Behind the Trees

trail junction
Click to enlarge

Haiku Comment Week continues.


The five-pointed star inside each apple. The pattern of roots beneath the soil. The fetus sucking her perfect, tiny thumb. Blind fish in the depths, the ultraviolet messages flowers send to bees, all the colors hidden in white, the fossils buried deep in solid rock.

This morning
I saw behind the trees
the first bits of sky.


The Rain in My Purse

somewhere there’s a beard with my name on it
a nest for crumbs and smoke
because life comes at you from all directions
when you’re a man

You can have mine
when I’m done with it — right after
I rob a bank.


Pines Above Snow

Lucky Charm and his successors became my ambassadors to the outdoors, drawing me away from my books and literally carrying me into the woods and fields. On Lucky’s back, I chased foxes, watched a snake swallow a frog, and developed my first hostile relationship with an invasive species–bull thistle–due to its impact on bare legs.

Every young dreamer
should be issued a horse
just for the thistles.


Riverside Rambles

Often these wisps of spider-silk travel through the air at an angle of around thirty degrees to the ground. This is because the lower trailing end is gripped and weighted down by a small spider traveling to a new home.

To see ballooning spiders,
stand in the trailing shadow
of a tree.


The Middlewesterner

The farmer with flowers at Five Corners is parked there looking at them; as I pass through the intersection he pulls away.

The first morning back
on Standard Time, the farmer
checks on his flowers.


box elder


The first fire
sprouts from a pine cone’s cluster
of crackling tongues.



Couldn’t stand to look at that miserable excuse for a painting another minute so I changed my position, sat close up to the table, grabbed my palette knife and attacked.

With three empty chairs
and only two apples, this life
can hardly stay still.

All grass is flesh

I hearby declare October 28th through November 3rd Haiku Comment Week. Almost all of the comments that I leave at other blogs this week will take the form of haiku (which for me means approximately 17 syllables arranged in three lines and containing some element of surprise or grain of insight). I’ll collect them once a day and re-post them (slightly edited in some cases) here at Via Negativa, with links to the posts that prompted them, along with brief quotes.

Why haiku comments? I read a lot of blogs, but rarely take the time to leave substantial or interesting — or any — comments, in part because I tend to do my blog-reading at the end of the day, when my brain is tired, and in part because I’m a slow thinker in the best of circumstances. Also, I’ll admit I sometimes skim even the better blog posts rather than giving them the close attention they deserve. Americans in particular are schooled in unhealthy patterns of consumption, assuming that if a little of something is good, a lot of it must be even better, but in most cases that’s simply not true. I need to slow down. Composing haiku is a way to try and get myself to come up with thoughtful responses to posts I like.

I seem to have had grass on my mind today…


Fragments from Floyd

How would you describe what a breath of late October air feels and smells like where you live?

Grass blades edged in frost
for the first time since April:
a sharpness in the nose.


Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages

she is a continent
without roads, without cities.

Maps are redundant:
all directions lead
to polar north.

Are there tides on the moon?
The Sea of Tranquility
looks darker tonight.



Everyone knows that people write poems, but what’s a little less obvious is that poems write people too.

The keeper of spells
killed & buried in the bog
turns to bitter parchment.


Roundrock Journal

With luck and a clear sky, Pablo will be out at Roundrock today, enjoying the seasonal color and the mild weather. Nothing much on the agenda, which makes for the best kind of visit.

I was asked if I had any news to report about the decay of the shopping bags. Alas, I haven’t been out to my woods since the day I placed them. Maybe I’ll be able to report now.

Nothing to do but sit
& watch empty shopping bags
break down in the sun.


In a Dark Time

Lael also seemed rather drawn to this statue, even arguing with another little girl who said it was HER family.

A girl climbs into
the sculpted circle & gazes
at the father’s zero face.


Pocahontas County Fare

I was never sure whether “Kitchener” should be capitalized, or why the seamless grafting technique had that name, but yesterday, while looking for something else, I discovered the answers to both these questions.

The perfect suture
may wear a general’s name,
but was he the knitter?


3rd House Journal

One day after work before we moved, I drove over and parked at the end of our street, got out and hiked up the embankment to see the reservoir — a grassy mound surrounded by a high railed fence. Where’s the water??

A tall fence surrounds
The underground reservoir.
Why not a moat?



Where is the Pratyekabuddha?

Where did it get
such a perfect pair of lips?
The grass isn’t saying.


One Word

…a bound to appreciate,
Rub his face in the sprouting wheat he’ll be
hawking up later…

The cat feasts on grass,
& just like a ruminant,
brings it all back up.

