Friday, December 28, 2018

Relic Radiation

searching for
answers from beyond
relic radiation

my two cents of prayer

to a threepenny god

the moon drops

into the jukebox
a country waltz

through the summer air

all manner of errant thoughts

rise to the surface

silver minnows

the heron’s shadow across

a look in your eyes

beads of water

on the martini glass
a lipstick stain

ahead of the garbage man

she sneaks past the hangover

gulls wheel

high above the landfill
spring wind

gently making room

for another unread book


her daydreams no longer
what they used to be

sketches of flowers erased

in the walls of a mind

humid shadows

settle over the sun
dappled cemetery

dandelion flower

don’t you start now too

beyond the pale

blue sky

a handshake nobody wanted

closes the negotiation

a tinge of violet

green swallows pierce
the cascade mist

graffiti along the freight train

pigeons talk recession

the cherry blossoms

were better back home
so they say

discovering the question

is only half—

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


all of us
made of stardust--the moth
more so

old flame;
the moth elopes
with lady mantis...

the soft silver
shine of her skin
by mooncandle

luna moth.
the moonflowers dance
to soft cries

x-ray vision!
the ex-wife curses him
through the door

even the moth man
needs love too

portfolio adjustment
i hastily divest myself
of a dead moth

after the bear market,
mothra haunts
the ruins of new new york

we'll need
much bigger mothballs,
nuclear winter

snowflakes gently
under the streetlamp

originally appeared in Prune Juice vol. 26

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

through a cracked window

a tulip waits
in the silence
before daylight 

a river's roar rises
from the heart of darkness

the yellowed keys
of a vintage steinway
gather dust 

songs of yesteryear
seep through cracked windows

a sparrow feather
stays aloft
in the summer sun

barely a breath
the stillness 
of a deer

child lying slain
by a father's gun

the echo
of an ancient tale
now so real

from the belly of leviathan
he slouches toward ninevah

sunset fire
its hour comes round
in the end 

Clayton Beach
Hansha Teki

Collaborative sequence written with Hansha Teki, originally published in Presence #61

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Under the Clouds of Titan

breath enough now
for all our fallen—
autumn wind

as the mildew rises renewed
into the pine-snagged wisps

her blue blood dries
to bone-white, then unseen
at moonset

I carry on with the crime
despite all good intentions

or even to settle
for the Emperor
of Ice Cream

only an absence of snow reminds
of what winter might mean

if there were
no gods left to saddle
with our hubris

we'd scatter the ancient seers
in forgotten spells

a drop of something sinister
in the cocktail
she sent back

and now the phone rings
and rings... its rings

a field of debris
from so far away
full of mystery

the seas of oil roil somewhere there
under the clouds of Titan

the milky blue eye
of a cormorant cuts through

on her good days she's kind
and remembers my face

a rusted jalopy convalesces
on bricks
beside a toilet bowl planter

glazed with rainwater and
nothing depends on anything

I tried to shake it off
my depression—
an old wet dog

snuffles at mushrooms
fit for a regicide

all the blossoms in the capital
couldn't polish
this turd

a beginning so unpropitious
it sends us back to bed

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mosaic Virus

Moments before I’m due to close shop, a young man with long blonde hair & a reddish beard saunters in with a hand rolled cigarette dangling unlit from his mouth— Boho chic. He asks me for spare change & I decline. His cigarette bobs with every slurred syllable; he asks if I have a Xanax or any other pills to give him. When I tell him no, he replies “hey man, you know, sometimes that really works,” shrugs his shoulders, then exits.

garbage & tents strewn along the railway line city of roses

 My son is eating every blackberry he picks. My daughter eats one and drops one in the colander. I eat the ones so ripe they fall apart and put the rest away, spitting out bits of the dried flowers as I cut the highest hanging clusters free with a knife. Last summer we gathered figs, plums, apples and pears from the abandoned orchard on the other side of the fence. This winter the trees were all cut down and fed into chippers. A large white sign on a post proclaims the intended construction of a grand new complex of condominiums. When we arrive home I find a single letter in the mailbox, it is a no-cause eviction from the landlord. She’s wants to sell the house.

foreign entanglement a storm of starlings

It’s summer and I can’t hear a single thing but the wind in the trees. In the fall, when the mushrooms rise again from the loam, the entire forest will drip with a susurrus of rain, crows will echo through the mist, Douglas squirrels will ululate from the towering old growth— the entire forest will sing with life. But right now, it’s just the wind, passing through me and the hemlocks as if we didn’t exist.

voiceless voice the trees and i

originally published in Otata 19 July 2017

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Basic Elements of Haiku

Many introductions to haiku attempt to define it, in terms of content, tone or spirit. But the haiku has been too many things to too many people over the centuries for any such definition to hold true, and the story of haiku is as yet unfinished, so we must also leave possibilities open for the future. The following is an explanation of several of the basic, essential features and principles of haiku, intended as a guide for those unfamiliar with the genre, both for reading/appreciating the haiku as well as beginning to write them.


