Saturday, April 11, 2009

Here Are More We Missed

What follows was written in 1978 and '79 by my grad school roommate (and still best friend) Michael Antman and myself. At the time, I was working as a PR assistant for a machine tool company and Michael for the Chicago Board of Trade. Over the course of several months, we composed these haiku and many others, mostly at work, and mailed them to each other. Collaborative haiku has a venerable history in Japan, but for us it was probably therapy as much as anything else -- two aspiring writers wondering how we'd suddenly found ourselves in the business world. I have left the poems and their clumsy introduction entirely unedited and intact. Posting them now, which I do with Michael's permission, comes about in part because of his fine recent piece on "Poetry, Patience, and Rage" in the culture blog When Falls the Coliseum.



By Michael Antman and Christopher D. Guerin


Haiku has not fared well in America. That there are “haiku magazines” (I know of none for sonnets or sestinas) is proof of this. Haiku is seldom printed elsewhere.

Admittedly, American haiku is not always what it could be. It is often aphoristic, cute, or merely photographic. But unfortunately, its failure is judged (often simultaneously) the consequence of its being a poor imitation of Japanese haiku, and too precise an imitation of Japanese haiku; sometimes it’s condemned for being nothing at all like Japanese haiku.

Perhaps the problem is not (as so often stated) that we are not blessed with a sensibility subtle enough (whatever that means) to say a lot in a little space, or that, English being too economical a language compared to Japanese (if you are counting syllables), American haiku seem but limp translations; the problem may be that we think of our haiku in terms of the Japanese at all.

We call it “haiku,” and I think rightly, if for no other reason than in recognition of the origins of the form. But, what matters ultimately is the succinct and precise capture and evocation of a moment. Beyond this first understanding, oriental aesthetics and philosophy need have nothing to do with an American’s writing haiku. Which, of course, is not to say that it must not.

By this reasoning, one might argue that our haiku might be twenty or a hundred lines long. Yet, to experience a moment fully, mustn’t one experience it within a moment? Thus economy and compression is key. What happens next – the brooding, the questions, or the nod of recognition – is not the poem, is not in the poem. It is only the reaction of the imagination to a small cloud. The images suggested by a cloud are not the cloud, only the cloud’s progeny. Good haiku will engender many such images before it – being, after all, only two or three short lines long – dissipates in the attention and floats off. And, just as clouds unmindfully and naturally attain their own peculiar forms (I mean in the larger, generic sense of, for example, cirrus appearing quite different from cumulo nimbus), so each writer evolves a form best fitted to his manner of perceiving the world. Hence the differences between those of Michael Antman and myself.

Christopher D. Guerin

Gobble berries –

The huge oak
Thinks leaf, leaf, leaf
Of nothing.

A cottonmouth jabs
Dry branches
A million miles off.

Autumn rain
Falls from leaf to leaf –
Ah, childhood!

An October wind
Arriving on foaming waves
Closes my eyes tight.

A full moon
Rises huge and red
Just for us.

Gold leaves darken
In the trees and then in fires.
The cold green grass.

A snapshot
Taken as I laughed
Explains death.

A flock of starlings
Perched in bare maple branches –
The loneliest leaves.

Autumn, empty
Sky – birdcall – am I
Missing something?

The harvest
Moon and 1,000,000 stars –
Did I sneeze?

Falling leaves –
Shadows of the sun
Going down.

A sparrow
Frozen in the grass –
Where am I?

Wait longer?
Snowflakes softly break
The window.

Winter sun –
A icicle drips
Cold water.

Not crouching,
A white cat stalks mice
In the snow.

On the wall,
Shadows of a tree
Moved by wind.

Shooting stars
Falling someplace else
Scratch scratches.

The snow falls
On a thick oak limb,
A sparrow.

A vicious snowstorm
On the last night of the year.
Where to, old woman?

January wind –
Right below my window
Bodies pile up.

Snow drifting
Beneath pine trees sheathed in ice –
My cap itches.

A bare tree –
Nowhere in its branches
A right angle.

The geese wing north.
‘V’ for vane.

Haiku dance a jig
On the cracks in the sidewalk,
The air between leaves.

Snow in May
Depresses us both,
Mere lovers.

Haiku come
To mind, raindrops fall
Into pools.

Greeting spring,
I climb a willow.
Droop, spirits!

The loon dives;
Ripples soon fade.
He’ll never come up.

Waves crashing
Against a seawall.
I give up!

Flits from bush to shrub.
Red is rare.

The spring air
Comes in through my door.
Welcome, meal!

Two bobolinks
Light on the fence, singing –
My paintbrush falls.

Old man laughs,
Suns rise.

Two blackbirds
Dive at a crow…
Stop blinking!

The sun’s limited –
Between a willow’s branches
Spider’s stretched his web.

