tongue waving –
the goanna tracks
a hotdog vendor
The Goanna and the Hot Dog
The First Australian Haiku Anthology, published in 1999, offers many glimpses of end-of-twentieth-century settler Australia. Although the purpose of the anthology was to collect a representative sample of haiku written by Australians “by nationality or residency”, the lack of Australian content in the submissions is striking. Three haiku by Brett Dionysus, a poet well-known for work beyond haiku, all have multiple references to Australian nature. That aside, in 39 pages of haiku I counted only 27 specifically Australian images, mostly references to the natural world or architecture.
Many of these more overtly Australian haiku are descriptive, presenting scenes like those found in Australian movies or on postcards and calendars. This is not surprising. Sergei Eisenstein famously drew inspiration for his montage form in kabuki and in haiku; and modern haiku, developed at the end of the nineteenth century, matured in a world increasingly saturated by photographic images and the kind of looking they facilitate. But since photographs are accessible worldwide, haiku mentioning kookaburras, kangaroos, eucalypts, casuarinas, corrugated iron roofs or verandas and such-like could be written by any Anglophone haiku poet working from visual prompts.
Can a nationally-oriented form of English Language Haiku be more than that? For me, this haiku by Bob Jones was a standout. It captures not only distinctively Australian content but a distinctively Australian sense of humour. The first time I read it I laughed aloud, and the joke has not grown stale. Hotdog Vendor encroaches on Goanna’s territory. Goanna does not shrink. Goanna smells an opportunity.
Like snakes, goannas use their tongues to smell, and like snakes they flick them in and out of their mouths. The word “waving” here, therefore, creates for me a cartoon-like exaggeration. This goanna is possessed by a tongue-wagging lust for that vendor and those hotdogs. It’s not just a large, fast and wily, carnivore lizard. It has human characteristics. Likewise, it is not just after some random working-class street food imported from the US. Never before had I been struck by how blatantly erotic hotdogs are!
Yet this haiku is more than a cartoon. By juxtaposing deep time with the contemporary, it is firmly anchored in the haiku tradition. “Goanna” is not a kigo, and yet goannas are old, old, old. Wikipedia tells me that the word is not, as I would otherwise have guessed, from an Aboriginal language. It is a white Australianism, a corruption of iguana. Knowing that, I feel the ghosts of the bush poets. Still, it is associations of goannas with Aboriginal cultures that are front and foremost for me. This goanna’s unfazed response to the hot dog vendor seems to celebrate the ingenuity and resilience of Aboriginal Australia in the face of dispossession.
Reading this haiku in 2020 during a pandemic, I laugh a laugh of victory. The “current world order” is not going to last as long as the goanna. From history’s long perspective, neither will this . But Bob Jones’ haiku nails a moment at the turn of the century that remains fresh today, perhaps in part because it itself is packed with the traces of earlier times.
 First Australian Haiku Anthology, Bostok, J.M., Bird (Eds) & Print Version Editor Murray J., Paper Wasp, 2003.
Selection and commentary by Alice Wanderer