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:
winter fog an old man turns back into a tree — John McManus, The Heron’s Nest, Volume XIV:4
Rich Schilling finds more questions than answers:
After reading John’s haiku I have to ask how can an old man turn back into a tree? This is my first perception, but I know this is poetry and there are multiple meanings. We also have fog in the first line. Fog obscures what we see. In this case, it seems like there is an old man in winter fog, but I think there is no old man at all. I think what is happening is a personification of winter (old man winter) and what was thought was an old man, is actually a tree. Although I have to admit I have changed my mind more than once while rereading. The mystery and surreal nature of this haiku deepens the reading experience for me. These are the types of haiku that I am drawn to. The ones that have space, something left out for the reader to fill in. I have the same experience reading a Raymond Carver story.
Let’s say it is an old man. What is he doing in the fog? It is probably dawn or dusk when the winter fog is shrouding everything. Is it John’s old man or an unknown old man that he sees from a distance? More questions than answers it seems.
Or is it the end of winter and the personified old man winter is becoming a tree again? Are there small buds, or maybe a few leaves that aren’t dead? This could be a haiku about the way nature can affect our human nature (fog obscuring what we think we see) or it could be the end of winter which John could be hinting at.
Just like the fog I suppose I am unclear of the exact meaning but I am ok with that. Maybe this is an example that perception depends on many different elements. Each reader will think something but no real answer will ever be known (unless John tells us). This gives the haiku a life beyond just a nice moment in time. It is more than a brief moment and it resonates giving it a timeless quality the way the best haiku do…
Marietta McGregor chases wraiths:
This wraith-like poem by John McManus has a great sense of wabi-sabi, of impermanence and change. The feeling is of a slow drift towards some sort of oblivion, a state which may have been staved off before but will eventually claim all of us, including the old man of the poem. Do we really see an old man, or do we imagine him? Is he perhaps our future self half-glimpsed, or a memory we can’t quite keep hold of, which slips away no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. As well as mystery and wistful melancholy, there’s a faint air of menace here too. Shape-shifting in and out of different guises is a supernatural characteristic which pops up in many folk tales, for example those featuring the Green Man, an arcane tree spirit portrayed in many English churches as a wrinkled face carved out of wood and wreathed in foliage, wrenching itself half-in and half-out of boscage. So we can ask, is the insubstantial figure we see through winter fog trying to escape some pre-destiny? Is he our alter-ego, emerging from our past or future? Or is our mind merely playing tricks with us to prove there’s plenty out there we’ll never understand, more things in heaven and earth, Horatio? With a little shiver as a goose steps on my grave, I’m tending towards the latter.
Mark Gilbert peels back the layers:
For me there is so much packed into this, it’s like a 3D matrix with different meanings and different levels of interpretation and different feelings and emotions — how all this can be done with a handful of utterly simple words (and no poetic artifice) is the amazing thing about haiku.
Just to take the surprising third line, which takes the haiku to another level. The tree may be literally what the man resembles once fog descends and obscures the scene, as he is old and slow and solitary. The tree also suggests looming death and renewal, in the sense of being buried and turning into soil from which a new tree will one day emerge, but also suggests the wood from which the coffin will be constructed. But also for me the fog of the first line refers to some kind of dementia, and the third line is a slow-burn description of the man’s gradual loss of capabilities to resemble in many ways an old tree, silent and still. So it’s distressing but spliced with dignity and renewal.
Jacob Salzer explores the cycle of life and death:
There is a lot of depth to this haiku and a very strong juxtaposition. Let’s start with “winter fog.” Fog has movement, but often it is so slow, it appears motionless. Such is the movement of elderly people, as this old man turns and seems to become still. Fog can also have a haunting, mysterious quality, and could be a metaphor for the spirit or soul of the person merging into a spiritual light or dimension beyond the five senses. In this sense, the winter fog could symbolize the mystery of life after death. This moment in the haiku seems to be death. It could be him simply just standing or leaning against a tree, but I think he is being buried in a cemetery, as cemeteries are frequently depicted with fog hovering between the tombs, trees, and gravestones. “winter” adds another layer in that the body becomes colder when the heart stops beating, and movement becomes more rigid with age. With this interpretation, there is a feeling of resolution and (in my mind) a natural and peaceful death.
