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The Heron’s Nest

a haikai journal ...


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Volume V, Number 8: August, 2003.
Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved by the respective authors.

Editors’ Choices • Commentary • Haiku Pages:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5 • Index of Poets


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Late one afternoon, it was my job to stand well back and call out guidance to my husband as he pruned a tall ligustrum. He wanted to give it a rounded shape, to match its mate on the other side of the front porch. Even before he silenced the trimmer’s motor and asked me to come “steady” him as he climbed even higher, I was thinking of Robert Gilliland’s lovely haiku:

late wisteria
the stepladder

At first, this seems an unlikely coupling of images. What in the world does “late wisteria” have to do with a stepladder, and one that wobbles, at that? Nothing-and everything! I imagine the poet outside. Perhaps he is cleaning windows or painting a wall or repairing a hole made by a woodpecker along the eaves. Perhaps a bit of pruning or adjusting a downspout. My knowing exactly what job he’s doing is not important to the levels of meaning below the surface of the poem.

While the poet is intent on his chore, a familiar scent comes to him now and then on a breeze. Finally he pauses and acknowledges the source. Ahh, the wisteria, still in bloom. Then, just as he takes another breath of sweet fragrance, the ladder wobbles. I can’t help but perceive Gilliland’s poem as a metaphor for the ups and downs of our lives. So many times, when we are contentedly taking care of business, or just as we are thinking what a pleasant time we're having, the unexpected catches us off guard. The day wobbles. Isn't that the way of it? Sometimes we come crashing down, but usually we find our balance and keep going.

There are several varieties of wisteria, a genus in the pea family. The aroma of its showy purplish or white racemes may be intoxicatingly heavy or tantalizingly faint. But it might be best known for its climbing woody vines that can grow as thick as tree trunks. The main trunk is actually a combination of twisted and coiled stems. Wisteria can tear down balcony banisters and damage roofs and gutters. If allowed to grow unchecked for many years, the huge stems can lift a house right off its foundation. When I was a child, an ancient oak that supported a huge wisteria was “Tarzan’s jungle” for my friends and me. We used to climb the large, twisted stems like monkeys. Some of the smaller ones that hung down from the oak branches had grown into stiff crooks and circles and loops. We used them like the hanging bars on a swing set.

For one who knows wisteria, this poem is sure to bring out a sense of contrast between the strength of the plant and the wobbliness of the ladder or person. Similarities between wisteria and ladders and between the plant and people also come to mind. The flowers tremble or “wobble” even when there’s no wind. In its growing season, the new tendrils reach out, grasping anything in their path. The heady beauty and perfume of wisteria can make people feel wobbly and, of course, a person on a ladder that begins to wobble will reach out to grip something firm.

The opening words “late wisteria” are pleasant and inviting. Following the clear caesura, the poet creates a little tension by leaving “the stepladder” alone on the second line. As I see it, the final telling word, “wobbles,”does not end the poem, but rather leaves readers with several intriguing possibilities. At this point, we can let our own experiences show us what might happen next, or we may simply enjoy the small drama’s bit of mystery.

This haiku is rich with implied color and scent. For me the appeal of “late wisteria” is not so much in what it says, as in what it does not say. The author concisely sets up the scene for readers. He shows only enough to draw us into his moment so that we can make it our own. I am delighted that memory and imagination allow me to participate in Robert Gilliand’s elegantly rendered haiku.



Ferris Gilli
August 2003


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