The most basic building block of haiku is an image. Some have called this a “haiku moment,” or an “aha!” but it can also be a mental picture, a sound, smell or even an idiomatic expression, song or piece of art—it is a conceptual spark that stops you, pulls you out of your day-to-day routine and grabs your attention. In such a short form, there needs to be something for the reader to hold on to immediately and generally, and this tends to be a strong image and striking choice of words. Writing haiku regularly can become a practice of mindfulness, noticing the little moments in life that one otherwise would discard. Keeping a notepad with you to write these moments down is the first step in writing haiku. These details themselves are sometimes used as haiku on their own, if there is some level of insight in the moment captured, but usually they need a larger context to really “pop” as haiku. The most basic kind of haiku is just a description of a single image or moment from everyday life:


the crane's leg
has gotten shorter
in the heavy rain                                               


This is a single image, “uncut” haiku. It has no classical kireji (cutting word), though the “fifth month rains” that I have translated as “heavy rain” is a kigo (seasonal reference). Such unadorned, simple, straight out of life haiku would later come to be called “shasei.” which means “sketch of life.” This poem is not quite as plain and simple as it seems in English, however, for the rhythmic count is 5-5-7, instead of the expected 5-7-5—the middle “leg” of the haiku has been shortened, just as the crane's. Often, haiku seem much simpler in translation than the actual language of the original poem, which is often full of archaic spellings, elevated literary language and allusions to previous poems.


Most haiku follow a two part structure, the technical terms for the two parts are “superposed section” and “base section,” but they are also commonly called fragment and phrase. I don't like that terminology, because the “phrase” is often a sentence fragment, and the “fragment” is usually a single image, and I see them as being more independent and complete. For our purposes in this essay, I'll call them the foil and the base, for the foil reflects and illuminates the base section, allowing us to find deeper meaning, and the base forms the substrate of the poem, the soil from which our understanding grows.


old pond.
a tree frog jumps in
the sound of water


Bashō and his disciples would find a good base section then start working through foils, choosing the one that most fully fit the particular puzzle piece of the base section, unlocking its essence. In that sense, haiku can be artificial and not based on the initial moment that inspired the poem. You start with a moment or observation, but then you choose the foil that best reflects the deeper meaning of your insight. Earlier versions of this poem had elegant images like “mountain rose,” but Bashō chose an old, dilapidated pond. The base section in classic haiku often has some kind of mix of elegant imagery and the worn, the common or the strange. Here, the tiny tree frog known for its delightful call is not heard singing (as it would be in an elegant tanka) but slipping into the pond; there is only “the sound of water,” an innovative shift away from reader expectation. The base draws the reader in through some kind of playfulness, abnormality or obscurity, while the foil gives clues to the meaning or emotional subtext of the base.



octopus trap—
these fleeting dreams
the summer moon


About 70% of modern Japanese haiku have kigo. In Japan there are some that say that without kigo, a poem is not haiku. Kigo are not just about season though, they have emotional subtexts in the way they refer to previous poems and evoke set associations. Thus, they are a kind of symbolism, in a sense, something beyond nature and simple realism. Oftentimes, the traditional use of a kigo will be twisted ironically, which will add a humorous element to the haiku. Here, fleeting dreams and the summer moon are the language of love poetry, the insinuation is that the octopus is having dreams of love, unaware he will be hauled up by the fisherman in the morning. Perhaps love is the tender trap.

winter moon
the name only he
knows me by

Carolyn Hall

In English language haiku, because we can't import an entire culture's worth of this kind of symbolism, and trying to do so can sound forced and perhaps even culturally insensitive if done in a heavy handed manner, many have opted for a more generic seasonal references or merely a natural image. Whatever it is you chose to replace kigo with, it should have some depth to it. It's not just two things you coincidentally saw together in a real moment. There is a kernel of truth and real experience at the heart of the haiku, but in terms of craft, one must choose details carefully in a way that they say something about the rest of the poem on a deeper level. That's the best way to approach finding a proper substitute for the use of kigo, whether it is a reference to other art or poetry, a natural image or a seasonal reference, it is used to convey emotion and meaning indirectly, through fraught language. Here, there isn't any direct metaphorical tie between base and foil, and yet when placed together, there is a deepening of feeling and we sense that the winter moon has a wistful melancholy that fits the haiku.



