understanding this. But at least he is beginning to see the value of seasons in haiku. Again, it is remarkable that the author of this story had this insight in 1984, when relatively little was published to emphasize the value of seasons in English-language haiku. There was a growing body of material emphasizing seasons in Japanese haiku, of course, but much less so in English.

[53] The leader of these aliens has come to a point of growth, seeing the value of including poetry in their salvage process.

[54] The book in which I read this essay uses a period here, where the previous version of the poem, where it is first quoted, uses a comma to end the second line. I do not know if this is a typo, or if the author meant it to be different. I suspect that it’s just a typo, but I do not know if a period or comma had been used in both cases. I would suspect that a period was intended, and would make more sense, but the first instance of the poem clearly uses a comma.

[55] The narrator is filled with emotion, perhaps at his pleasure with the youngling, if not for the haiku. Yet it is haiku that has made him appreciate and honour the youngling. The young have taught the old here, yet of course it was an old poet who taught the youngling in the first place. We all have much to learn about—and from—haiku. At the very least, I am pleased to see haiku honoured here as something capable of good in the world—indeed, something capable of good in the universe.