caught in a dew drop —
the empty swing
(The Heron’s Nest vol. 5 #2, 2005)
© H. Gene Murtha (1955 – 2015) (USA)
Every year, the H. Gene Murtha Senryu Contest is held by Michael Rehling (Failed Haiku journal) and Steve Hodge (Prune Juice journal). It was initiated to honor the influential American poet and naturalist, who was a tanka editor of the journal Notes from the Gean, a haiku contest judge, and included in the landmark collection Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Read more about Gene at The Living Haiku Anthology and from his collection of selected poems, Biding Time.
Commentary from Michael Rehling and Steve Hodge
Dawn is a time of potential and hope for most of us. Waking up we have a chance to look forward. But the poet has the image of an empty swing in his eye and his mind. Sometimes a dewdrop is just a dewdrop but you can’t fit a swing set into a dewdrop. Although you can if the dewdrop is not really a dewdrop but a tear you are looking through. Gene struggled with ‘loss’ his whole life. He lost a child to a stillbirth and it haunted him. Here, I believe, is the poet looking out at a new day not with hope and anticipation but with a crushing vacant view of the lost potential of a missing child. We all prepare for the birth of a child so the empty swing is not out of the ordinary and glimpsing it created the ‘dewdrop’ in his eye.
I knew Gene and he could be irascible and course, but he never once failed to be able to recover himself and get in touch with his better angels in the end. In this poem he returns from bitter grief to capture a moment of unique tenderness and put it into this fine poem. That, for those of you did not know Gene, is why his poems still touch us so deeply. I am writing this through a dewdrop right this moment…
– Michael Rehling (USA)
I remember the first time I read this poem. I was struck by the beautiful image that the first two lines brought to my mind; light from a warm golden dawn sparkling in a clear crystalline drop of dew. I remember getting a chill when I read the third line. The empty chair has been a common metaphor for a recently deceased loved one in English language folk songs from Europe and the U.S. for centuries. As sad as I’ve always found the empty chair to be in those songs, the empty swing suggests something far more heartbreaking; the death of a child. I only knew Gene through online encounters with him and wasn’t aware of the details of his personal life. It wasn’t until I read the following poem by him that I understood the ‘the empty swing.’
spring mist —
a mallard paddles
through our stillborn’s ashes
‘The empty swing’ is an extraordinary poem; a beautiful image juxtaposed against tragic loss. I mentioned to Gene how deeply this poem moved me when we were later in an online conversation. I had the feeling that the experience which inspired the poem was something he didn’t care to discuss. Who could blame him? Never having lost a child, I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like. But ‘the empty swing’ is a beautiful tribute to the child he lost and a beautiful gift to the world of haiku.
– Steve Hodge (USA)
Commentary from Our Community
There is something very sad about this haiku. It resonates with something in me, a deep loneliness rooted in the past, in childhood — indicated by the swing. I think it is a deeply sad memory, the whole light of the new day — imagined future perhaps — encapsulated in this one dewdrop, on or near the empty swing. Perhaps there were previous happy times spent on the swing with someone dear, expectations of a happy future that disappeared like that drop of dew? It just makes me want to cry.
– Martha Magenta (UK)
This is quite a deep haiku that reflects elements of sadness, stillness, loneliness, and flashbacks. The opening line, ‘dawn’, gives a sense of hope, renewal, energy, and awakening. In this case, it awakens childhood memories, and loneliness as well.
Morning dew drops symbolise here the tears of grief, sadness, and mishaps that have happened in the past of someone’s life. I can also see the misery of that dawn (day) whose image/reflection is encapsulated in a tiny dew drop, which means certain long-lasting memories that haunts every morning, maybe as a result of nightmares of traumatic events.
There is a catch in the last line, as I was thinking about a particular type of swing— maybe a tyre swing in this case where one can see a lot of dew drops settle down in the tyre. But, the stillness of empty swings shows no life, no activity, and no wind to give a chance for the dew drops to stay longer than usual. Besides the structure of swing, this part also shows lingering memories that are not oscillating anymore—maybe a kind of fixation.
Overall, the haiku reflects traumatic events in one’s childhood that haunts an individual every morning, waking to sadness, grief, and stillness.
The letter ‘w’ is prominent in the three lines, which reflects the wavelength of echoes or flashbacks of childhood.
– Hifsa Ashraf (Pakistan)
I feel this poem has a mixture of sadness and hope. The first two lines seem like a revelation of the immensity of the universe, beauty, the interconnectedness between small and large, and more. The last line, however, changes our attitude towards this poem. The first part explores a sense a fullness, and the second part describes a scene of emptiness. To me, I feel the poet is saying in indirect terms: “This is how life is: vast and yet vacant.” With the haiku ending on the note of emptiness, I believe Gene is stressing this element of life over fullness. This poem is a fine example of how a poet can convey deep emotions in a few words through implication.
Besides the words themselves, the sound, punctuation, and layout create a sense of loss. The repetition of “d” sounds bring about an atmosphere of seriousness. The accents of “t” and “w” sounds make the poem more stark, in my opinion. With the use of the ellipsis, the contemplative tone is added upon. I feel, as well, that having “dawn” stand on its own in the first line provides a sense of gravity.
A poem written with precision, understatement, and feeling, we cannot help but connect to what the poet experienced.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)
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