midnight silence –
in a brass gong,
Judith E.P. Johnson
I found this haiku to have immediate appeal and ongoing resonance and was quite taken by the contrast between its silence and the possibility for the gong to make sound. This brought to mind Buson’s well-known haiku (of which there are many translations) of a butterfly sleeping on the temple bell. On another level the contrast between silence and sound is also a contrast between stillness and motion. The silence in Judith’s poem is not simply contained in that word in the first line but present too in midnight, in the full moon, its reflection in polished brass and in the unsounding gong; but ah! the potential for that gong to sound . . . to resonate . . . and its sound to fade away as only the sound of a gong can, returning us again to silence. I especially enjoyed the poet’s notes on the background to this haiku; ‘The gong in this haiku is a childhood memory. It stood on a table in a hallway at my aunt’s house and on opening the front door the light fell on its bright brass surface. When I visited as a child I often took the mallet that hung beside it and struck it to hear it resonate around me and down the hallway. I have no idea where it came from but in my aunt’s conservative home with her English husband it had a mysterious ‘oriental’ attraction.’
I was intrigued too by the suggestion of the circle which is not mentioned explicitly in the haiku but its image is contained twice over in both the shape of the gong and of the full moon and this prompted thoughts of the symbolic value the circle holds in both the Eastern and Western traditions as well as what it might mean for the individual reader. The image of the moon reflected in the shiny gong is a beautiful one, for reflections in brass are somewhat indistinct, softly blurred and rendered golden by the lovely lustre of this metal. A deeply satisfying haiku.
First published: Shamrock issue 9, 2009
Selection & comments by Simon Hanson