Bridge to the past

One of the things I have loved about living in and visiting Britain over the past 40 years has been the many, many layers of man-made history that are still part of the fabric of everyday life. Standing with my hand on the outside wall of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon was a total buzz for a young woman from the other side of the world.

I’ve been fascinated by the ancient Romans since childhood, hooked by reading Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, so being able to walk where the legions did through England, visit the cities and towns they founded and even, on my last visit to London in 2018, explore the Mithraeum have been extraordinary opportunities.

But being able to turn these experiences into haiku that evoke either the ancient world or have a timeless air, now that’s a different – and more difficult – enterprise. Here are some poets who have done it well (with one of mine thrown in).

old Roman bridge
we stand mid-span
and listen

Scott Mason
Highly Commended, Martin Lucas Haiku Award 2019

year’s end
crossing the stone bridge
into shadow

Andrew Tracy
Creatrix 28, 2015

stacking a dry stone wall the curve of tomorrow

Ron C Moss
Presence 52, 2015

prolonged heat …
a clapper bridge sinks
into the pasture

Sandra Simpson
 Presence 68, 2020

The clapper bridge I walked across on a summer’s afternoon was in Gloucestershire, not far from the border with Oxfordshire. One of the earliest form of bridges, the name ‘clapper’ comes from the Latin claperius (pile of stones) – and that’s exactly what they are, with the deck made from long, thin slabs of stone with large rocks or piles of stone for the supports.

river bridge the distance of my prayer

Paul Chambers
Frogpond 39.2, 2016

Load of bull

beading
in a bull’s eyelashes
spring drizzle

Paul Chambers
from The Heron’s Nest 22.1 (2020)

I’m reading Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys through Britain’s secret wilderness by Paul Evans (Rider Publishing, 2015) and was pleased to be safe in my bed when reading this description of a tense bucolic encounter after the author allowed his attention to wander.

**

He may not have been the biggest bull but he seemed massive to me. A head the size of a washing machine, huge neck and shoulders, long back, all deep russet red and rounded muscle – a brick shithouse of a beast. I looked into his eye.

This eye was unlike the oxeye daisy, which is really a pastoral joke in which the ox is prettified and conforms to a bovine ideal of cud-chewing reverie and disinterested stare. He was also not the snorting, charging, angry bull of cartoons. He was watching me closely with his robin redbreast-coloured eye, perhaps with a flash of gold in it. The eye lay at the forward edge of a body that could flatten a wall, not with a furious charge but with a mindful harnessing of colossal weight and strength of will. He was considering what to do. This bull was dangerous.

He began to eat, ripping up hanks of grass with his tongue whilst walking slowly but never diverting his eye from me. This grazing was subterfuge, getting me to think he was not charging while slyly gaining ground. I had heard of bulls working out how to kill someone and this felt premeditated. Perhaps it was payment for some mistreatment he had experienced; perhaps his hormones were pumped by the cows and his blood was up; perhaps something had woken inside that boulder of a skull, some wild bullness was taking over from thousands of years of domestication. It was going to be existential for both of us.

***

The stand-off fortunately ends peacefully. The author, heart pounding, manages to assert the farmer’s ‘ancient claim’ to authority and sends the bull on his way.

spring fever
the farm gate swung wide
for the bull

Michele L. Harvey
from The Heron’s Nest 19.4 (2017)

This in-your-face haiku was written by Issa in 1812:

山吹にぶらりと牛のふぐり哉
yamabuki ni burari to ushi no fuguri kana

dangling
in the yellow roses
the bull’s balls

Translator David Lanoue says: “Here, as often in Issa, we find a startling juxtaposition. Fearlessly and without self-censorship, he presents what he sees. And also, as often is the case, after the initial shock of the image wears off, we find deeper connections to ponder. The bull’s testicles and the roses, after all, are sex organs.”

While researching for a forthcoming post, I discovered that in Japanese literature ‘yellow roses’ are understood to be yamabuki flowers (Kerria japonica), not a rose at all and without any thorns! (Which was worrying me a bit about the image above …)

vacation’s end
sunlight catches the ring
in a bull’s nostrils

Polona Oblak
from The Heron’s Nest 20.4 (2018)

‘Boy on Ox’ is a woodblock print by Ogata Gekko, made in about 1890-1910. Image: Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Estate of Dr Eleanor Z. Wallace

Like Paul Chambers’ haiku that opens this posting, American poet Richard Wright subverts the typical view of a bull as one of uber-masculinity.

Coming from the woods,
a bull has a lilac sprig
dangling from a horn

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Japan holds regular bullfights (togyu), held in front of paying crowds, which are a recognised folk custom. Unlike Spain however, there are no matadors and picadors; the bulls simply lock horns with one another and push. The bouts are run along the lines of sumo wrestling matches and no animals are put to death as part of the spectacle. Indeed, it seems the bulls are fed well and treated better. Read more here. The Choju-giga scrolls, painted from the mid-12th century to the end of the 13th century, are the earliest record of bullfighting in Japan.

small country town
the bull’s rosette
in the butcher’s window

Pamela Brown
from another country: haiku poetry from Wales (Gomer, 2011)

noon sun
the bull
in a knife’s reflection

Mary Weiler
from Presence 55 (2016)

It’s in the detail

One of the most common remarks I make about a haiku I’ve particularly enjoyed is that it’s ‘well observed’ or ‘nicely observed’, meaning that I appreciate the detail that either makes me look afresh at something I know well or offers me something brand new to ‘see’ and think about.

Haiku are all about observation, switching on all of our senses, and yet … It’s easy to sketch out an idea but harder to be diligent with the editing process to try and realise the full potential of a poem. Just now I have six ideas and part-written haiku jotted on the back of a piece of a recycled paper – it’s not often I have this many haiku written in the space of a day or two so I need to get on while that part of my brain is working!

The haiku featured today have all arrested my reading when I’ve come across them recently. It’s in the detail ….

morning snow
the footsteps from a grave
size 4

Lew Watts
from Presence 66 (2020)

winter lamb
a little ma
in its baa

Francine Banwarth
from Frogpond 43.1 (2020)

What I love about Francine’s haiku is that it works delightfully just as it’s written, plus there’s a twist in that ‘ma’ is a Japanese word denoting white/negative space and is a technique used in haiku. I have seen the technique described by Alan Summers as: … not putting all of the information into the writing, and using space as a way to  suggest there is more to see, ‘look closer between the lines, and even between the words’.

a gentle tug
of the magician’s silks …
crocuses!

Claire Everitt
from Presence 66 (2020)

calendar page
     a tiny November
          in the corner of December 

Laurie D. Morrissey
from Modern Haiku 50.3 (2019)

stars at dawn:
the clatter of small change
on the coffee shop counter

Chad Lee Robinson
from his e-book Rope Marks (Snapshot Press, 2012)

higgs boson
my eyelids
feel so heavy

Gregory Piko
from NOON 16 (2020)