First published in Roadrunner V:3, August 2005. This essay reports my selection of the best poems in the previous issue of this online journal.
For Best Haiku/Senryu of Roadrunner Issue V:2, May 2005
the snowplow clears
One mark of a good haiku is often whether it stays with you, and this one stayed with me. I kept returning to it just a little more than other poems in the previous issue of Roadrunner, and I think it’s because of this poem’s effective use of wordplay, the unexpected last line, the clarity of expression, the seasonal grounding, and the positive feeling the poem produces despite the tension or terror of a nightmare. We can see the person in bed at daybreak, at the moment when a loud snowplow awakens him. While being awakened by this noise might normally be unwanted, in this case it disrupts a nightmare and becomes a blessing. An additional meaning, of course, is that the nightmare may not just be literal, but figurative as well, in that the snowplow has cleared the “nightmare” of too much snow on the road. The simplicity and immediacy of this poem has much to recommend it, and the twist upon the expectation created by the word “clears” is masterfully done. One expects snow to be cleared, but not a nightmare, yet it makes perfect logical sense at the moment of being woken up for the nightmare to be “cleared” instead.
Honorable Mentions (in order)
we walk in silence
a sea stone
not there at high tide
The first leap that this poem lets the reader make is that this silent walk is a long one, one that has lasted beyond the turning of the tide. Just as the tide has turned to rise to its highest point, the walkers have presumably walked along the beach for a distance, but have turned around and walked back to where they first saw the sea stone. We do not know if the people walking have been silent the entire time, or why, but they are silent at the moment of noticing that a stone that they had seen earlier is now underwater at high tide. The powerful emotional echo here, the second leap that this poem lets readers make, is that the silence of the walkers is just like the disappearance of the stone into the water. Something is hidden, unsaid, perhaps buried, or not confronted. Or perhaps the walkers are done with the serious topic at hand, and they are content to let the tide of time and memory cover it up. Yet still they know it is there, and they remain silent as they continue their walk.
all the coins
younger than me
I see this poem as recording a moment of sorting coins, perhaps rolling them to take to the bank. Or perhaps it’s merely looking at the coins in one’s hand received as change after making a purchase. Either way, in the context of a coming wind or storm, the person is reflecting on his life and age, most likely with a sense of mortality. When one was younger, most coins were older than you, but as you get older, the number of such coins diminishes. That sensitive moment of being older than all the coins in view is sobering, and may be seen as dark, perhaps like the coming storm. This poem’s two parts, the context and focus, balance each other well, fitting together emotionally as they indicate the changing seasons of life.
a crow loses
The implied darkness of the clouds is nicely captured in this poem. Though the thunder is distant, the clouds that presage the storm are nearby, close enough to darken the crow in front of the person viewing this scene. It is vital in this poem that the bird is a crow, a very black bird. The poem would not have worked with a flamingo or a robin. Instead, with a crow, we instinctively know its blackness, and we transfer that perception, and the blackness of the shadow, onto the approaching clouds. The clouds would not be so dark in this poem if the bird referred to was something other than a crow. So again, as with the “coming nor’easter” poem, this poem has an intuitive rightness to its context (the first line) and its focus (the rest of the poem). The simplicity and immediacy also make it very easy to see and feel.
my shadow washed
by a wave
We go from daybreak in the poem by Dietmar Tauchner to sunset in this poem. And we have another shadow, this time a person’s shadow instead of a crow’s. And we also return to water, perhaps by the ocean. Sunsets are naturally contemplative, and in this poem, the contemplation of one’s own shadow takes on a deeper meaning, perhaps a desire that one’s self, like one’s shadow, could be washed by a wave. Note, also, the physical description here—a logical subtlety that might be easy to miss. If the person can see his shadow, he must be facing away from the sunset, and thus facing east. If the water is to the east of the person, then the shadow is being washed by a wave in front of him, and he is seeing this from a place where his feet are dry—and the sunset must be at his back as the person faces east. But the poem emphasizes the sunset, so surely the person is on a beach where the water is to the west of the person. Thus, to see his shadow, the person would be facing away from the sunset and away from the water in order to see his shadow. So one can conclude that the person in the poem has walked close to the water and turned away from it, and the sunset, and is walking up the sand, seeing his shadow. Yet he is still close enough to the water that water has come past him, wetting his feet as it slides past him to wash his shadow. So, unless the person is up on a bridge or rock facing away from the sunset, with his shadow down below, the logic of this poem suggests that he must be on the beach, in shallow water, where he himself is being “washed” by the wave. Thus, very concretely, the poet is being washed by the wave, just as his shadow is.
I’m grateful for the chance to review all the poems in the previous issue of Roadrunner to make these selections. Several other poems came close. The opportunity to consider these poems has turned out, for me, to be an opportunity to plumb the greater depths of these poems, where I might not have noticed such depth with a quicker reading. I invite all readers to try making themselves “judges,” to read slowly, with all the doors of perception open, both intuitively and analytically, to make as rigorous a selection as they can as an exercise in seeing what really makes various haiku tick. It is a rewarding experience.