Summer dusk

still from "summer dusk" - lights reflected on the river

A videohaiku filmed several weeks ago at Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames, London. There were many other things that afternoon and evening that I wish I’d filmed, such as the grand spectacle of the tide going out on the Thames, or the 18th-century clay pipe stems that still appear by the thousands among the stones on the foreshore. But you have to go with what you’ve got — and nothing stops me from making poems without video, after all.

Climate strike

still from climate strike

A haiku video using footage of my partner Rachel preparing for last Friday’s global climate strike—an event led by schoolchildren in which adults were also encouraged to participate.

Sea Levels

still from Sea Levels

A renku (linked verse) sequence about sea level rise and the drowned Bronze Age forest of the Welsh Ceredigion coast, exposed in recent years by climate change-related storms. Here’s the text, for the benefit of the visually impaired:

low tide
we comb the ancient peat
for footprints

drowned forest
the gull’s cry turns eldritch

undead stumps
4000 years later
sprout bladderwrack

our shared excitement
at scraps of root-bark

seaside town
all the colors of ice cream
against the Atlantic

the high street is already
lower than the beach

Tisha B’Av just past
Orthodox Jewish families
stroll the sea wall

land marks us
sea levels us

beneath the waves
we are saying hello
and goodbye

Process notes

Summer is my least favorite season, so I guess it’s no surprise that I fell out of the habit of shooting videos for one-minute videohaikus sometime in July. But an August visit to the submerged forest at Borth and Ynyslas in Wales, scoured of sand most recently by Storm Hannah in April, revived my interest in shooting cellphone video, to put it mildly. I now have plans to finish up the summer sequence with four or five other videos, but this one is different: my first attempt at a renku video. (And at two minutes, it’s too long to share on Instagram. Boo hoo.) The poetry took some time to write, and I was continuing to fiddle with the last three verses up through the final editing.

There is a legend about a little kingdom in the Ceredigion Bay, Cantre’r Gwaelod, that was drowned thousands of years ago, based presumably on earlier glimpses of the ancient stumps, roots and peat. Or it may be actual folk memory; human footprints and artifacts have been found in the peat. There are also arrow-straight glacial moraines leading from shore out into the bay, which look very man-made—I was fooled—and no doubt gave rise to stories of an ancient system of dikes and causeways. All this folk material is very interesting but I didn’t feel it was mine to exploit, especially since Welsh poets have already done so, with the kind of intimate knowledge you only gain by spending a lot of time in a place. John Barnie’s The Forest Under the Sea (Cinnamon Press, 2010) is a great example of this. I was delighted to find a copy in a bookstore in Aberystwyth just around the corner from where we were staying. Here’s one of the shortest poems:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

I’m trying to recall the wreckage of my parent’s lives,
my brother’s,

confounded with claws and stumps on the shore
as

memory sweeps their images
out and in.

And another:

Low Tide at Borth

Terns have settled for a chat
at ease among roots of the sunken forest
like woodland birds before the tide
turns to reclaim its property, wrapping it
in salty preservatives; the terns

will fly, then, and screech and dive
for the silver mint of fish, the shoal
scattering and shining as did leaves in the Cantref
when a westerly blew and there was fierce
gale-light and no mercy.

We did hear from several people that Borth gets all kinds of savage weather. There only for a few days as tourists in fine, late-summer weather, what we see depends much more on what we bring to the place. For me, that’s a long-standing love of forests, a fascination with ancient Britain, and an environmentalist’s deep sense of foreboding about biodiversity loss and climate change. As for myths, there’s Atlantis, of course, but also, as a metalhead, Chthulu (“eldritch” is a word rescued from obscurity by H.P. Lovecraft). And though I’m not Jewish, a reference to Tisha B’Av seemed to fit: a day for mourning historical calamities.

Whether or not readers/watchers pick up on all that doesn’t really matter. The trick with haiku as always is to balance the sense of wabi and sabi with lightness and earthy humor. It’s the ideal form for travel poetry. Whether or not I’ve succeeded here, it does feel good to push myself and do something a bit more ambitious than usual.

Old Oak Common

Watch on Vimeo

Yes, Virginia, there is a hellmouth. Old Oak Common is where the planned (and entirely unnecessary) High Speed 2 line will link up with Crossrail and the Great Western mainline to form the busiest station in the UK, in the process building one of the largest underground structures in the world. Currently it’s a massive plot of destroyed earth adjacent to Wormwood Scrubs, a rather bucolic conservation area less than two miles from where I live in northwest London. For more on the deconstruction, see this article in the Londonist. Anyway, enjoy the nice haiku.

midnight snail

View on Vimeo.

The process for making this videohaiku was a bit more convoluted than most. It started with my shooting a pretty good video of a snail descending a dead vine in the garden and continued with several days of adequate but not amazing haiku drafts. Then a long and varied open-mike reading (36 readers!) at London’s Poetry Cafe last night kind of re-set my thinking on the train ride home, and the haiku had taken a dramatically different direction by the time I started the short walk home. Then I encountered the snail in the video above, crossing the sidewalk of our residential street. The iPhone isn’t brilliant at shooting video in low light, but when I looked at the footage on my laptop this morning, I really liked all the glisteny bits. A bit of web research and a short walk later, I had the haiku I ended up using.

I mention all this in part to make the point that haiku are rarely easy to write, despite—or because—they are so short. (And I’m grateful to the host of the open mike reading, Niall O’Sullivan, for making that point at last night’s reading as well, in response to my sharing a couple of haibun. He then launched into a mini rant against 5-7-5 folk haiku, which was quite amusing. I see from his website that this is a regular theme of his.)

The snail is Cornu aspersum, the garden snail or Mediterranean land snail—the same species prized for escargots. It’s considered native here, though I suspect the Romans introduced it for culinary purposes.

dog walking

View on Vimeo.

The first draft of this haiku was considerably cleverer, complete with a self-reflexive pun, but ultimately simpler was better, I thought. Especially if the video is black and white.

commuter train

View on Vimeo.

A videohaiku shot on the London Overground, the tube’s less poetic, more sensible sibling.

I lived in Osaka for a year in the mid 80s, so that’s my other major experience with commuter trains. Back then, moving fingers belonged to businessmen taking advantage of the cramped conditions to feel up women. It was a huge problem. All my female acquaintances became adept at elbow jabs and insults in the local dialect. I don’t know how things are in Japan these days, but in the UK I’m glad that everyone just plays with their devices.

Grand Union Canal

View on Vimeo.

The first in my summer series of haiku videos, shot near where I’m staying in north London, along the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal.

I’m not sure why I haven’t been sharing my videohaiku here, along with Instagram, Twitter, Vimeo, and YouTube. Possibly out of reluctance to supply titles to haiku (though that hasn’t stopped me from doing the occasional Pepys erasure haiku). But first lines will suffice, I think.