fishing harbour—
one wooden post
without a pelican

John Bird

blue-sky

John Bird’s haiku is a paradigmatic example of a number of qualities admired by haiku lovers: it uses juxtaposition to evoke a complex scene in just a few words, it sets up and inverts expectations to give the reader an aha moment, and it creates a bitter-sweet resonance.

Haiku is worth reading in a lingering, free-associative manner, unpacking the possibilities of each line. When I first read commentaries in Japanese on Japanese haiku, I was surprised by the extravagance of the additions that the commentators routinely allowed themselves as they described their own imagination of the scene suggested. Now I embrace the chance to be a (subsidiary and just-for-this-time-being) co-author. Do not let the following highjack what you can bring to John Bird’s haiku. Use it as a springboard to your own specific reading.

Here “fishing harbour” suggests a panoramic summer scene with moored boats, and the blue and sparkling sea. A fishing harbour is a busy place, a focus of a local economy with the infrastructure associated with maintaining boats and nets and offloading, even selling, a commercial catch of fish. For me, pleasant memories arise as I dwell on these two words: chugging engines, seagull cries, the smell of seaweed and diesel, the tug of a sea breeze and the touch of sunlight on my skin. “one wooden post” collapses all this breadth and complexity. I visualise it as unpainted, the wood old and weathered, all its detail in sharp focus. Just a wooden post. This one does not even have a pelican perched on it.

But by implication, all the others do. Part of the craft of John’s work here is that he does not labour the point. There is no “only” and this omission shocks me into a repossession of the harbour scene, enriched this time with a great many of these beautiful, strange and rather comical birds in a variety of different poses.

The generous and artful trick of this and the comicality of the birds themselves give this haiku a humorous tone. And yet…that one post is lonely too. In the whole welter of the harbour it is a bare post that drew the poet’s eye. Something is missing. Some boat, perhaps, has not returned. And that lack is what conjures new abundance.
First published: Hobo Poetry Magazine, 1998

Selection and commentary by Alice Wanderer