Allusive haiku

I’ve been reading a lot of haiku in English, and one thing I don’t see very often is literary allusion. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the things that gives Japanese short-form poetry such depth, saving precious syllables that otherwise would be needed to set the scene. It is of course risky, since it presumes a common knowledge that may well be lacking for many younger readers. It might make more sense to use pop culture references to extend the range of possible meanings in a haiku: way more people are going to get a line quoting Yoda than Tennyson. Still, it can be fun to write haiku that take their cues from lines of famous poems. Here are a few I just churned out.

 whose woods these are
a barred owl asks
nothing of me

        bone zero
        freezing in mid-stride
        at a snake-shaped stick

wild geese
this soft animal would love
another damn drink

        barbaric yawp
        you say the coyotes sound
        as if they're fighting

sunset and evening star
that smell of pine comes
from a bottle

I think the first and last of these best illustrate the point I’m trying to make. Readers who recognize “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” will picture a wintry night, and anyone who’s heard “Crossing the Bar” read at a funeral will fill in the implied setting of the last haiku. The other three simply riff on the source material.

Dickinson to the rescue

Emily Dickinson restored daguerreotype

So I’m looking for the perfect epigram for an almost-complete book of poetry, because yay epigrams! I’ve been reading lots of favorite poets and coming up mostly dry — only a couple of quotes that might work, by which I mean it would be impossible to justify their use. Because with epigrams, it’s either a perfect fit or you don’t use it.

After a couple of days of searching, I remembered Emily Dickinson. I said to myself, I will open the complete poems at random and find the perfect quote. It was 11:30 at night, so I couldn’t go retrieve my copy of the R. W. Franklin edition from my parents’ house, but this morning I got Mom to give it back, and without any special ritual, prayer or preparation, I opened the book at random. Now, keep in mind that this is a hardcover book with a sewn binding, so it does pretty much open at random despite how many times it’s been read. And would you believe it? The very first poem my eyes lit upon was indeed the perfect epigram for my book. If and when I get it published, you’ll see what I mean.

Now I’m sure those of you with a more skeptical cast of mind are probably suspicious right now, but I swear to Darwin this is true. One possible explanation that occurred to me afterwards is that maybe it’s not so unlikely statistically speaking: maybe there are a number of Dickinson’s poems might work as epigrams for this collection, given a certain overlap of subject-mater and her unique skill with pithy, gnomic lines. So I spent the next ten minutes flipping through Franklin and seeing if there were any other quotes that might work. Didn’t find a one.

It is the case, however, that I’m a credulous sort — and a poet besides — so you can take all this with a grain of salt if you like. For example, I’m too superstitious to say much more about the manuscript, or even supply the Dickinson poem I found for an epigram, at this stage. (Later on, don’t worry: you will hear PLENTY about it, I promise.) But for once, here is what I am NOT guilty of this time:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Emily Dickinson by Michel Garneau

This entry is part 28 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Michel Garneau

Emily’s fans are everywhere (and thank you, US blogger friends, for making me one). See Dave’s recent translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s “Poema para Emily Dickinson”. The prolific Quebecois poet, dramatist, performer and broadcaster Michel Garneau (b. 1939) published this long poem in 1977 and followed it in 1981 with his play Émilie ne sera plus jamais cueillie par l’anémone, wherein Emily’s life is transposed to a setting in Quebec, as were – controversially – his French translations of Shakespeare.

Michel Garneau has often focused on and written in the voices of women. Is it too much to deduce that woman also stands here for Quebec, that Emily is Quebec? Anyway, from this very active, public, male, francophone writer, a poem both bold and delicate that I think holds its own in the context of recent attempts to reassess and de-romanticise the work and life of Emily Dickinson.

Cousin to the squirrels

would we all have made fun
of this little woman drunk on dew
old maid with jam on her mind
hiding literature in her apron?

by the end of her journeying within
she used to stay at the top of the stairs
     they would be left
          in the brown shadows
               of the hallway
               address them
                    from on high

                    for a few moments
     the lowliest
     of all those present

like the string of a kite

and did she ever love a man of flesh and blood
stirring hidden and mysterious
beneath the clothes that were fashionable then?

