Monday, March 15, 2021

witch hazel & kigo

Outside the main entrance of the art museum I used to work at stands billowing shrub of vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis).¹ In the last days of February it wakes up with the snow drops and crocuses, putting out tasseled yellow flowers, coolly aromatic—"spicy" is the word typically used to describe its scent, but like most olfactory adjectives, it fails to communicate the particularity and subtleties of the witch hazel's suffusive fragrance. If you're positioned upwind from the the plant, the scent can find your nostrils from a fair distance.

Last year, when I still had the luxury of talking half-hour lunch breaks, and when it was still Shirley's job to stand outside the museum entrance, herding visiting school children and getting into fights with presumptuous motorists who dared to park in the bus lane, I often stepped outside to chat with her for a while. During the last week of February and the first week of March, I'd loiter outside a few minutes every afternoon, chatting with Shirley and whoever else might be around (usually a security guard, a member of the custodial staff, or someone from the education department) about this "coronavirus" thing and speculating as to what might come of it. My memories of my final days at the art museum are redolent with the aroma of witch hazel that attended these conversations.

Last week, when Shirley and I had coinciding days off from our new jobs, we took a walk past the museum and I made us take a detour to visit the witch hazel. After only one year, it became for me as much a signal pleasure of spring's approach as red buds at the tips of maple branches, robins marching in the grass, and the creaking voices of migrating grackles.

Of course the sojourn left me a little dissatisfied; visiting the flowers isn't the same thing as living among the flowers. (But I repeat myself.) I might talk to Shirley about getting a big planter for the narrow strip of cement we call a backyard band dropping a witch hazel shrub in it.

*          *          *

Having lived in the tropics, I sometimes wonder: what would a native-born St Thomian who's never left the island make of haiku? This has nothing to do with the "provincialism" of island life or of the difficulties of translating "meaning" or "intent" from a highly idiomatic Japanese poetic form into a Western language. It has everything to do with climate.

Much has been made of haiku's eschewal of artifice—but the concealment of overt artifice by which a haiku passes an initial smell test is itself evidence of artifice. Discussions about "economy of language" typically take a structuralist view of the matter—that is, in an extremely brief form like haiku, the words the poet employs "say more than they say." This is all well and good, except that words say nothing without a reader trained to make them say something to him. (Or, rather, trained to make him say something to himself upon reading them.)

Kigo (lit. "season word") is one of the devices by which the haiku practitioner artfully unloads the work of making meaning onto the reader. This is not to say that haiku consists of some sort of proto-postmodernist dodge, or that the poet is lazy. But their economy in the scheme of a haiku is dependent on a common frame of reference.

The standardization of kigo in haiku is to some extent of cultural provenance (the observation of cherry blossoms in the spring, for instance, is covered in the fingerprints of cultural practices predating haiku by centuries), but before season-specific imagery could be indexed, categorized, and looked-for by practitioners and compilers, there first had to be seasonally-dependent events observed in the world. Reading Basho's poem about the frog kersplashing into the pond, we are trusted to know from our own experience that frogs are seldom seen in cold weather. Whether or not we are conscious of it, the mere appearance of "frog" in an exceedingly parsimonious (but complete and coherent) written statement operates on us such that the relational networks in which "frog" participates are subtly brought to bear on our response. Certainly in Basho's time, few readers prompted to envision his "old pond" would have "seen" bare trees, wilted grass, and ice congealed on the face of the water. This is a spring poem.

An American living in the mid-Atlantic region reads, in English, a haiku by Issa:

going outside
   plum blossoms dive in
my lucky tea

There is much that is already lost in the mere translation. Our reader may not know that the plum tree native to Japan typically blossoms in mid-February, or that "lucky tea" is a tradition of the lunar new year. And, of course, the words she's reading—the ones the translator typed and turned over to an editor for publication—are not be the same words Issa wrote.

She can, however, be trusted to relate flowering trees to the approach of spring—to longer days, and the unsteady, incremental approach of warmer weather, of hanging up her overcoat and putting on a cardigan. After living through enough Marches and Aprils in the climate of her native region (say, New York, Maryland, or Massachusetts), surely she has come to appreciate the transience of spring blossoms and their fleeting, annular contribution to her experience, though they stand in the periphery of her day-to-day activities. Possibly she'd recognize that the occurrence of a flower petal falling from a branch and landing in her drink is only possible for a few weeks out of the year—and those weeks might coincide with her favorite cafĂ© bringing its patio furniture out of storage, giving her the opportunity to while away a few hours of a Sunday afternoon out in the sunshine with her book and latte mug (wide-rimmed, ideal for accidentally capturing stray petals on the breeze). Despite the cultural, temporal, and geographic distance between writer and reader, the relational network in which ume existed for Issa and "plum blossoms" exists for his "listener" in twenty-first-century America can't be at such variance so as to preclude understanding on her part: trees flowering in early spring is a consequential event for Issa much in the same respect that it is for her. 