Kobayashi Issa: haiku about shitting

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is generally counted as one of the four greatest haiku poets, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Issa was a devout, if irreverent, Buddhist of the True Pure Land sect whose pen-name means “one cup of tea.” His haiku are extremely down-to-earth, making ample use of vernacular speech and often taking insects or other invertebrates for their subject matter. He wrote at least fifteen haiku about excrement and excretory functions, in which I believe he was not only riffing on the Buddhist doctrine about the essential oneness of nirvana and samsara, but also trying to challenge traditional Japanese concepts of beauty and purity. Japan is a purity-obsessed culture, in which cleanliness and beauty are closely linked. Foreign visitors to Japan are often surprised to discover that, in this otherwise extremely clean and tidy country, public restrooms, especially in train stations, can be unspeakably filthy. Since such places are considered inherently impure, little effort is expended to keep them clean. But to Issa, any place where people or animals pause to take a shit seems worthy of a second look. After all, anything that breaks us loose from our ordinary mental habits might lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.

For a more comprehensive sample of Issa’s work, see David G. Lanoue’s massive online archive (to which I am indebted for the Japanese texts below). The following are my own translations.


ta no hito no kasa ni hako shite kaeru kari

flooded fields—
wild geese take wing
shitting on the farmers’ hats


sôjô ga no-guso asobasu higasa kana

in the middle of the field
the high priest’s parasol—
taking a dump


no setchin no ushiro wo kakou yanagi kana

impromptu outhouse
screening bare asses from view—
the lone willow


musashi no ya no-guso no togi ni naku hibari

Musashi Plain—
listening to a skylark
while I take a shit


nichi-nichi no kuso darake nari hana no yama

cherry blossom time—
each day the mountain is deeper
in excrement


kado-gado ni aoshi kaiko no kuso no yama

at every gate
that blue-green mountain—
silkworm frass


uguisu ya kuso shi nagara mo hokkekyô

bush warbler
intoning the Lotus Sutra
even as it shits


kasugano ya dagashi ni majiru shika no kuso

between the temples
in Kasuga Field, deer pellets
mingled with cheap candy


hatsu yuki ya furi ni mo kakurenu inu no kuso

first snow:
not even enough to hide
all the dogshit


Revised 10/25/2020

Matsuo Basho: a new hearing

detail from “Frog and Mouse” by Getsuju, ca. 1800, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The temple bell stops—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

The contrail dissipates—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the sky.


Such stillness—
The cries of the cicadas
Sink into the rocks.

Such stillness—
the hum of the air conditioner
drowns out the traffic.


The old pond.
A frog jumps in.
The sound of water.

The mitigated wetland.
A frog hops toward it.
The sound of tires.

Translations by Robert Bly (1); Donald Keene (2); damn near everyone (3)

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

This week’s prompt — project, really — was guerrilla poetry, and while I wasn’t able put the suggestion into effect (yet), I guess bowlderizing some of the greatest works of a justly beloved poet is sort of guerrilla-esque. Links to other Poetry Thursday posts can be found here.

Election Day morning: haiku

Election Day morning.
I wake from lascivious dreams
to a screech owl’s quaver.


Election Day morning.
In the bathroom, small toothmarks
all over my soap.


Election Day morning.
The factory whistle seems
to go on forever.


Election Day morning.
Smell of rain, sound of woodpeckers
banging their heads.


Election Day morning.
I make a neat little pile
of my toenail clippings.


Election Day morning.
My wristwatch is now six days
& four hours behind.


Election Day morning.
Gray squirrels forage in the oaks.
The clatter of acorns.

* * *

Feel free to leave your own Election Day haiku in the comment boxes. And read this.

Right then

The iodized salt psychic has a framed certificate from the board of health mounted behind his rickety office desk. Why, I wonder, is my imagination cluttered with such useless things? Why do I remember that dead leaf on the driveway, turning over like the page of a well-thumbed volume perused by the wind? What does it mean – if anything – that a black cat not merely crosses my path day and night, but is raising three kittens in the barn, all as feral as she? Are all of them black? Yes, as black as the jack of diamonds – aside from the parts that are white, of course. Have you been missing any songbirds? How many should we have? How many do you hear? All of them, I think. But sometimes I sleep with my windows shut.

This morning it was chilly but beautiful. I woke late and sat out on the porch watching, well, everything there was to watch. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because my attention kept wandering back to an erotic dream I’d had. You know. It had me whispering sweet nothings in the morning’s ear: “All my life has been nothing but a preparation for this moment.” Which one? The sun works its way down the side of my house, but I keep my eyes on the woods. Dew drips from the eaves. Yesterday I went to an auction of old farm tools and was thrilled and mesmerized by the auctioneer’s cadence, but I’m not thinking about that right now. I’ve gone 180 degrees, in fact: I’m busy jotting down some haiku in my little reporter’s notebook, which all day long at the auction never left my pocket.

Cool morning.
Crystal-clear air carries
a whiff of sewage.

