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?

Sunday, April 5, 2009


The Stoppages Tree (Julia Guerin)

This poem was inspired by Marcel Duchamp's concept of "Stoppages." A "stoppage" is like a measuring stick, only each stoppage is of a different length. Each section of the poem is a "stoppage," a different measurement of experience. My daughter, Julia, composed this painting based on language from the poem, and using images of "stoppages" from Duchamp's work.


I am seduced by the stoppage of time,
like Bruckner with his endless symphonies
pushing back the inevitable
silence of the unattended moment.
For the next ten seconds nobody dies.

Late afternoon—the maple goes darker,
cell by cell darker in the slant sunlight.
I can’t be sure the leaves were just as red
ten years ago, or that John Milton’s blood
wasn’t a fraction thicker than my own.


            I wield shears
                beneath honey locust—
                grown to ground—
            scissor and step back,
                watch the fluttering
            stem-bound leaves
                follow the branches down.

            I bundle new deadwood;
                three green needles,
            like fangs, guard each twig;
                black bark thorns,
            driven by the gathered droop
                of leaves being lifted,
            pierce through leather
                the flesh of my palms.

            My mind, cuspidate
                in my fingers, moves
            through the patterns of thorn
                proliferating pain.

            The sound of somebody
            dropping the doorknocker
            just once . . . I flee
            unremembered phantasms,
            hold eyes closed tightly—
            tongue like paper—reach
            for the glass of water, see
            the glass in the dark
            and dilate waking.  Setting
            the glass off the table
            edge, grope, settle it on
            the corner.  More sleep.
            Go to sleep.  Eyelids pinch
            a thread of sunlight spinning
            through the curtain dust.
            The radiator knocks . . .
            just once.  Vagueness spreads
            an exit through counted time
            past another me I meet
            fading, questioned in sodden
            stillness and crepuscule.
            Quick manufacture of deep
            inconsequence—someone not
            I overhears singing I have
            not composed, conversation
            rendered without regret,
            the voice of the homunculus
            at the core of the blood cell
            and metaphor.  I’m billiard-
            brained!  Blood and ivory balls
            percuss on clipped green
            and blue crystal; in each
            sphere a ray is loosed
            to sublimate the ricochet.
            The angel’s share offered
            and unattained (air breathed
            in sleep), a rarification
            of spirit I can’t sniff, taste,
            pour into existence, but
            think is a wonder of wines.


What interior thing sleeps with memory,
knows the certain locus of nothing
and the time of any new thing only
in the night-light of its circumscription?

What does this slumbering watcher feel
waking beside a lover of years past
who’s discovered herself under wild skies,
in a land contoured by the height of sand?

His eyes pinched, his ears stopped,
his dream-worn senses insinuate
the wonder of that endlessness
and expatiate like a ticking clock

on what he thinks he knows of his own death.
Seeking out the reality three
dimensions deep within himself, his mind,
that strict lump that can explain a bird,

that cagey bastard, calmly discourses
on phantom and fading gods, while his warming
beauty evaporates and mingles with his breath
ecstatically generating weather.


        It was perfectly smooth, the earth
        I woke to—featureless, without
        mountain, grass, sand, bird, lion—
        skin-tight, a bald head.
        Balloon on which plaster is packed,
        this world before a world; I stood
        in dark after moonless dusk, and
        said, nonetheless, this is my world.

        I recognized the horizon,
        the leavening of gravity,
        the proximity of sky.
        A fit of rain sprayed my face.
        The lazy Susan landscape threw me
        down.  My first sweetheart limped
        up on the brace of her polio.
        Naked, I rolled on my belly.

        I woke, the nixie gone, salt water
        on my lips.  The moon rose, pulling
        water back into a great wave,
        holding it back above my head.


            Johann Sebastian Bach is
                                    into this room.
            Buddha croaks
                        and Bach
                        walks into this room.
            Walk the road,
                        stop, cough,
                                    crack the bone
                        of sound—
            Bach is walking
                        into this room
                        a grager.
            Through stained glass,
                                    berry trees
                        and sun swizzle—
            Bach is waltzing
            Clap your eyes!
            Johann Sebastian
                        Bach is
            this room.

        A creaking ecstatically extended
        wakes me early in the night.
        Winter air binds board in stone (a
        hairline runs down the fa├žade,
        splitting bricks, parting mortar from its
        hold) one more fraction of an inch.
        Prone, I imagine the house shift
        off its load-bearing edge
        and topple into the basement.
        When will it stop, the house grind
        out its antagonism of stress and nail
        to silent, unlevel motionlessness?
        Or will I stop waking to this house?


            Water on the beach
            and the pebbled surf—
            the air is full
            of milk.  A hand
            touches me; there
            I hate, but not

            the hand.  Nature
            is the second
            displeasure, when

            the first tips
            the world and drinks.
            Round, hard, the pebble,

            and black.  Not
            much else.  Wet,
            it shines.  Dry,

            dull.  I keep it
            in a dish of green
            water.  The blunted
            shard of glass,
            the charred stick,
            the aluminum bent

            to a coin, the
            dimensionless dream
            of sand, calm

            if I look at them.
            As I age it is not
            that I like people

            less, but have less
            to do with them.
            I can say the one

            thing—about the pebble—
but the other comes
in white noise,
            water on the beach.