The vet tells me the brain is the last to fail
As the old horse’s eyeball rolls
After the injection that felled her.
Image of sun on pasture
As those brought back with paddles
Or the breath of a stranger recall
How the world narrowed to a canyon
Ending in incandescence.
How charmed and unafraid they were
Borne into that glow
And they are here to tell you
It will be divine. The brain says so
With a smirk of neurons. This is how
You must go. Seraphim await you
In the synapse of denial. In the canyon
Boxed in and blind.
That tunnel of light is just a trick
The brain invents to lure you
Not to resist when it is time
For all of this to be over
So that you’ll widen your eyes
To demand, like Goethe, “More light”
As if angels holding candles
Were ready to escort you.
Singing began as a way to capture
Evil spirits. Caught in the cage
Of the larynx to choke on ash
And harmony, desire fills their
Goatish pupils, as if nightingales
Collaborated on a symphony
Or a Chopin mazurka danced
The gaudy excess from their
Bones. Maria Callas lifts her voice
From the ocean where sperm whales
Vocalize, where sirens call
From isolate rocks. Those spirits chained
To the mast begin to tremble, to
Evaporate like ghosts clamped
In a textbook, like a revision
Of Revelations—the pale horse
Whinnying, nodding his head in
Obligation, stamping a hoof
In one drumbeat and now the aria
Begins to soar like a murder of angels
Or demons, like the crows
Hoarse with ambition. Keep singing.
The bars. The grace notes.
The treble clef. And one voice a cappella
To save us.
The large brass Buddha brought
From Fujioka contemplates the corner
Of our living room. Its head is broken,
A thin crack as if a guillotine
Interrupted its meditation.
On the windowsill, the chacmool
Awaits an offering on its clay belly.
Its eyes are slits, it has thick
Lips. It hopes for rain to save
The Mayas. Climbing Kukulkan
I straddled those chains.
Joan of Arc, cast in bronze,
Arrived from Paris to defend
The battlefield of my desk,
To offer inspiration like the voices
Commanding her to save the Dauphin.
She never expected how the fire would
Consume the dress they clad her in.
Redacted to this: a simple woman.
A wooden crucifix from the Italian camp
Dangles the agonized body of Christ,
Each muscle contorted, the head drooping
In a despair the prisoner defined
Carving its anguish to pass the time.
The ivory K’wan Yin gives a blessing
To Trollope and Dickens, the shelved spines
Considering the mercy she perpetuates.
The hand to be uplifted is missing
Lost in one of those casual moves
From one setting to another.
JOAN COLBY‘s most recent collection is Dead Horses, published by Future Cycle Press. She has been the editor of Illinois Racing News (a monthly publication for the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation) for over 25 years. In addition to seven previous poetry collections, her work has appeared in Poetry, Portland Review, South Dakota Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and Western Humanities Review, among others.
ESSAY BY ROBERTA BURNETT
Writing the Desert Haiku
Part One: A tiny slice of nature writing
Part One B: Some sudden lines
Part and Parcel: A few haikuish items from sudden lines
Well, really, it’s that you’re fascinated by this rapid-exposure pictograph, the Haiku. But this Japanese icon of the written word it isn’t all about form. Its magnetism comes from something interior, so often structured in the electricity of your grasp. Getting there, to that point of “making,” is a metaphor for all you’ve ever seen and been, and what you instantly decide to notice from the corner of your eye. Its depth is in the metalworks of what you’ve learned to value.
If you’re at all a traditionalist, you must approach softly, so you’ll walk somewhere in a natural setting, preferably one where vistas and niches are new to you. Not necessarily a new ecology, but that could be fun. Switching from desert Sonoran scenic walks to riparian loose edges might startle awake your awareness. The fact of newness seems to enable us to look more closely, even on a first instance. Yet ambling across the new while enclosed in the familiar is a truly lovely bit of ordinary life. It enables gardeners to continue their work, it lends lightness to a solid life.
If you carry a small, lightweight notebook, pocket-size, and a ball point pen, having no memory for a fleeting phrase isn’t important. Amazing small things reside in your urban yare. If paper has a clay surface, the pen will glide and give you pleasure, crossing a word’s surface. If the pen is waterproof, that’s one less concern, for caught in a flashflood, your pen’s lost in a marsh, or if you are monsooned, you’ll lose some of what’s written anyway, but not all. Even dew can be problem-sticky if the paper’s lost to wind or ink spreads on the page.
Relax. If you must, having pulled out of the whisk of your life’s urban rapids, find a place to sit down cross-legged (if you’ve kept your joints young enough) and meditate. By being wrapped in an alpha-wave state for twenty minutes or so, wherever you are will look better when you open your eyes. You’ll also have a bucket full of energy—a whole eight hours worth.