discreet biographers have suggested
that she died
she died still
died still a virgin

or perhaps she loved a woman
and reading between the lines you might
believe she just touched her hair

she held debates with her very personal god
there among the flowers she called by name
while believing in no names
but those exhaled by the flowers themselves

on rosy-brown butcher paper
and on used envelopes
she made a little note of every nuance
of how everything was part
of an infinite possibility

it took her breath away
when the setting sun
lit up the squirrel’s tail

she breathed as if labouring uphill
with her two narrow little lungs

she listened
to her heart’s gift
to the rhythm
of too great a benefaction:
               her very lifeblood

there in her village
she devoured the whole cosmos
made the best jams
while never telling a soul
that she knew the sacredness of everything
even of evil living as she did
in the dizzy ecstasy
of life’s bounty
that she had no fear
of sorrow
that she never was alone
being both herself
and her own confidante

thistles by Jean Morris

observing the passage of the bee
with his cartload of honey
there in those famous fields
starry with clover
she allowed the heedless thistles
to tear her pretty yellow dress

and if from time to time
she mouthed
a plea for help
at other times
she would weed out despair
with her own fine manners

you see
if you spoke too loudly
in her presence
she would retreat to her room
excusing herself with a small smile

and did she love her own body?
can one really love the whole universe?

the clouds pregnant with chilly peace
took refuge in the grass

the song of the nighthawk echoed around
then lost itself in the surface of the leaves

the bobolink sang just for her
and often she would thank him
for staying close
often she wrote his name
I hear her saying it softly
over and over
as she swept up the tiniest trace
of the bobolink’s pale dust
     bobolink bobolink

emily had little learning
emily isn’t in the know
emily had no opinions
only revelations

clearly though she knew she saw
she heard with such exquisite pleasure
truly tasted and was luminously
touched by everything she felt

she knew only
streams and ponds
the very thought of a raging flood
ravaged her heart

naïve was emily
naïve as the devil
and supremely skeptical

with more sweetness than wisdom
she passed the afternoons
her heart stirred
by the wildest of hopes
like the first railway engine

beneath eyelids
as wilful as
the rampant clover
she always had plans
for tomorrow
subtle as the night

I turn my own sunseeking heart
towards the clarity of her questions
her eternal september
and I hear the little scholar of the garden
murmuring among our own lilacs
in that mossy musical way she had
that wonderment is not exactly knowledge
but work is easy
when the soul is at play

in the house

I learn from her learn from her sweetness
to read the hillsides one syllable at a time

delicate and free in my own house
delicate and free in this
rainbow-hued drama of ours

when death prowled among the trees
she offered him a cup of tea
knowing full well
that death did not drink tea

and on that sombre evening
when death finally
overcame her
with what good grace
she must have offered him her life

Cousine des écureuils

chacun de nous s’en serait moqué
de la petite ivrogne de rosée
vieille fille aux yeux de confitures
cachant la littérature dans son tablier

à la fin de son périple dans l’enracinement
elle restait en haut de l’escalier
quand on
               dans l’ombre brune
                    du vestibule

                    d’en haut

                    quelques instants
     la plus humble
     de toutes présentes

comme une corde de cerf volant

elle a aimé des vrais hommes en chair
bougeant mystérieusement cachés
dedans des habits à la mode de ce temps

il est suggéré dans des livres polis
qu’elle jusqu’à la mort
était jusqu’à la mort
vierge jusqu’à la mort

elle a aimé une femme peut-être
et en lisant bien il est possible
de croire qu’elle a touché ses cheveux

elle se querellait avec son dieu très personnel
parmi les fleurs dont elle murmurait les noms
sans jamais croire que rien était nommé
autrement que dans le seul sens de la fleur du souffle

sur le papier rose-brun du boucher
et sur les vieilles enveloppes
elle notait légèrement les toutes nuances
de toute son appartenance
à l’immensité possible

elle perdait le souffle
en voyant le geste du soleil
enflammant la queue de l’écureuil

elle respirait comme une colline
avec deux petits poumons étroits

elle écoutait
le don du coeur qu’elle avait
à même le rythme
du trop immense cadeau :
               le sang vivant

elle a mangé le cosmos
dans un village
et faisait les meilleures confitures
sans jamais dire à personne
qu’elle savait que tout est sacré
même le mal par ce qu’elle vivait
dans la jubilation vertigineuse
du respire-cadeau
et qu’elle ne connaissait pas
la peur d’être triste
et qu’elle n’était jamais seule
puisqu’elle était emily
et la confidante d’emily

en regardant passer l’abeille
dans sa carriole de miel
elle laissait dans la galaxie
du champs de trèfles célèbres
les craquias innocents grafigner
sa belle robe jaune

si elle murmurait parfois
une journée
au secours
une autre journée
elle sarclait le désespoir
proprement avec ses belles manières

si on parlait fort
en sa présence
elle montait à sa chambre
en s’excusant d’un petit sourire

je ne sais pas si elle aimait son corps
est-ce qu’on aime vraiment l’univers

les nuages infestés de paix frileuse
se retiraient dans l’herbe

le chant de l’engoulevent piquait l’écho
et s’allait perdre dans les pores des feuilles

