Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
in a room with no windows drawing stars — ai li, still two one (1998)
Marion Clarke sends us a comment from an office with a window:
Initially this suggested that the narrator is attempting to escape a form of claustrophobia. However, the notion that he or she is “drawing stars” is interesting. Are they literal or imaginary stars? Perhaps it is an astronomer talking to an audience or a university lecturer drawing on an iPad to add detail to a presentation on the cosmos?
On the other hand, this could be about a person unused to being indoors who has ended up working 9-5 in a windowless office, doodling until home time!
Bob Aspey meditates on the meaning:
There is some evidence that doodling aids memory, possibly by letting the doodler stay in the moment by preventing the mind from wandering. Some promote doodling as a form of meditation, a tool to support mindfulness exercises.
And so we have ai li’s poem. Perhaps it is a meditation room, no windows to prevent external distraction. Inside: simple decoration and a few pieces of comfortable furniture; nothing to excite, just calming colours. Inside, too, someone sitting quietly, meditating.
But even in a windowless, colourless room, there are distractions. The mind wanders, constantly swirling away on the stream of consciousness, ever having to be reined back from the day’s problems, always trying to cling to that still, calm spot.
Perhaps the practitioner in ai li’s room is trying this as a way of limiting internal distractions, perhaps doodling freestyle, perhaps colouring in pre-drawn stars. Either way, the poem carries a sense of peace about the process:
in a room
with no windows
Clayton Beach explores the narrative:
This poem is an excellent example of storytelling with great economy. ai li is the inventor of the cherita, a 6-line narrative poem in the haiku/tanka tradition, but even her haiku are imbued with a sense of micro-fiction narrative reminiscent of her signature form.
ai li leaves us with just the essential details, just enough to pique our interest and ask us to construct a story that explains the ku. The “room with no windows” suggests imprisonment, or at the very least claustrophobia, and the unmentioned subject allows us to fill in the blanks as to who is in this dismal place. Is it a child in an abusive or loveless home? Is it a woman stuck in a terrible marriage? Or is it a prisoner sitting on their cot, dreaming of freedom? Confinement dominates the atmosphere. Depending on the reader, any one of these solutions might satisfy the image and add resonance, or perhaps it is something else entirely.
Finally, the action, “drawing stars,” signifies a sense of hope in the darkest hour, a yearning for freedom during oppression, wanting to see the beauty of nature and the infinite, divine cosmos from a place of uninspiring blandness and restriction. Perhaps it is even a metaphor for the soul longing to see the divine in a world that so often assaults us with the soulless and banal. That the subject of the poem is seeking and creating what their heart desires, even when it is unseen and distant, offers us hope and suggests that what we seek is always within reach, if only we turn inward.
Lynne Reese appreciates the generosity:
There are two things that immediately strike me about ai li’s haiku:
1. A strong sense of containment, perhaps even imprisonment, from the image of a room with no windows.
2. The concrete images at the end of each line – room, windows, stars – that anchor me to the real world.
The idea of containment/imprisonment is a subjective response; the room could as easily be a cellar where someone has chosen to be. But surely there’s a sense of longing, or aware, in the third line, a longing for the exterior world that has been denied, for the night sky, for beauty and peace and freedom, that reinforces that idea for me.
But if this is about imprisonment why don’t I feel any distress or sense of restriction? Perhaps because of those three concrete words at the end of each line. Poets place (or should place) words at the ends of lines for deliberate and conscious reasons. And these do feel consciously placed. Room. Window. Stars. I am in a room. I look out of a window. I see stars.
The poet, or the narrator in this poem, has allowed me to experience the night sky regardless of the limitations of their personal situation. Can there be greater generosity than this? To offer the gift of beauty from a place where beauty has been denied?
The poet ai li discusses her “spirit of place”:
in a room was written in one breath.
I write all my short form poems in this way, without drafting, because it enables me to tap into the very essence of the moment.
This haiku empowered me at a time in my life when I needed to find faith and much needed optimism. The 8 words serve as a reminder to myself about how I was able to overcome a situation I happened to find myself in. By using lateral thinking, I wrote myself out of inner captivity into the magical world of genius loci.
My selected haiku remains close to my heart and soul and I would like to thank Danny Blackwell for his sensitivity of selection.
As this week’s winner, Clayton gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
long before I came long after I leave blossoming pear — Johnny Baranski, Lilliput Review #191