Which is why I wonder how somebody living in a region where the average high and low temperatures in June are only a few degrees (Fahrenheit) higher than in December would engage with Basho and Issa. A haiku that turns upon the mention of frost or snow, for instance, relies on the firsthand experience of the onset and settling of the winter season—of the placement of the words "frost" and "ice" in relational networks that are not wholly set up through textual stimuli—to produce the airy, mysterious resonance for which haiku is celebrated. What if snow is something the reader has only ever seen pictures of, and winter something she only knows about in the abstract?

My first thought after typing that was: it might be like reading Shelley's "Mont Blanc" without ever having been up in the mountains before. Is this a poor example? "Mont Blanc" (and any given poem by Shelley, for that matter) is far more denotative than any of Basho's haiku "about" mountains. Forgive me for indulging in a clichĂ© and mixing metaphors at the same time, but Shelly "paints a picture" in Mont Blanc through heaped-up descriptions, while Basho offers in his haiku of the river and the yellow flower a thimbleful of tea, relying on his guest to discern its subtleties through a deliberate sip.² How will the palate of somebody who's never seen a mountain stream or smelled/touched/walked past yamabuki differ from one who has? Direct experience of these things is probably more important to a simpatico reading of Basho than touring the Alps is to understanding Shelley, whose agglutinative explicitness makes a comparatively insignificant demand on the reader's intuition.

But we're just rephrasing the initial question.

Sometimes in the early spring I sometimes think of the people I knew in St Thomas, and imagine myself trying to explain (rather clumsily) the effect it has on a person, watching the woods going into a coma for five months and returning to life, year after year. It would probably have been like trying to explain to a landlocked suburbanite like me what it's like to live one's whole adult life with his position relative to the sea in the back of his mind.

*          *          *

Last April, Sam and I thought it might be fun to wander around outside in our respective cities, jot down some haiku on the spot, and share what we came up with. Maybe it's time to air some of them out.

We went by the loose criteria Kerouac prescribed for his "western haiku," which is, in brief, to produce something that approximates "genuine" haiku in form and effect, though the 5-7-5 syllabic scheme is optional, if not discouraged. (Actually, it might be more apt to say that western haiku is modelled after Japanese haiku in translation.)

At any rate, these are the best of what we came up with:


strange starry
   white flowers
in the onion grass

dandelions seeding
   so early
these snowflakes


   mangy squirrel

“people have to
   drink,” he said
bottle in hand

I wrote this one last June, but I don't think it's very good. Even bastard haiku is difficult to do well.

haze upon the creek
   a wood thrush singing
after the storm

1. Not to be confused with the autumn-flowering Hamamelis virginiana growing in profusion throughout the woods I walk in North Jersey.

2. That one goes:

The petals tremble 
   on the yellow mountain rose— 
roar of the rapids


  1. I've been thinking about the experiential part for a while, too. As someone who's spread their life among different continents/climates/cultures and loves a book in translation, I wonder often about the nuances and connotations, like the frog's dive signifying spring, that I miss. I don't see spring in witch hazel, but I do see it in (depending on where I am) snowdrops or anemone. But I have to imagine the resident of St. Thomas not being able to truly appreciate the turning of the seasons, in much the same I couldn't truly comprehend cold being painful before I experienced subzero temperatures, regardless of how evocatively described it was in literature, including Shelley. Still, this post made me want to read more poetry. And live in more places.

    Even the bastardised haiku was a pretty, vivid thing. It made me think of a how a hazy creek smells like after a storm.

    1. To my understanding, "frog" itself is a kigo. It doesn't matter what the frog is doing: if it's in a haiku, that typically means it's springtime (despite frogs also being active in the summer and early fall). Just how the trope works, apparently.

      I'd be interested in reading an extended treatment of what it's like for a person from the tropics or subtropics lurching through winter for the first time. It really would be analogous to adapting to a different culture.

      Something else I learned from St Thomas: when somebody in that region says "it's pouring," they mean it. People who use that expression in Philadelphia have never seen it rain like it rains in the Caribbean.

      Glad you liked my effort at short verse. In case you're not familiar with wood thrushes, it's worth having a listen to their song:

      The only word I have is "haunting." They prefer deep woods and don't spend much time on the ground; they're heard from up above and far away, but seldom seen.