snow melt,
the village teems
with children


In Japanese, classical kireji (cutting words) help mark and isolate significant words or images, and can add emotional shading and depth. Sometimes they come at the end and create a sense of the poem being unfinished, leading the reader outside the poem, or they simply lend a classical elegance and emotive tone. Other times, they are used to separate the foil and base sections. In the sense that they have a rhythmic component, they can't be translated into English, but they often function like our normal punctuation, or else as some kind of emphatic expression. Fortunately, they don't occur in every single haiku, and they aren't entirely necessary in creating a true “cut,” which is the actual sense of separation between the foil and base, inviting the reader to step into the poem and figure it out.

In the poem above, the kireji is the final word, kana, which is used when the speaker wants to add a musing, emotive tone, but doesn't want to explicate exactly how they feel. We are supposed to decide how we feel about the poem ourselves. Issa's children all died young, perhaps this village full of children brings joy to his heart, or sadness, but most likely it is a mixture of both. What point in his life the haiku was written in would tell us more, but the “kana” allows us freedom to put our own emotions into it. So here, the kireji adds emotional weight without spelling everything out, and isn't involved directly in any separation of the sections.


In the previous haiku by Issa, the actual cut, which I have signified by a comma, is not created by a classical kireji. Bashō made it clear that formal kireji were not necessary for cutting—for the actual separation of base and foil—so in English we can use whatever means we want to create a cut, and still be none the poorer. We don't need kireji to emulate the cut in a haiku.

half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and

David Boyer

In this single line haiku, Boyer has used a period to perform a strong cut, but he has also added a trailing off and incompleteness, showing two of the ways we can emulate both the use of cutting and the function of kireji in English, even without the aid of line breaks, like Issa's ku, this has both a cut that separates two ideas as well as a break with an emotive sense of discompletion and lack of closure, which invites the reader into the poem.


Once cut, a haiku has two elements next to each other. The way they connect and interact is the most delightful aspect of haiku and makes it unique as a poetry. The most natural and easy type of haiku simply puts two similar things side to side, making a thinly veiled metaphor, as in these two haiku, which make similar comparisons.


the flower
makes a shy face—
misty moon


Here the comparisons are obvious and logical. While the ideas are technically separated by a cut, we can immediately connect the dots. The base section with the flower on its own might be slightly enigmatic, but the foil seamlessly ties into the base and explicates its meaning, there is a slight tension, and then release.


a night of moonlit mist—
I should think that odd faces
must find love, too


In this second haiku, from the modern era, the distance in connection is slightly greater and sets a more pensive, psychological tone. Notice, here the foil comes first, introducing a reflective and mysterious tone, with the combination of moonlight and rain giving a slight hint of the supernatural or an otherwordly undertone, an association utilized in the ugetsu monotagari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), a collection of ghost stories from the Edo Period, where love liaisons between humans and snake demons or departed ghosts are not uncommon. The connection between halves here is less direct, but still relies on the juxtaposition of two similar images or ideas that deepen each other through context.


Haiku can also have an ironic contrast or surprise, utilizing incongruities to create a humorous or pathos filled haiku.


a fool in the dark,
I snatch a bramble—


A touch of comedy softens the nasty surprise awaiting Bashō in the darkness, here the firefly both explains the circumstances of the base section and provides contrast through the elegant, classical image of a summer firefly hunt and the stab of a thorn.


a single firefly
stuck on the fur
of the wolf


Similarly, this modern Japanese haiku also makes a contrast with the delicate firefly, though here we see that what is essentially a single image haiku, without any classical kireji, can still exhibit a sense of base and foil through two contrasting elements.

Blending, Fusion and Pivot:

Blending is a technique used extensively in contemporary English haiku. Whereas punctuation or line breaks are often needed to create a sense of clear cutting, the recent tendency toward single line haiku with no punctuation opens of the possibility of one idea running into the other and the two blending together into a single compound image.

I look up
from writing
to daylight.

William J. Higginson

Here the grammatically correct sentence nevertheless is structured to shift into a paradoxical frame, the final line surprises our expectations and makes us go back to the beginning, realizing the implication of the ending, but otherwise the poem is seamless, without any clear caesura.