Indigo bunting,
yellow warbler trade songs –
same syllable count.

Chilly morning.
A chipmunk stops to scold
in a patch of sunlight.

One drums, the other yammers:
the pileateds agree
to disagree.

When the sun clears the top
of the tall maple
I’ll go get breakfast.

And I do. Inside, it’s just another morning. Are there really still these same four walls? How strange! But I have work to do. I need to stop thinking about what I’ve been thinking about and think about something else, I think, and at the very moment I’m thinking this, something goes bump in the crawl space under the floor. Bump, it goes. Gee, thanks, Doc! I’m glad you agree.

Spring snow: sixteen snapshots

Spring snow:
the night before, I woke
to the sound of swans

Spring snow:
the spicebush outside my window
captures more & more of the sky

Spring snow:
one mourning dove adds
an extra half-note

Spring snow:
the soft ground sinks
under my boots

Image Hosted by

Spring snow:
last year’s stalks of Oswego tea
don fresh caps

Spring snow:
whitewashed walls of a springhouse
look anything but white

Spring snow
clinging to every twig
trunks glow green with lichen

Spring snow:
the black cat crouches
beside a vole’s burrow

Image Hosted by

Spring snow
on budding maples:
faint blush of pink

Spring snow
covers up the letters
on a “No Trespassing” sign

Spring snow:
the woods won’t be this dark again
until early summer

Spring snow:
soft thumps as it drops off the trees,
water loud in the creek

Image Hosted by

UPDATE: Thanks to Ivy Alvarez for suggesting a change in the first haiku (“I woke” instead of “I had awoken”).

Hi, cue

Sharon of Watermark is soliciting New Year’s haiku for one of her multi-partner poem dances. I stopped by to drop a link to the preceding entry in the comment box, but then, right on cue, felt the urge to drop something more appropriately syllabled. This be it.

To what shall I liken
this New Year’s, warm and brown?
It happens, that’s all.

Chasing shadows

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                  or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.

Charles Wright, Appalachia (FSG, 1998)

For some time I’ve been chewing on an old bone of contention between artists and critics: is the image older than the symbol? I think yes. I remember Borges, not too long before his death, folded into his very tweedy jacket and staring sightlessly out at the fawning audience. The auditorium was packed for his evening lecture, which, he had said earlier in the day, he wished to be a discussion – but who was kidding whom? – about metaphor. Funny how an image stick in one’s head, the Chinese graduate student wrote in his spiral-bound notebook. (Penn State got them from the mainland even then; they stood out from other East Asian students with the bathroom slippers they wore everywhere.) Speaking through his interpreter, our honored guest discussed his favorite contention, that Life is a Dream. “But isn’t that itself a metaphor?” one of our more alert members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts wanted to know. “No,” Borges intoned to the delight of many, who found said faculty member a little hard to take. “It is the truth!”

This would have been a scandalous notion had it come from anyone but the Great Writer. There was a bit of murmuring, to be sure. I remember murmuring something myself; I’m not sure what. “Freud have mercy!” perhaps, or “Pinch me!” But up spoke another of our champions to ask for an example of a poetic image with no metaphorical function. “Consider Japanese haiku,” said Borges. “‘The ancient pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water.’ Where’s the metaphor?” “Couldn’t you say the entire poem functions as a metaphor?” “You could, but it isn’t necessary. The poem doesn’t have to mean anything.” Japanese – ancient pond, mean nothing, wrote the Chinese grad student in the seat beside me.

I am oversimplifying as usual; you don’t have to tell me that. Symbols and metaphors aren’t exactly the same. But I find it interesting to try and imagine how the brain of an intelligent, social, non-human animal such as a dog or raven actually works, how it might see the world. Because of course the one big difference between us and the others is their lack of a symbolic language. No abstractions! But dreams, memory, emotion, anticipation, basic reasoning power – they have all that.

Well, the image that sticks in my head is of Fred First’s one year-old dog Tsuga chasing – or perhaps attempting to herd – the shadows of butterflies. He also bobs for rocks. There’s something awfully darn metaphorical about a blogger’s dog chasing the shadows of butterflies. Is he a literalist, I wonder, or a skeptic? It is equally easy to imagine him saying: “The Butterfly listeth where it will,” or: “I don’t believe in Butterfly. I know what I see.”

But I’m just being clever, as humans are wont to do. There’s enough meat there already without any help from me.


The retriever pup
chases butterfly shadows
even in his sleep.


Butterfly’s shadow:
the dog’s nose goes wild
at the lack of odor.


Muzzle to ground,
his legs get ahead of him:
herding shadows.


Butterfly shadow
on the lawn shrinks, vanishes.
The dog digs for it.


Head under water
the golden retriever
keeps his eyes open.


On the creek bottom
every pale stone’s alive with shadows.