Drops of blood on sand;
The child runs to his mother;
Glass glints in the sun.

Cicada’s murmur
Under evening thunder.
Fly, crazy fireflies!

A nighthawk
Dives after insects.
Ah, sweet beer!

The girl’s wet black hair
And ankles covered with sand.
My sunburnt skin peels.

Barefoot, I
Fish a mountain stream,
Ravens hop.

At nightfall –
The wink of an owl
I can’t see.

Has three syllables:
The thing, one.

Chips of wood
Float in on a wave,
Brush the sand.

Rainbow trout
Shimmers in the stream
Playing me.

The cobra snaps
At a tail-chasing dog.
You talk of order!

I reel in
A wriggling sunfish
Worm in jaw.

September –
Green leaves carve
The sunlight.

Harvesttime –
A sunflower droops,
Flinging seeds.


On Buson’s Portrait of Basho

Old grinner,
What’s under that skyblue cap?
Not haiku!

Christopher D. Guerin

Michael Antman


Unlucky from first
To last, the bright leaf plunges
Through the autumn night.

The lost calf bellows.
A hundred cows, eyes bulging,
Lift their heads and low.

In the yard – a hawk,
Wings torn, cornered by a dog.
Why wasn’t I told?

Asphalt lot. Children
Catch none of the leaves that fall
From the giant oak.

The sunset’s last light
Tints with orange the rising moon.
It doesn’t, really.

Waiting in the car:
Weed shadows on the windshield,
Crickets in the springs.

Playing touch football:
The ball soaring the sky,
Up there with my head.

Does she know the world
Will end tomorrow, that girl
Who walked right by me?

All night, howling wolves,
Gibbering monkeys: I live
Too near the school yard.

Old Wisconsin road –
Stillness, and clear autumn air.
Not a poem in sight!

That crow’s brittle cry –
It reminds me of something,
But I can’t say what.

Poetry’s a joke.
I walk boldly down the street,
Confident I’ll die.


Chipping sound, far off:
Otherwise, the woods are still.
A few snow flakes fall…

A gap in the trees –
Black winter sky, or a lake?
The moon is confused.

Oysters and lemons –
Gulls call in the winter dusk –
On a blue platter.

A few footprints mark
That gleaming expanse of snow,
The still shining moon.

That squirrel, back again
To scrape my window for food:
The winter twilight.

The stench of lilacs.
The old woman behind me
Looks behind her, too.

Loaded down with ice,
The power lines faintly hum.
Over them, the stars.

Dear little rabbit! –
What are you doing gnawing
Through snow at tree bark?

An abandoned farm.
A dog lopes the icy yard
Under runny skies.

Sparrows flock about
Stalks frozen in the dark ice,
Slide when the wind blows.

The family poses
For a photograph, waist-deep
In the sparkling snow.


Five months of winter
Forgotten, I sniff the breeze.

The kitten’s afraid
To let its paws touch the grass
Its first time outdoors.

The starling soars, loops,
Holding in its beak its prize:
A bit of french fry.

A silver-haired bum
Plucks a cigar from the curb,
Carefully dusts it.

As I leave for work,
A squirrel scampers for his tree.
I can’t take his life!

A walk after rain.
Mirrored in puddles, one grey cloud –
You should be ashamed!

Robins tear at worms.
Bodies shine in the spring light
Just before they snap.

The oily puddles
Spark on the midnight road: lights
Of refineries.

In the mists and rain,
Red lights by the switching yard.
The warehouse trembles.

The small town in spring –
The huge elms never still, tossed
By birds and crickets.

Eyes tearing, cheeks damp,
The evening cool and windy,
Sidewalks black and slick.

The whole block flooded.
Men hauling pumps and hoses,
Children, plastic boats.

Eating sweet oranges
On a warm night: My tooth throbs
And my fingers burn.


All along the tracks
To the grain elevator,
Little corn plants sprout.

Lacking, that cow swats at flies
Like all the others.

Remember? We’d chase
Fireflies all summer long.
Here are more we missed.

What is lovelier
Than this glass of cherry pop
In the summer light?

Chirps from the garden.
My cheek against the window,
The glass faintly scratched.

Waking before dawn
I see the trees are swaying –
Because I’m watching?

Coffee in the cup
Trembles as she takes her seat:
Her loose-fitting dress.

By the old factory,
The air is always humming –
Locusts in the trees.

Is life worth living?
When she bends over like that,
You still have to ask?

A summer picnic:
The air is clear and sparkling,
Fresh-sliced cantaloupe.

Who let the firefly
Loose in the dark theater?
Our twilight movie!

Hot summer morning.
My cat pretends not to see
As I scratch myself.

In the green meadow
The brightest thing is the mirror
On a rusted truck.

Late summer twilight
Prickles the back of my hand.
How will the snow melt?

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