shanty town —
the jagged edges
For millennia, humans have scanned the night sky with curiosity and wonderment. Since at least the time of Aristotle, some have recognized that
it’s possible to make out the faintest star with an indirect look slightly off to one side. Astronomers call this technique
Closer to home we’re more accustomed to averting our gaze for an altogether different reason: to avoid the sight of what’s discomforting
or disturbing. Some call this mechanism “denial.”
In Sanjukta Asopa’s undeniably affecting haiku, an averted glance brings no psychic relief at all. Instead it puts a widespread human problem
into even sharper relief — yet it does so with utter dispassion.
Population experts at the United Nations estimate that fully one billion people live in the squatter settlements known as shanty towns. Such
settlements are rife with the worst contagions of impoverishment (crime, disease) and despair (substance abuse, suicide). The physical detritus
of civilization — salvaged or surplus scraps of plastic, plywood and corrugated metal — provides rough shelter to
the displaced and the human cast-offs of developing societies.
These are compelling raw materials. But in a remarkable turn, Asopa’s poem takes us to the immaterial for even greater effect. We encounter
“moonlight,” though not the ethereal substance that holds romantics in its sway. This moonlight has been savaged. Ripped apart,
it’s become just one more casualty of the shanty town. (One of William Blake’s cautionary verses comes especially to mind here:
“The beggar’s rags, fluttering in air, / Does to rags the heavens tear.”)
Without histrionics or even a verb, this tiny poem contains a sweeping indictment: shanty towns not only challenge our collective humanity, they
stand in violation of some higher order.
Can such a poem make a difference? Blake might have wondered the same. Yet his poems helped to seed a consciousness that led to eventual reforms
in his native London and beyond. So too, perhaps, with a haiku like this issue’s Heron’s Nest Award winner. Every now and then,
the poem is mightier than the polemic.