a salmon leaps
Grandpa starts to sing
with a brogue
William Cullen, Jr.
This delightful poem makes me smile big every time I read it. The scene
alone is enough to stir a reader’s imagination and evoke emotion. But
for an audience that understands the technique of layered meaning in
haiku, there is much more to be found beneath the surface.
The first line indicates the season. The word “leap” suggests either
summer or autumn, when salmon make their journeys upstream from the sea.
The element of cause and effect, often troublesome in haiku, is clearly
present in this poem, inseparable from the poet’s moment of insight. Yet
it is effective here. The core and strength of the haiku do not lie in
the implication that a fish leaping caused Grandpa to burst into song,
but rather in the discovery of intrinsic, unwritten reasons for this
kind of reaction. Cullen uses the juxtaposition of two vibrant images to
create an uplifting mood and invite readers to find significance on a
deeper level. In my perception, the poem is about the poet’s familial
relationship, humanity’s ancient relationship with salmon, and one man’s
awareness of his inherent connection with nature.
Salmon are born in freshwater streams or rivers, but they spend part of
their lives in the ocean. Swimming upstream from the sea, the adults
return to their birthplace to spawn. Various species of this fish have
been important to humans worldwide for a very long time. Cro-Magnon
people etched pictures of them on tools and weapons 20,000 years ago.
As major sources of food and sport, the salmon’s annual migrations were
anticipated with great excitement in North America and Europe for centuries.
Salmon are famous for their fighting spirit and splendid leaps. They
struggle furiously to escape the fisherman’s hook and will leap out of
the water many times. With immense will and strength, they battle
currents and rapids and even leap ten-foot-high waterfalls. It is no
accident that their scientific name, Salmo salar, means “the leaper.”
Due to artificial dams and pollution by humans, their numbers have been
declining since the early 1600s. In spite of overfishing, man-made
obstacles, and other dangers, this mighty fish continues to survive and herald
the season for those who know its ways. All of this fills Grandpa’s
voice. He spills over with jubilation that this creature's life cycle
continues as it has for his kindred for centuries of generations. Able
to share this wonderful moment with someone dear to him, he starts to
sing--and not merely to sing, but to sing in the brogue of his native
Ireland, a sign of deep emotion.
As the New Year begins, The Heron’s Nest editors thank William Cullen
Jr. for sharing his timely haiku of hope and renewal and of subtle
homage to family and ancestral roots.