Several times in Aspen, Colorado, I carefully chose a flat place with a lovely vista (not hard to find there). My young child always stayed nearby, so I could hear him rummaging at water’s edge. As the minutes wore on, the trails became more populated, but I was undisturbed. People didn’t interrupt. They could see by my touching thumb and middle finger, by the backs of my hands touching my knees, by my absolute stillness, by the fact that I wasn’t turning my head to hush them, that I was “somewhere else.” It was so good to open my eyes to that vista again, the more beautiful for my near doze.
It’s best to try sitting still in the desert in winter when the snakes aren’t on walkabout. By mid-March in Phoenix it’s snake season, and it stays that way till it gets cold again. If you sit (Basho might have called it zazen, or is that a more modern word?) in your own back yard in the midst of, say, six million, you will be amazed (as I am still) by the silence filled mainly with bird calls. On a good day, midweek, no neighbors, no sirens, no planes or trains. Just you and whatever is there.
Any noise becomes strange when a person is trying to deepen relaxation. For years I’ve started out with a suggestion to myself that it’s fine to notice a noise but then in simplicity allow it to pass. One neighbor has a screechy nasal voice and talks nonstop on her cell phone in her yard on her “work at home” day. I’ve learned not to think or feel anything about it, but to pick myself up de-liberately to re-harbor myself inside my home. Other times for silence will come.
There’s also your “self” to contend with. The resistances: “Something important to do,” comes first, with myriad lists. The “monkey mind” swings from strong limb to weak to strong again, becomes entranced with vines and how to use them to get from here to there, there to there. Just let the monkeys go.
Teach yourself to watch your slow breath. It owns a particular passage through our pipeworks, and you can watch it. Observing that path allows relaxation. Once you’ve adjusted to its up-and-then-down progress, try to slow it at the peak where it loops down, only to corner down around and up again. Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t. Just keep knowing you’re with it as it goes, and you can very well find yourself not wanting to move or fidget. Your heart-mind tells you when you’re finished, an automatic thing. That rest in the early stages is naturally about 20 minutes and gets longer as you go, because you want it to.
Even if you skip this formal sitting, relaxation allows for the wider scope of that precious, clear seeing. All writing is about noticing. Understanding nature is about paying attention, not always with our front brain but with our third eye. That sensation is similar to watching passers-by, looking at art, seeing the details along the road as if from your solar plexus. It’s a whole-body, mind-body, heart-mind activity. If you are a poet or a writer, it also allows us to notice the lines sluicing through our heads, see them as lines, hear them as lines. And, if we are lucky, to notice them in time to pluck them back to us before they fly on the wind, so we’ll have the chance––the only chance––we’ll ever have to write them.
Lines we don’t record in this moment unromantically don’t return. If we are very lucky, one or two will be worth saving or worthy of starting a new longer work, maybe more than a phrase, more than a paragraph perhaps but a start. A serious start.
Basho says that writing haiku must be sudden. It is that flash of realization or specifically “word realization” that brings the lines up, makes them material and stable. In the beginning, there was The Word. First, there’s the happening, the images and then the sound of words speeding across the mind just in back of the eyes, and then, almost simultaneously, the electric noticing. The most important for writers, however, is the catching of it, the word(s)—that’s why carrying the pen and the paper is necessary.
Just today I watched a man and a woman talk who were clearly fond of each other. I knew them. They weren’t lovers, but were long friends. They were at least a generation apart in ages, with the woman the elder by about 10 years. In the morning paper, I’d seen a photo of a miniature dog with an ewok kind of face, a Malti-poo, I think, all white and furry with streaks of hair as a corona around his eyes, and from the side its face was fairly flattened. The man, in his early 40s, suddenly “looked like” the ewok-dog. The woman with her icy-warm eyes had the profile of an Afghan hound, her long sculptural nose seemed to be an extension of spirit, reaching forward. Though I know these people fairly well, I’d never noticed these configurations before. That moment where the two turned into having doglike profiles, each indelibly individual but of an accommodating kind, was a moment worthy of a haiku, but it is not yet written. Because I have explained it here, it never will be. The current that made it lively has dissipated with the telling.
Many American readers ignore this short-short and very complete form as obscure or inconsequential. The subterranean message that underwrites each haiku is “Be here now.” Haiku words-in-form are the renderings of a moment, one that transmits the spirit of what’s seen, or, in very common parlance, a crisp, right moment of intuited awareness. That’s a subtlety that contributes to life’s richness. Ultimately, life’s not about plot, which requires crises and denouement. Life often has no resolutions. It slips along through our acts and indecisions, and it ends. Life is. It is comprised of billions of is-nesses. Even if, as with Basho, that moment is made present hundreds of years later through being read. (Or, more complexly, through being translated and being read.)
A haiku’s literary moment is often paradoxical, for intrinsic compression is integral with the form. When the great haiku masters wrote, it is said that sometimes they took ten years to perfect one haiku. Basho’s diary indicates that spontaneous composition is also possible. He and his friends and acquaintances along trail-sides in “the Far Interior” created haiku in sociable, evening competitions by fireside. Either way, some are very powerful to western readers. Others require a bit of historical hypertext to support full understanding. For a town’s lakeside haiku February and March 2006 in central Arizona, spring was by definition part of a long drought. A large manmade lake surrounded by manmade hills and large desert trees has irresistible charm.
That haiku awareness can find expression only through language, and in haiku, through structured, compressed language. One language theorist says we don’t have thoughts, and for sure we don’t “know something,” until we put it into words. Words have syntactical relationships, however brief their lineage. Let’s just assume for a moment you agree that’s the case, so you have an investment in very few words. You write so you risk saying something important, you risk having a thought, not an impression. You risk an imperfect or a perfect expression. That said, it takes a perceptive reader, one who has a full complement of verbal antennae and experiences to “see” it.
So to make a thought palpable, it’s phrased in images. You put on the page the one line that comes, to recreate your awareness of a moment. Thus haiku is imagistic, not expository. Because it’s a one-of-a-kind medium that is cast (in the sense that a fine-arts jeweler’s mold or die is cast) in images from nature, then, as a formalist, you can find a place to insert a kigo, or seasonal reference. At first the reference can simply be a place marker, like “pink trumpets of cactus bloom” or “harvest moon.” But it can also have a more sweeping implication: the blooms’ potential is to shrivel. The oversized moon, called the “harvest moon,” cycles down after one night, and appears only rarely in a year. What you want to work in the briefest syllables is the lingering sense of your “ah-ha!” emotion-awareness in the instant of recognition. If, to see it oppositely, you wanted to stay with the flush of spring color, then find a way to start to say that: perhaps, “buds unpopped, soon bright pink, familiar.”
Or something better. Always “Or something better.”
(I assume here that you aren’t an urbanite writing haiku about steel and glass and cement and traffic—those subjects could be written about but they might have a different genre label, like “urban haiku.”)
Then you’ll try to add an uta-makura, or “beautiful pillow”: it is a physical place or a thing that’s characteristic of a place, a word or ever-so-short phrase that calls it up, distinguishing it from other possible places: it sets the haiku’s tone. In a line about blossoms by a wilderness lake, perhaps a lake’s name is intimately connected to one of the line’s images: “Apache Lake’s hazy gold reflections” might call up a particular tree, a palo verde, reflected near lakeside in full bloom, say in late March—where spring arrives later in the year than in Phoenix, where summer can arrive by mid-April. Mentioning “Apache Lake,” the wilderness, its Indian inhabitants, and perhaps invasive settlers are brought to view. Readers who’ve been there before will, on that mention, see sheer cliffs; their gold layers of color when rain-wet become reflections in lake water near word-made, green-bark trees. If an entire community remembers a boating accident on it or some more major cataclysm, “Apache Lake” will carry those reverberations. An uta-makura found in a newspaper’s images from the New Orleans after-Katrina floods might be “New Orleans: poems floating on brackish water.” The “beauty” is in the expression, not the content. As always, even the ugly is a subject for art.
Once a “sudden line” comes to you, then the crafting can begin. First the kigo, if it’s not already present, and then, with an eye-ear to the uta-makura, the tradition’s syllabic structure of 5-7-5. Thoughts seem to adjust where the syllables adjust, with a conclusion taking all of the last five syllables. (My sudden lines don’t want to conform to that syllable structure. They come out wanting or overburdened. Such non-conformism isn’t socially acceptable in the traditional form. Sigh.)
Yet with contemporary, Western haikuists, some departures are (barely) acceptable, if they work. Trying things out and trying to be compliant, you may, for purposes of clarity, use the Western three-line structure of five syllables each on the first line and third lines, keeping 7 for the middle line. Formalists can use a period at the end, but contemporary haiku in English have no such requirement. With decades of patience and respect for form, you might be able to become that precise a wordsmith. But first create the realization.
