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November 2006 Issue VI:4

The Scorpion Prize for Best Haiku/Senryu of ISSUE VI:3

I found a number of interesting haiku in this issue of Roadrunner. Also, the range of haiku types seems very comparable to that found recently in larger magazines and collections. There are poignant psychological one-liners without nature reference on the one end, and poems that fit very comfortably in the center of the haiku genre, with good form (which I take to mean brief, in three lines with the middle line longer than the first and third, and a single grammatical break) and a seasonal reference along the lines of traditional kigo on the other. Many poems fall somewhere in the middle, exhibiting a looser organic approach to form within the three-line format, and often psychological elements come into the poems directly or through diction. I’ll discuss several poems that seem particularly attractive to me, and conclude with my choice for the issue’s Scorpion Prize.

Overall, I found the three haiku by Ashley Rodman the most interesting group, partly for its variety and partly because of the obvious care with the words. Of the three, my favorite is:

nude
in the rose moss
a clay pot

I wasn’t quite sure what “rose moss” was, but that was quickly solved: it’s the plant I know as portulaca (actually a group of plants), sometimes spoken of as a semi-succulent. I know the plant from both my Northeast childhood—my mother grew some in our back yard—and my recent decade in Santa Fe, where both wild and cultivated varieties may be seen.

The bisque-fired red clay pot—I take it to be a generic “flower pot”—with no skin of shiny glaze to protect it, sits among the portulaca. In feeling this companionship, between the vulnerable pot and the fleshy plant, and giving it the sparest of renderings in words, Ashley has produced a gem of haiku connoisseurship. The sly suggestion that the poet may be the nude among the ground-hugging flowers only adds to the pleasure, though I must admit it seems a little improbable, as I’ve never seen portulaca that I’d have been comfortable stepping on, with or without shoes. For me, this poem has only a slight edge over her other two contributions to this issue; “gravity” and “light curves” are also standouts.

Another haiku in this issue that grabbed me and had me returning more than once is Keith Heiberg’s poem:

sudden gust
in the maple:
forgotten rain

There’s some discussion these days of “cause-and-effect haiku”—as being somehow defective. But many haiku that follow Harold G. Henderson’s suggestion that a haiku should proceed in the order of perception seem, at first glance, to merely report a cause and its effect. The poem above almost seems so, yet it keeps drawing me back. On first reading, I smiled at the apt and compact expression of a common phenomenon: We get splattered by drops of a previous rain storm when a wind suddenly shakes them out of a tree.

But, on rereading, I noticed that this haiku gives me more. I hear the “sudden gust” in the whir and clatter of the maple leaves. And what follows is not just the effect, but a new sensation, the chilly raindrops splattering on pavement, on cars or a building, on my skin. Bob Spiess used to say that multiple-sensory haiku were often better than the simply visual, and I agree. And I richly enjoy “sudden gust” for that amazing percussion and woodwind concert in the maple and the sudden splash on my face that ends it.

Robbie Gamble has also built a fine multi-sensory haiku with this:

muggy night
deep in the fridge
radishes

Ultimately, this grabs me with the cold, sweaty feel of these radishes and the deep harmony of their musty scent with the closeness of hot, humid air. Feeling that outer humidity and heat also suggests a sharp contrast with the crispness when I slice or bite a radish. And the taste of a chilled radish, at once earthy and refreshing, wakes me up via its sharp contrast with the oppressiveness of that “muggy night”.

And let’s not forget the brilliant colors involved, that more-than-lipstick red and the rich greens attached to these radishes. Deep in the night, deep in the fridge, this sensational experience awaits my approach.

Each of these poems has provided me with fresh experience, or a discovery of fresh language capturing experience, and given me new angles of perception for my own life.

The Scorpion Prize for this issue goes to our featured poet, Victor Ortiz, for his marvelous haiku:

windy ridge
a rusty bed frame
in winter light

On first reading the second line of this haiku, I pictured this bed frame outside, in that wind, those elements. I could almost hear the wind’s many small songs weaving their way through the open springs and stays of an old-fashioned bedspring. But coming to this haiku now, perhaps my fifth or seventh reading as I write this, my mind welcomes me indoors, where the wind plays outside, and only the “certain slant of light” that comes through some frame of door or window into the darkness inside will do. I don’t know if the author had Emily Dickinson’s poem in his ears with that wind when he wrote of this winter light, but it rings in mine: “Heavenly Hurt . . . Sent us of the Air” indeed!

Of course, simply alluding to Dickinson (or any other great poet of the past), intentionally or accidentally, will not make for a good haiku. The sense of space, motion, and height in the words “windy ridge” combines with the physical steel and rust of the bed frame to effectively redefine “winter light” for me. I’ve always felt that winter light meant a silvery sheen. Now, it comes with a new, more somber color, a deep rust red that both swallows the light and gives back only pin-prick glints of whiteness. This supremely sensual image of decay sets up, for me, a sense of Emily’s hovering presence that could never have come without that physicality.

Finally, to return to our most simple and basic concerns for haiku, formally, Ortiz’s “windy ridge” moves in a full haiku rhythm, with two strong beats in first and third lines, and three in the middle line. It balances this symmetry with repeating consonants and vowels in those lines—

windy ridge
a rusty bed frame
in winter light

—against the contrasting asymmetry created by the strong grammatical stop after the first line and the unforced run-on of the second line into the third. The shifting positions of the repeated sounds in lines one and three, marked above, and the slightly different rhythmical patterns created by the added unaccented syllable in the last line both gently disguise the repetition of the sound and augment this asymmetry in a quiet way. Nothing in the poem calls attention to all this care with form and sound, but we cannot help being affected by it.

For formal balance, careful attention to sound, and striking images that fully engage multiple senses, Victor Ortiz’s “windy ridge” deserves our full attention. Add to these a seasonal theme brilliantly reinvented and echoes of one of our greatest poet’s best-known poems, and this is a haiku I’ll long remember.

William J. Higginson


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