Nick Virgilio

Blending turns into fusion when the poem makes an odd image pair sound connected by placing them side by side, or even by making a compound word of two separate concepts as in this single “poem-word” by Nick Virgilio.

leftover moon whitening the surrender of camellias

Cherie Hunter Day

Somewhat in between these two is a pivot, a technique used in Japanese, but also popular in one line haiku in English. Here, the word “whitening” can be seen as a transitive or intransitive verb, depending on whether we assume the moon is itself becoming more white, or if it is an agent that is “whitening the surrender of camellias.” The poem can be read with a cut, or as a single line. Other pivots can be read as two different parts, but with a single word both serving as both the end of one section and the beginning of the other.

Blending, fusion, and pivoting all exploit language in a paradoxical way, creating multiple readings that challenge the reader and deepen the suggestive power of the poem.

White Space and Misreading as Meaning:

In the absence of the symbolic and highly referential use of kigo in Japanese, English-language haiku has become a poetry of ambiguity or indeterminacy. Whereas, usually an astute reader can solve the puzzle of a traditional Japanese haiku by tapping into the traditional associations behind each image, in English, reading a haiku is more of an interpretive act of creation on the part of the reader. “White space,” and “misreading as meaning”are two oft used phrases that describe the manner in which the reader uses a haiku as a starting place and creates their own meaning through free association. Certain modern Japanese haiku adopt a more subjective and individualist stance, becoming more obscure and less tied to tradition, but these techniques are of primary importance to English language haiku.

pussy willow the phial of expired wishes

Alan Summers

Here, there are no explicit answers. We cannot rely on a set implication of “pussy willow” from a tradition of kigo to explain the undertones it provides, perhaps they have been cut and the catkins have died and dried as decorations, never to flower, but even then, “phial of expired wishes” is an evocative phrase that is much more than simply some buds that will never blossom—we are invited to explore the “white space” of what feelings pussy willows inspire in our own hearts, and what dried up wishes and stale desires they might contain.

just a touch of deer within tall things that just grow

Marlene Mountain

This haiku can almost only be “misread,” depending on how one tries to find a cut, the sense of meaning is slippery and we are left guessing intent—the poem splits and shifts into several different clusters of evocative phrases and images, and any sense we derive from it comes from an intuitive, creative act of discovery rather than pure, deductive reasoning.


Without some kind of incongruity or aberration (generally found within the base section or at the point of juncture between the two parts) a poem as short as the haiku flies by and can have little lasting effect upon the reader. A common mistake for beginning haiku poets is to simply describe a scene or feeling. This might be vaguely pleasant, but it will immediately be forgotten and the reader will quickly move on to the next haiku. That's not to say these brief sketches aren't worth writing for practice, and some are even worth sharing or publishing. But generally, they make a good base section that remains in need of a foil. Leaving ambiguity or creating paradox draws the reader in to the world of the poem.

my fingerprints
on the dragonfly
in amber

Jim Kacian

This haiku inspired the title of Richard Gilbert's The Disjunctive Dragonfly, a book length exploration of the topic of disjunction. Like Tōta's firefly on a wolf, this is a single image, uncut haiku that nevertheless creates a layering and blending of ideas, exploiting many of the techniques explored in this essay.


Variety in haiku is important, and simple poems compliment the complex. But the best haiku have to be read twice: the reader begins, becomes disoriented, then re-orients to find meaning and is satisfied with the insight they've gained. This is the true "aha!" Haiku can have a simple twist that quickly brings a smile of recognition to the reader's face, or be a labyrinth one can wander in meditation again and again, finding new possibilities or implications with every read. But any haiku should require at least some level of thought and searching for hidden significance on the part of the reader or risk being forgotten immediately. The best haiku create a palpable sense of place and presence, the microcosm in a single breath—they open doors to a space in our conscious mind that is more real and immediate than much of our everyday lives.

i can't find the time destroyed by the past

Marlene Mountain

Monday, January 29, 2018

Last week my friend and writing partner Johnny Baranski passed away. We wrote and published many collaborative linked-verse poems together. Here's two of my favorites, one has not previously been published. sketching the outlines a starling's silhouette in the stop light summer sunset riverfront blues festival just getting started alpine lake sketching the outlines of remorse cicadas— up all night with a crying child our better angels forgotten the moon wears a halo the new bestseller a real page turner summer wind Clayton Beach, Portland OR Johnny Baranski, Vancouver WA susurrus what the eaves overheard spring showers the pitter-patter of mice in the attic the shades of his final summer oak leaves rustle extra innings— weaker and weaker the cricket's voice whispers in the sky which star sings so sadly? a train whistle fades in the distance misty moon Clayton Beach, Portland OR Johnny Baranski, Vancouver WA (first appeared in Presence #59)