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
left to itself a moon without subtitles — Marlene Mountain, Haiku 21 (2011)
Christina Pecoraro waxes lyrical:
A moon, I have always felt, is partly mystery. The naked eye sees it only in the dark. It is a night-time creature. Implicit in its being is connection—with the sun whose light it reflects; the earth it orbits; its companions, the stars; with the sea’s tides and the moods of men/women with whom it waxes and wanes.
Marlene Mountain’s “left to itself” moon might, then, be stripped of its connections—bereft, without relationship. Or, more likely, as any creature left to itself, might be freed to create what mischief or magic it will.
On the other hand it might simply be begging us to see it in its own right, that is, “without subtitles” or its look-alike “subtleties.” For these serve either to limit or subject it to translation.
Moon is the stuff of science and science fiction; myth, poetry and romance; literature and art; spirituality and song. Mark Twain said “ Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which [s/he] never shows to anybody.” Fleetwood Mac’s “Sisters of the Moon” includes the lyrics “be my sister, sister of the moon / some call her sister of the moon / some say illusions are her game.”
This lunar luminary “left to itself” “without subtitles” also has a lighter side (pun intended). To wit, we imbibe moonshine by moonlight, cuddle and spoon “by the light of silvery moon” and delightfully become children again when we ride “the cow (that) jumped over it” and its subtitle limitations.
Alan Summers searches for the real thing:
Marlene Mountain (1939-2018) is still our most wonderful exponent of the haiku poem as one line (in English); and they can pack a punch on a socio-political/corporate level. This haiku immediately makes me think back to when Coca-Cola, and a few years later the Rolling Rock beer company, both wanted to project their product advertisements onto the moon to be seen by everyone from the surface of the planet, and it became known as Moonvertising. I remember being horrified because the moon to me is a beautiful thing in its own right, where no words are needed, and certainly not as a projected advertising slogan, in any language.
Well, Marlene Mountain was an artist, both in the visual and written genres, and an activist, but above all her written work is always deeply crafted. She may not have been bringing anti-moon advertising message, but would have been well aware of corporate ends to certain means. But to bring a message forward, to include one in a haiku, a person not only has to grasped the discipline of the haikai genre, in their heart, head, and “hand,” but to move outwards: By that I mean I don’t call it breaking rules, but knowing, really knowing them, so well, they work in parallel and not as an obstruction to the actual poem. If I were to sum up Marlene Mountain in two words it would be ‘must read’ and if reduced to one word, it would be ‘vital’.
Ogiwara Seisensui (1884 –1976)—co-founder of avant-garde literary magazine Sōun (“Layered Clouds”) in 1911, with Kawahigashi Hekigoto, and member of the Japan Art Academy—said a haiku is a circle half of which is created by the poet, and the other half completed by the reader. Cor van den Heuvel, editor of The Haiku Anthology, has talked about the arc of a haiku, and that it can be packed with such suggestive power that a perceptive reader should easily supply the remaining number of degrees not visibly seen in the haiku’s circle. In this case we may have more than the usual amount of the circle’s degrees to fill in, but what fun we can have, being given, or at least lent free license, for a moment, to be a co-poet with one of the greats of haiku poetry outside of Japan.
Where there might continue to be debate about haiku in English as a one-line poem (as we are still used to seeing them in three lines) it’s good to remember that hokku & haiku in Japan are traditionally written as one line. And secondly, Haruo Shirane, author of Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford University Press, 1998) had this to say in 2001:
Whether or not it fits some definition of haiku is of little relevance in the larger picture. The fact is that it is superior poetry, much superior to almost the entire body of what has been narrowly defined in North America as *haiku.* Bashō, like his great rival, Saikaku, felt that it was not form that counted, it was the poetry, the quality of the words, how it could move the reader. In their younger years, they broke all kinds of rules. Saikaku was criticized severely, and was told he was just *blowing dust.* But it was in the process of breaking rules that these poets often made their greatest poetic achievements. Great poets don’t stick to rules; they make their own. You belong in that company. To put it another way, what was most important for Bashō was what was called *haikai spirit*, to be constantly seeking new horizons, new forms, new words, new emotions. In my view, you have that spirit.
Excerpted from Jack Galmitz’s essay “then I must go to the Mountain: Marlene Mountain” in his collection of essays, Views, with an introduction by Beth Viera (Seawall Press 2012).
Back to the poem, we are greeted by three simple words of a phrase ‘left to itself’ and we could ponder if this is about an animal, away from human influence, or ownership, or perhaps it’s about freedom? Then we are simply shown, in the next two words, that it’s ‘a moon’ and maybe nothing more? Wouldn’t a moon, the moon, in fact, for us here on Planet Earth, be obviously left to itself anyway? After all it’s been a long time since designated humans landed on our planet’s satellite aka ‘the moon’. But I’m sure, if you haven’t had a beer, you’ve had a cola drink, where the logo is as important as the contents of the beverage, and when we are planning to visit the planet Mars next, the moon will be a simple hop. Then we have the last two words of this seven word haiku, ‘without subtitles’ and I’m reminded of both subtitles in foreign language movies, and also the dumbed down messages on consumer products: Like a cheap plastic wallet priced at just a few dollars does not really contain the cash and credit cards as displayed on the packaging.
Sometimes we don’t need things explained to the nth degree, as we can appreciate the awe of a night sky, its stars, and the planet’s circling moon, in all its phases, on our own, with no embellishment. There is no explanation in Marlene Mountain’s haiku, no complete arc of a story, because the reader can complete that aspect. There is a message, albeit part subtle and part not-so-subtle, but gosh, it’s a refreshingly original verse about the moon. The verse stops short of being pedantic, and contains humour, as well as indignation, that there may be indeed ever present designs on the moon: That we shouldn’t take beauty for granted, and if something is for free out there, there will also be moves to own it for the few. Be warned, be aware. It’s a delicate moon verse, and in the tradition of Japanese haikai poetry, and its seasons, the moon is automatically recognised to be in Autumn, and important for the farming community.
The moon will never be left to itself, unfortunately, but we will never need subtitles to appreciate its physicality and the dynamic effect it has on us through nature, and of course, art.
Gary Eaton keeps it simple:
One aspect of the moon that has always appealed to the imagination, even before it became an object of art, is the solitude that accompanies its uniqueness. Here, Marlene Mountain has found a way to describe this characteristic of the moon not by recourse to comparison, metaphor, or contrast, but by shearing it of all other traditional associations except its uniqueness, and prompting the reader to see it for itself.
As this week’s winner, Gary 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!
if trees could be landlords — Eve Luckring, Heron's Nest XVII:3 (2015)