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The Heron’s Nest


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Volume X, Number 1: March, 2008.
Copyright © 2008. All rights reserved by the respective authors.

Editors’ Choices • Commentary • Index of Poets • 
Haiku Pages:  1,  2,  3,  4,  5,  6,  7,  8,  9,  10,  11


Heron’s Nest Award


    first snow
    the snug fit of spices
    in their rack
                                       Burnell Lippy


In cooking up our little poems — our pâté, our dim sum, our hot cross buns — we have to get the recipes just right. Too much salt or too little cream will be noticed. Undercooking or desiccation are equally lamentable. On the other hand, a very small but successful variation on an old familiar recipe can be enough to warrant our names being added to that of the dish.

Burnell Lippy’s “first snow” economically captures the pleasure of winter for those who are well prepared. One may eventually become weary, as the season drags on, but the first snow is awesomely beautiful. The poet/speaker here is “snug” inside, ready to enjoy the domestic comforts of winter confinement.

This poem is successful in many of the ways that we have come to appreciate in contemporary English-language haiku. Its images are simply presented and register on the first reading. It has a single, clear seasonal reference, a single clear break, and features natural diction.

It is also a fine example of haiku’s ancestor, the hokku or opening verse of the renku. In addition to exhibiting the qualities that haiku inherited from the hokku, it exhibits other important qualities of a hokku. It could be read as the renku leader’s appreciation for the hospitality of a host. And it could also be an optimistic invocation of the collaborative work to come — twelve, twenty, or thirty-six verses — each with a place in the “rack” and each containing a unique “spice.”

The common kigo “first snow” is a key ingredient in this poem and is skillfully applied. The application of a formal kigo, especially one that receives a great deal of use, obliges the poet to find ways of refreshing the image. While western poetry has no element that quite matches the function of the kigo, our use of spices in cooking provides a useful parallel. Certain insights about the nature and qualities of spices have come down to us through the generations, as both oral tradition and written canon. These traditions are engaged with innovations in an ongoing dialog, the beginning and ending of which are equally beyond our sight. Some spices are in such common use that any spice rack, however humble and rudimentary, is likely to include them: thyme, cinnamon . . . and others so familiar to us that just a pinch is enough to invoke intimate memories. Likewise, the use of the kigo “first snow” will trigger some specific memories (even if unconscious ones) in each of us.

When a spice rack is mentioned, we are likely to envision a particular example, in our own kitchens or in the kitchens of our childhoods. Even if some readers have no immediately retrievable memories of such an object, it will likely prove evocative through the absence of such associations. In fact, just such a negative capability is one of the striking features of this poem. The spices are not, at present, providing sensations of either taste or scent. They are entirely a matter of potential in the moment portrayed, snug in their storage place.

Juxtaposition is a primary tool of haiku poets. It’s easy for us to fall into the extremes of selecting images that operate as either synonyms or antonyms for each other. The results can be an unacknowledged simile or a labored irony. Occasionally this can be effective but best practice seems to be to work with images that are plausibly available to the senses in a single instance of time and place and to allow their resonances free play rather than to force them into a narrow span of meaning. In other words, we show rather than tell. But we are not limited to showing, we can also invite the reader to get close enough to touch, taste, and smell.

The good news is that the selection of one poem among the final three was difficult this time. They all succeed in resisting the reduction of their core images to a “solution.” Despite the metaphorical possibilities of Michele Root-Bernstein’s empty hat box, Claire Gallagher’s late season tomatoes, and Burnell Lippy’s spice rack, each of these images retains its literal qualities and declines to be made into something other, and lesser, than itself. Each is full of implications, which arise as they do in life, suggesting rather than proclaiming a deeper meaning. It only takes a trace of snow, or a bay leaf, to release all of this for sensitive readers.



John Stevenson
March 2008


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