le bobolink chantait pour elle
elle le remerciait souvent
de chanter près d’elle
en écrivant son nom souvent
et j’entends facilement
répéter doucement
en balayant un presque rien
de poussière blonde de bobolink
     bobolink bobolink

emily n’était pas très connaissante
emily n’est pas au courant
emily n’avait pas d’opinions
rien que des illuminations

c’est clair qu’elle savait qu’elle voyait
qu’elle entendait délicieusement
qu’elle goûtait vraiment qu’elle touchait
lumineusement qu’elle sentait

elle ne connaissait
que ruisseaux et étangs
et le mot maelström
lui serrait le coeur

elle était naïve emily
naïve comme le diable
et parfaitement sceptique

plus douce que sage
elle traversait des après-midi
avec une émeute dans le coeur
et un espoir farouche
comme les premières locomotives

sous les paupières
volontaires comme
la santé des trèfles
elle avait toujours des projets
pour demain
subtils come la nuit

moi je tourne mon cœur tournesol
vers la clarté de ses questions
et de son septembre éternel
j’entends la petite bachelière du jardin
murmurer dans nos lilas
avec une musicienne parlure de mousse
que s’émerveiller n’est pas précisément connaître
mais que c’est facile de travailler
quand l’âme joue

la plus petite
dans la maison

doux d’elle j’apprends d’elle
à lire les syllabes des collines

délicatement libre dans ma maison
délicatement libre dans le drame
couleur de l’arc dans le ciel

quant la mort rôdait autour des arbres
elle lui offrait le thé
et elle savait très bien
que la mort n’aime pas le thé

et au soir sérieux
quand la vraie mort
l’a envahie
elle a dû gentiment
lui offrir sa vie

New “Hope”

There’s now a larger, HD version of the video I made for Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers…” last year — the one using a Nic S. reading and clips from an old Encyclopedia Brittanica educational film about the American Civil War, which was going on when Dickinson wrote her poem 150 years ago. (Vimeo permits users to swap one file for another, so this will replace the earlier version in all embeds that may be out there. Neat, eh?) The difference in quality may not be all that large, however, due to the limitations of the source file at An artists’ collective in Athens requested a projection-quality version for an upcoming festival/exhibition of poetry videos, which intrigues me because of their approach: a number of screens playing videos in different rooms, museum-style, rather than scheduled screenings as in a typical film festival. I find longer videos rather tiresome to watch in a museum gallery, but since most videopoems are quite brief, this approach should work well, I think, and expose any given video to many more viewers. One of the four rooms in this two-day poetry event will be devoted to the work of four master poets: Dickinson, Blake, Plath and Bukowski — some interesting company for the Belle of Amherst! “Void Network thinks that Poetry Nights are a chance to create a vibrant place in the hurt of the Metropolis,” they told me. Well, one can always hope.

Wild Nights (videopoem)

Watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube.

Usually I would wait till morning to post something completed so late at night, but this one needs to get its first few views from my fellow night-owls. It occurred to me that Emily Dickinson might well have envisioned a male narrator for her poem “Wild Nights…” (1861).

I first watched the silent footage used here on CreatureCast last year and was entranced. Fortunately, they license everything Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike, God bless ’em. You can watch their original, higher-resolution version here. “This footage shows what a remotely operated submarine was seeing at about 600 meters depth in the Pacific Ocean.”

The music is “Soundscape #3” by Ithaca Audio on SoundCloud. Oddly, as I was taking a break in putting this together to surf the web a few hours ago, I happened on a blog post about the guy behind Ithaca Audio and his approach to creativity and sharing. There’s serendipity for you.

Hope is the thing

Watch at Vimeowatch at YouTube.

This is not the video I intended to make. When I contacted Nic S. on Tuesday to ask if she’d be willing to record a reading of Dickinson’s poem, I’d just seen the one hundredth example of someone trying to illustrate the poem with a video of a goddamn bird, for christsake. I’d just shot some good footage of a toad that afternoon, and I thought, why not use that? Then this morning, I got some further inspiration and shot a dandelion sead head (that’s “dandelion clock,” for you Brits) blowing in the wind. It was gorgeous. It had “thing with feathers” written all over it.

The problem is, when I went ahead and made a videopoem with Nic’s reading over-top a recording of a wood thrush with the toad and dandelion clips, it was just too… you know. Too pretty. Dickinson wrote the poem in 1862. 1862! Hope was in pretty short supply that year.

So I took an hour’s nap, and when I got up, the solution was clear. Fortunately, the Prelinger Archives obliged. God, I love the internet! But not as much as I love Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson on heaven

Watch on Vimeo.

I decided to envideo a poem by Emily Dickinson (#413 in the R. W. Franklin edition of the complete poems), written in 1862.

Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –

‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –

While this obviously isn’t one of Dickinson’s greatest poems, it does encapsulate, I think, one of her core beliefs, and is therefore a useful key to understanding her work as a whole. I couldn’t resist adding an ironic visual reference to one of her most famous poems.

And I must admit I picked a short poem because I didn’t have that much footage. I spent some time going through Franklin looking for poems about Heaven and Nature, and almost went with #721, which is more apophatic (and still pretty short), but it wasn’t as good a fit.

Woodrat Podcast 31: Emily Dickinson at 180

Emily Dickinson

180: a half-circle of years since the birth of Emily Dickinson. I got the idea of doing this podcast around 2:00 p.m. yesterday and sent out a bunch of emails expecting that maybe a third of the recipients would be able to make recordings of themselves reading and talking about Dickinson. Instead, almost everyone did! I also advertised for participants on Twitter and Facebook, and got several more volunteers that way. So this episode is twice as long as usual, but that’s O.K., because hey — it’s a party! (Albeit a low-key one, as Dickinson probably would’ve preferred.) This is not a scholarly discussion of Dickinson; check out Open Source Radio’s podcast with Helen Vendler if you’d like something more analytical. We are just poets, artists, novelists, knitters, musicians… appreciators of poetry reading and musing about one of the giants of world literature.

Participants: Kelli Russell Agodon, Ivy Alvarez, Patricia F. Anderson, Rachel Barenblat, Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Bob BrueckL, Sherry Chandler, Brenda Clews, Teju Cole, Jason Crane, Anna Dickie, Jessica Fox-Wilson, Dick Jones, Collin Kelley, Alison Kent, Clayton Michaels, Divya Rajan, Deb Scott, Nic S., Steven Sherrill, Carolee Sherwood, Hannah Stephenson, Christine Swint and Donna Vorreyer.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Missing notes

I was a Phebe – nothing more –
A Phebe – nothing less –
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place –

Six-thirty. The treetops glow with the first rays of sun. A hummingbird circles a bull thistle’s purple tuft – all looks, no substance – then zooms over to the bergamot with its washed-out, scraggly heads.

Aside from the background trill of crickets and the sound of cars and trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile to the west, I’m struck by how silently the day has dawned. Early August is always a sad time of the year for me: the dusk and dawn chorus has dwindled to almost nothing. No more phoebe, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, catbird, great-crested flycatcher. Their young have fledged and learned their parent’s songs, and some have already begun the journey to their true homes in the tropics. Without such stalwarts as the cardinal, song sparrow and especially Carolina wren, the morning would arrive completely unheralded eight months out of twelve.

Already, the early goldenrod is blooming, and by the end of the week the whole field will have turned to gold. The season’s final generation of monarchs is on the wing. A dry high has settled in, bringing clear skies and autumn-cool temperatures. My niece is in heaven – she can spend almost every waking hour out-of-doors if she chooses. She spends the nights apart from her parents, sleeping up in her grandparents’ house in what had been my bedroom when I was growing up. And though she sometimes seems to wish that every adult were as facetious as her daddy and uncles are, there’s no question that her serious, naturalist-writer Nanna is still her main role model.

Yesterday morning the two of them went for a walk down Laurel Ridge, and Eva discovered a box turtle that her Nanna had walked right past without noticing. It was half-grown – only a few years old – and completely unafraid, even when Eva picked it up. After a careful examination of the eyes and plectrum, they decided it must be a female. Eva was so excited to have been the first to spot it, she ran all the way back to the house to tell her grandpa – and anyone else who would listen.

After lunch, without prompting from anyone, she sat down with a clipboard and legal pad and began to write what she proudly predicts will be her first published nature essay. We were astonished by the neatness of her hand and her fantastic spelling for a second grader. Mom reported the following conversation from earlier in the day.

Eva: “Are you famous, Nanna?”

Nanna: “Well, no, not really.”

“But do people know who you are?”

“Well, in Pennsylvania, I guess some people know who am.”

“That’s what I want! I want to write about Nature so people will know who I am!”

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Heidi stopped over with her three-year-old daughter Morgan in tow. Eva immediately took her under her wing and managed to coax her into walking much farther than she ever had before, showering her with praise for the feat. It was amusing to see these two only-children relate to each other in a big sister-little sister fashion.

As for me, I’m just happy for the company of two spontaneously affectionate and imaginative children – even when sudden storms of temper blow in from nowhere, as sometimes happens. Most of the time I am content to play Thoreau without regret for my single, childless state. But then I get a hug from a little kid and am reminded suddenly of just how much I’m missing.

The missing All, prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge
Or sun’s Extinction, be observed
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.


Both quotes are from the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: nos. 1009 (first stanza) and 995 (complete).