“the old man turns back into a tree” makes me think of my grandpa walking into the forest alone and blending into his surroundings, as he has done many many times throughout his life. It’s a very touching haiku and strikes a deep heart chord. In this haiku, the fog has made it such that it is hard or perhaps impossible to distinguish the old man from the tree. I imagined him and the tree as silhouettes becoming one, disappearing in the fog. So it’s clear to me the old man has become one with his surroundings. Trees are also very symbolic, and human anatomy closely resembles a tree via the human nervous system, the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and the endocrine system, etc. as each system in the body has so many branches. The core of a tree is still, but the exchange of oxygen and carbon is happening all the time between trees and humans. “turns back” in particular offers some interesting and profound interpretations too. Is the old man turning back into his past, into the deep roots of his family tree? Could it be that he is even recalling past lives (if you believe in that)? Is he taking his last breath as the oxygen from the tree fills his lungs one last time and his whole lifetime flashes in his mind? Or is he simply leaning against a tree?
I see this haiku as an important reminder to be in nature while we are alive in human form too, away from cellphones, computers, and the grid. I think it’s critical that we take breaks from technology and immerse ourselves, in some form, in the natural world. It seems when we feel a real connection with our surroundings, we are less inclined to harm it, and (hopefully) more and more people will be inspired to protect it and see it as sacred. “turns back” can be equivalent to “return to” nature, and return to a sense of stillness that seems to be the very source of all movement, as strange as that sounds. In this haiku, it could also be interpreted that this old man passed away a long time ago, but I think he is currently being buried in a cemetery. Either way, his body has become the nutrients for the tree. “turns back” also subtly conjures up the possibility of reincarnation and definitely brings to mind the cycles of life and death. This haiku also brings to mind a quote by my favorite composer, Arvo Part: “Time and timelessness are connected. This moment and eternity are struggling within us.”
Theresa Cancro finds the hermit:
My first reaction to John McManus’ haiku is that we are witnessing the funeral of an old man. ‘winter fog’ reinforces the late phase of his life. His coffin is made of wood, his body, stiff like the trunk of a tree. Once buried, his body will meld with the coffin and the tree from which it was made. Perhaps the burial takes place under a tree. The idea that we all ultimately return to the earth and nature, here symbolized by a tree, comes readily to mind. Digging further into lines 2 and 3 — ‘an old man turns/ back into a tree’ — I have other thoughts, in particular about the archetype of ‘the wise old man’ or ‘senex’ (from Latin) as delineated by Carl Jung: “The wise old man can be a profound philosopher and mentor distinguished for wisdom and sound judgement….[T]he archetype of the wise old man was late to emerge, and seen as an indication of the self.” Perhaps an old man has learned from the experiences and foibles of his long life. After some meditation, he turns back to his innate spiritual nature. He may also be contemplating his youth and how he wishes to return to it, to a more carefree, natural state. Reading this haiku, I get the image of a mature tree in the presence of harsh weather. The heavy winter fog hints at the man’s changed demeanor that may seem strange, even otherworldly, to those around him, much like the spiritual side of every person that is usually hidden away. Indeed, in folklore and myth, many wise old men — Merlin, for example — are only half human. In this haiku, ‘a tree’ could even imply the Green Man of Celtic lore and other European traditions — an amalgam of a man and lush vegetation — who symbolizes oneness with nature and its cycles.
Clayton Beach finds humor in the mist:
The twist in this haiku brings a much lighter tone than is first apparent from the set-up, moving from a forlorn season word like “winter fog” and the weighty image of an old man, to the realization that the apparition approaching the speaker through the fog turns out to merely be a tree. Like Rich, I too settle on the idea that the presence of the old man in this verse is a case of mistaken identity, and the ultimate effect is one of playful humor rather than any bleak pathos.
Of course, as in most good haiku, multiple readings allow us to depart from what is the easiest explanation and explore more magical, poetic interpretations, from the cosmic time scale of the dead slowly feeding a tree in a graveyard, to some mythological story of an tree spirit or person turned into a tree, or even recollections of Shakespeare’s revenant roaming the mists at Elsinore.
Metaphors swirl in the fog, giving us fragments of meaning that we can extrapolate from, but perhaps when the mist clears and the sun rises, what we saw as spectral in the night will reveal itself to be something as commonplace as a tree.
As this week’s winner, Marietta 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!
hefting a plum— I know by heart my father's orchard — Michael McClintock, Red Moon Anthology 2004