Virals is a section in which one person choses a haiku by another person and comments on that haiku. Then the author of that haiku is invited to select a haiku by someone else and comment on that poem, and so on. For an introduction to this section, see Virals.
What Isn’t There, Is There
BY Jean LeBlanc
rising from your bed
the train whistle
—Judith A. Christian
I tell my students in Freshman Composition, “As with any poem, you can write a two to three page analysis of a well-crafted haiku.” Their eyes grow wide with . . . terror? Disbelief? The excitement of a creative and intellectual challenge? Well, terror, then. That is what I feel now, as I try to find the words to describe everything I hear and see and experience in Judith A. Christian’s elegant, simple, complex eight-word, thirteen-syllable haiku, “rising from your bed.”
I have lived in two places where the sound of a train whistle could be heard late at night, a freight train passing through my nondescript town on its way from someplace wonderful (Montreal?) to someplace else wonderful (Boston? New York City?). Christian’s haiku brings me back to the lonely nights of adolescence, in my third-floor bedroom in our house on a hill above town. Not far below, the train tracks followed the Nashua River through north-central Massachusetts, a north-flowing river meandering its way to the Atlantic, a river that suffered the indignities of everything a hundred little milltowns could throw at it—and into it—before finally reaching the Merrimack and eventually the sea. Everything—train, river—going somewhere, anywhere. “Somewhere, anywhere”—the refrain of one’s teen-aged years. And every night, the train whistle, which made the going sound just as forlorn as the staying. What a first word: “rising.” The “I will arise, and go now” of Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The rising sun. A rising from the grave of one reborn, resurrected. All images of light and hope; not the stuff of this haiku. The words “darkness” and “night” are not present in these lines, and I have risen from bed in broad daylight after many an afternoon nap, but somehow we just know that this poem is set in the wee hours that offer only insomnia and longing to the one rising from bed.
Or am I wrong? Is this a poem about inspiration? The act of “remembering / the train whistle” making the poet get up immediately to write the poem about the act of “remembering / the train whistle”? And so, it could be a poem about light, after all, the light of an idea pulling into the station of one’s consciousness, initiating that flurry of activity, the gathering of belongings, the disembarking, the looking around for familiar faces or landmarks.
The train whistle is present in this poem, while being absent from this poem. The whistle is not heard in actual fact, but in memory. Had the actual sound reached the riser’s ears five minutes earlier? Five years earlier? Fifty years and five hundred miles distant from where the bed is now located? Yes, to all of the above?
I keep coming back to this being a poem set in the dark of night. As I tell my literature students at some point each semester, I am an optimistic pessimist. Each moment, I tell them, can offer an experience of beauty to the aware observer, or to the observer who is open to the possibility of beauty. At the same time, we all know—we all know—how this journey ends. To that ending, and beyond, is where this haiku takes me each time I read it. Someone rising from bed in the middle of the night, made restless or perhaps even momentarily crazed, by the memory of something that has been lost. That something is I. This present-tense haiku is about the future, and the past. Everyone who reads this poem becomes both the rememberer and the remembered. Every barrier established by the laws of physics is meaningless, here within the world created by these eight words, by these thirteen syllables, by this gentle trickster poet.
As featured poet, Judith Christian will select a poem and provide commentary on it for Viral 6.5.