barley expanse . . .
like incense smoke
the poppy waves
The Mainichi, 17th August, 2016
© Lucia Fontana
One of the things that drew me towards this haiku is that it has a simile. Usually in haiku, we try to stay away from metaphors, personification, simile, and other poetic devices that do not present subject matter in an objective sense.
However, it is also a tradition in haiku to use simile as a kind of a trick of the mind, or to bring attention to a deeper truth. Though it is used sparingly for effect, when it is done right, it works well. It is like when you are playing music in a certain mode and introduce a note not in the mode. It surprises the audience and can sometimes make a performance special. In any art, we cross boundaries to reveal new emotions or to express something needed to be expressed.
Though the first line is straightforward, especially with a classical kireji (or “cutting word” or punctuation in English), the following lines start with “like,” enacting a simile that has overtones of spirituality. Many people who write haiku have a Buddhist background, as Basho, the “godfather” of modern haiku (or hokku, as it was back then) was a Zen practitioner. Haiku is not a Zen art form, but Zen has greatly influenced haiku in its journey from being a part of a linked verse named renga and becoming its own poetic form that has grown more serious, philosophical, and powerful in showcasing people’s connection with nature, and vice versa.
With “incense smoke,” the reader is guided to see the poppy’s petals in their turning in the wind, like the curl of incense. This image is even more stark with colors in mind: barley being golden yellow and poppies usually being a luscious red. Red can be said to be a color of passion and devotion. In a sense, I think the writer is saying she sees something ethereal in the way the poppy’s petals wave. Poppy’s petals are light and feathery, and are layered on top of each other. I believe the comparison of these petals with incense smoke is apt, and their color can definitely bring about a feeling of something innocent, spiritual, and awe-inspiring.
Though the ellipsis seems to clearly cut the haiku into two portions, we can also read the haiku as: barley expanse . . . like incense smoke/the poppies wave. This gives a new sense to the haiku, suggesting the poppies are interacting with the barley field in a natural way, but there is an underlying spirituality to it as well.
However, both ways of reading the haiku brings about the sense of the magic of nature. As children, we feel the mystery and power behind nature on our explorations through forests, plains, deserts, and the like. As adults, we can lose this feeling of the magic of nature. I think the feeling behind this haiku is that the spirituality and mystery of nature should be seen in our eyes again.
It is interesting to note the use of the word “expanse” and “incense” which rhyme and both refer to spirituality. Also of importance is the connection between “smoke” and “poppy” with the “o” sound, which gives off a sense of something prolonged (the traveling of incense, for instance). The ellipsis, in addition, emphasizes the sense of continuation.
Lucia Fontana has written a unique haiku, using a simile, colors, and motion in a poignant and meaningful way. Hopefully more modern haiku poets will venture to use similes like this and put their attention to spiritual subjects more often.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky