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
overnight train a handprint smears the moon —Paul Chambers, This Single Thread, Alba Publishing (2015)
Alan Summers lets his imagination soar:
There is something romantic about an overnight train. I immediately think of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (directed by Billy Wilder, 1959).
Although both overnight (sleeper) trains I have been on were far from romantic, I’m glad I’ve done them; one across Europe, and one from the South of England to Glasgow. Setting that aside, it’s a great context setting for whatever comes next; and an opening line can certainly raise our expectations, and will us to read further.
Taking the middle line alone, before including the third & last line, it certainly intrigues this particular reader. It’s not ‘handprint smears’ but a single handprint smear. Is it mine, if I place myself into the poem with my own experiences? Is it a smear that was missed by the cleaners, or a clue? Again, I can think of another iconic train film, that of The Lady Vanishes (a 1938 British mystery thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock).
Haiku, being short, can struggle to excite, and should it be necessary to do so anyway? Of course not, and I appreciate the quietness of haiku as much as the dramatic treatments we sometimes give them. So, onto the third line, which is often the denouement in a Western-style haiku; and we have an iconic haikai theme, which feels quiet, with just ‘the moon.’
In fact, just this alone would work for me, and my imagination:
I think the power of this haiku is both the dynamic of the opening and last line working so well with both sense of movements. It is developed further by the wonder of ‘a handprint smears,’ where of course we have a verb. Now verbs can detract from or enhance a haiku, but here, even though it’s highly noticeable, it takes the poem up a notch again. It’s an action that works in parallel with the movement of the train, and the moon.
Is the narrator’s hand smear, or that of the previous occupant, or even that of the cleaner who leaned against it and created the ‘smeared moon,’ now experienced by the current passenger?
The verb choice of ‘smears’ instead of ‘smear’ suggests the action is that of the narrator as occupant. Is this because they were reaching over, across, or down from their bunk, sober or otherwise? Did attempt to make the window clearer to see the moon, and failed? Are they wishing to smear, or put a smear on the moon? Is it their equivalent of putting/setting a footprint onto the moon just as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did, or recalling that Michael Collins could have chosen to be the last person to walk on the moon (1969) although a few followed many years later? Is it that their imagination made the long haul train into a spaceship, a space train, but realising it wasn’t, and added their own, though fleeting, signature on the moon’s surface? Is it a wish fulfillment to walk on the moon, or simply to recognize its presence? Perhaps all of the above or none of the above.
As a reader I do like my imagination to soar, and the haiku succeeds in allowing me to do this.
The poet of this week’s poem, Paul Chamber’s, adds a few words:
I have often found travelling by night invokes a different pitch of perception than travelling by day. The motion of movement closer to a lull than to sleep, the processing of sensory data slower, the drifting into and out of dreams more abstracted. In this sedated state, the image of the moon smeared by a child’s handprint, impressed itself. The quietness of the image, the abstraction of it, against the slow, steady dark of the journey – these are the elements and contrasts I have attempted to capture in this haiku.
As this week’s winner, Alan 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!
unspooling a fishing fly loosed at riverine shadows — David Briggs, Haiku: The Keyhole of its Details, Blithe Spirit 25:3 (2015)