Hometown Haiku

Dad looks on as I fill the radiator of my old 1968 Ford Galaxie

Pop fixed everything.
Pity that talent wasn’t
hereditary.

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You say cicada, I say locust

Cicadas shed their skin
Back in Missouri where I grew up, we had an insect about the size of the end of your thumb that folks called locusts.

The proper name for these critters was “cicadas,” but for me, they will always be locusts.

These bugs made a terrible racket when they started their serenade. Some sources say the noise is so loud it can damage the human ear.

I won’t take that bet. They can be exceedingly annoying.

But they are also fascinating because they molt and leave behind an almost perfect exoskeleton. As a kid, I would collect these artifacts like little relics.

My fellow poet over at Dancing Echoes recently wrote a haiku about these creatures.

Dancing Echoes does a great job coming close to the original idea of haiku.

The old haiku masters combined words with beautiful calligraphy and drawings to form a total experience.

Dancing Echoes pairs each poem with a beautiful photograph. In this effort, she approaches the complete experience achieved by the old masters. You could say it’s haiku for the modern age.

The cicada haiku from Dancing Echoes reminded me of an old poem sitting in my files gathering dust. It’s not haiku. But it does feature a cicada — or rather, a locust.

SOMETIMES IN THE
MOONLIGHT

Sometimes in the moonlight
The feeling comes afresh,
The old familiar feeling,
The aching of the flesh.

Sometimes in the summer
The noisy locust strains
Against the skin that holds him.
To shed his crusty chains.

When the trees grow weary
Of their summer masquerade,
And fallen leaves are gathered
I hunger for the shade

Of limbs that never falter
And love that never cools,
Where ruin never alters,
And where death never rules.

Lilac time

Lilacs
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”

I owe some of my enthusiasm for poetry to my 11th grade English teacher back at Marshall High School in Marshall, Missouri–Paul Hagedorn.

He devoted an inordinate amount of time that year to the study of poetry. Our major assignment for the whole year, as I recall, was two-fold. We were to create a poetry notebook in which we copied — and illustrated, if we desired — a good number of poems that spoke to our hearts.

He encouraged us to venture beyond the usual suspects. So, along with poems by Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson, I included lyrics by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Then, we were to pick one American poet from a prescribed list of lesser known poets, and write a lengthy term paper on our choice. (I choose John Crowe Ransom because I thought his name was cool. Incidentally, I’m was happy with my choice.)

Mr. Hagedorn passionately believed that Walt Whitman was the greatest poet that had ever lived and he did his best to infect his impressionable students with this enthusiasm. I dutifully bought a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass,” and read the whole thing.

I failed to completely fall in love with Whitman. Some passages were interesting and hypnotic. I recognized some of the cadence of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. He clearly was making an ambitious attempt to encompass the breadth and depth of all of America in his work. I appreciated that he was attempting to do something had not been done before in American poetry.  But I never could figure out why my teacher was such a Whitman nut.

One poem that did thrill me, however, was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I understood it was an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 14, 1864, just days after the end of the Civil War.

Lilacs were my mother’s favorite flower, and she had passed along that enthusiasm to me. So I was predisposed to be open to any poem about lilacs.

One other factor, just a few years earlier, America had celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War.  I can remember fighting the Civil War during recess in grade school.  Back in my hometown in the heart of “Little Dixie,” there were plenty of kids who had inherited Confederate sympathies from their families.

As the great-grandson of a Yankee soldier, I was clearly a Northern sympathizer.  So, one year, I recall us  dividing up and re-fighting great battles out on the playground.

Lincoln was a revered figure in my family.  So, that made an elegy to him even more interesting.

As I re-read Whitman’s poem today, decades later, it feels a bit overdone.  I had forgotten it was so long.

Just my opinion, but Old Walt could have used a good editor.

But here are those lines that are pure genius, and so beautiful that you think Whitman found them fully formed somewhere:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It’s been a tough year for lilacs here in the Northwest.  We had such a warm and early spring that many lilac bushes were tricked into blooming too early.  Our premature spring was interrupted by some cold clear nights that nipped many lilacs in the bud.

Pity, because  there is nothing quite like the heart-shaped leaf and the perfume of the lilac.

Digging Issa, haiku master

Haiku master Issa self portrait
Issa self portrait. The poem reads: Even considered/in the most favorable light/he looks cold

Dropped my wife off at the airport this morning before dawn. The moon was full, and I was reminded why I like Issa most of all the old Japanese haiku masters.

Issa was so human and compassionate, despite the many losses and disappointments he experienced.

He certainly endured his share of suffering. He mother died when he was a young boy. His stepmother was manipulative and cruel. After his father died, his stepmother refused to recognize the will, which would have given Issa part of the estate. He saw all of his children die before him. And he outlived his beloved wife Kiku, who died giving birth.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I’ll quote one of his most touching poems, written after his wife’s death. By Issa:

The moon tonight —
I even miss
her grumbling.

There’s something so honest and sweet and human about that. He loved her and he loved even her imperfections. The sight of the moon brought it all back and stirred up his intense memories. He missed her and he missed all of her.

One other poem by Issa on this theme of loss:

Outliving them
Outliving them all —
Ah, the cold!

I cannot claim to comprehend Issa’s pain. My wife is still very much alive–just out of town for a few days. I’ve never lost a child. But having lost both parents and all my brothers, I have caught a glimpse of what Issa is saying about “outliving them all.” Just a faint glimpse.

I think of Issa’s poem. I think of that old Tom Waits song, “The last leaf on the tree.” I think of the oak trees from my Missouri youth. And all of this made me think of — and write — a new poem:

Late Winter Haiku

One grey leaf still clings
to the branch, curled up and dry.
Could fall any day.