As a steadfast traditionalist, you may want to position your words all on one line in the more ancient form, keeping the thought structure of a presentation: first line: here’s the world we’re in (palo verde blossoms, lake reflections, the morning light on a lake beside the road); in the second line, more description (is-ness–––the glint of a cat’s eyes, the sun path on the lake; in the third line, the observation is nailed: see Basho’s frog’s “plop!” for an example. Many versions of that sound exist.
Over years, there’s much you begin to feel/sense about haiku. Elements that grab you over time. You gather a feeling for them, enabling you, you think at first, to understand these short, classical poems as quickly as they’re delivered to you. And if one or another falls flat when you read it, then you might consider how much of the problem lies in which part of the message:
––the sender (that’s only sometimes you)
––the message (the haiku’s expression of the “ah-ha!”), or
––the receiver (who is anyone else, or you as a reader of someone else’s haiku).
The translation/transmission (from one culture into yours) can be at fault, just like your headache on rising this morning is. Likely the “problem” lies in the receiver’s not having in his/her grasp the associations of a centuries-past writer, or it lies in the present month’s writer not sending the associations clearly through excruciating, care-full diction. Understanding that bit of the process is always done in the interests of finding or making “something better.”
So here are some lines as raw material for making into haiku (Remember, it takes a village arrived at on Basho’s trail to make a renga, so after you read these, the next turn to improve them is yours!):
Haiku starts, hand-made at home, February 2006:
Tree-bark cat decides (no kigo, or seasonal suggestion)
yellow eyed (not 17 syllables; but 15)
to be good or not good.
February, seventy degrees. Kigo: redbud (an ornamental tree: bright fuscia blooms linear)
The other side of this wall: 20 syllables; clearly must be cut.
fluffy lines of redbud.
* Haiku starts, hand-made at lakeside Tempe, Arizona: February-March 2006
Sunflower-seed shells It’s Arizona, so no kigo; 16 syllables
cigarette butts: In snowy states: kigo: Sunflower-seed shells
rusty iron bench, lakeside
Black coots on slate Kigo, “coots” is seasonal
In sunset’s ripples: 17 syllables
yellow geometry, darting. uta-makura: sunset’s ripples
Pre-teen boy: 100 “like”s school is seasonal suggestion,
in his words–– 16 syllables
all about school. no uta-makura, not from this boy
Six picnic kids sink fingers kigo: “picnic”
in my dog’s grey hair– 18 syllables
smell of sizzling burgers. Meat-eater’s uta-makura: sizzling burgers
Old ash, pendulous: kigo: pendulous, “seeds than leaves”
cascading heaviness, more green 16 syllables
seeds than leaves. Uta-makura: old ash, pendulous,–pendant?
Cold sun fires black trees on water: line could suggest winter (but it’s spring)
flame-path crosscut 17 syllables
with dark-sliced ripples. Uta-makura: several possible
Sun-swathe on water kigo: “chicks”
wipes out floating 13 syllables
mallards, hens, chicks. Uta-makura: floating mallards. . .
Second month, too warm: Kigo: redbud
Beyond high walls, 16 syllables
fluffy lines of redbud. Uta-makura: fluffy lines of redbud.
Parkside Spring Haiku:
Pendant old ash, green—
more seeds than leaves—cascades:
heavy with sex.
OR (in a more ancient form)
Pendant old ash, green—more seeds than leaves––cascades: heavy with sex.
Sun-path, water swathe:
Fire wipes out floating family: (“family” said in two syllables)
mallards, hens, and chicks.
Sun-path, water swathe: Fire wipes out floating family, mallards, hens, and chicks.
Six kids sink picnic
fingersin my dog’s grey hair––
smell of barbeque.
Six kids sink picnic fingers into dog’s grey hair––sizzling burgers.
black coots, lake slate:
gold geometry darts.
black coots, lake slate: in sunset-ripples gold geometry darts.
Second month, too warm:
above casita’s wall,
the lineated redbud.
Second month, too warm: above this wall, the lineated redbud.
Roberta Burnett’s poems and translations have appeared in quaartsulini (with a reading on-line), Pirene’s Fountain, Soylesi Poetry Quarterly (tr. into Turkish by Nesrin Eruysal), and Naugatuck River Review (later serving as a guest associate-editor) and in Lucid Rhythms. Turtle Island Quarterly is the first to publish her creative non-fiction. Her first book of poems is Trying Not to Look (Flarestack, UK). She’s had a doggedly persistent, multi-careering life in undergrad college English, public relations and advertising, freelance journalism and reviewing for “almost all” the arts, and, for six summers on deck, commercial salmon fishing in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. While she wanted, childishly, to be a star, she’s happily settled for a third-phase moon with a few clouds nearby. A native of Los Angeles, she’s lived in Arizona for over 40 years.