train tunnel
the sudden intimacy
of mirrored faces

. . . . . . Beverley George

This sublime senryu by Beverley George, which appears in the Third Australian Haiku Anthology, renders a moment that is familiar to us all but is turned into a psychological phenomenon.

George presents us with the transformative power of light, enabling the reader to connect different worlds. The ordinary experience of travelling by train, commonly associated with the collective need to go to work, is juxtaposed with the desire for and elusiveness of meaningful (even spontaneous) human connection.

There are many things to enjoy in this senryu. There is an obscure clarity in this work such that we are almost able to see through the words to the thing that George wants us to see. The absence of light frames the action, so we see nothing in the poem except the ghostly figures in the reflection, creating an ambience almost bordering on tension. This helps to create a psychological veracity to the poem, as the invisible faces are jolted from their introspective slumber by the train cabin’s plunge into darkness, forcing them to acknowledge the existence of an ‘outside world’. The assonance of ‘tunnel’ and ‘sudden’ stirs this transformation further, heightening the jarring nature of the moment. Catching an accidental glimpse of a perfect stranger can be equal parts pleasant and uncomfortable, and George has expressed this with precision.

There are other notable techniques that deserve attention. Firstly, the usual advice given to haiku poets is to use adjectives sparingly. The adage, ‘Show, don’t tell’, is relevant here, since adjectives tend to ‘tell’. In George’s poem, there is an adjective on each line (three of the eight words of the poem), but all of them are vital in constructing the poem’s crisp clarity. Secondly, there is a palpable silence in the poem, which adds an extra psychological layer of eeriness. In so doing, George gives a nod to modern, climate controlled and headphone-muted train travel. Long-gone are the days of noisy, open-windowed train carriages, filled with the crash bang clatter and chatter of the pre-digital age.

Staying with George’s expert use of technique, the piece is also punctured by a proliferation of short verb sounds, creating a train-like rhythm that almost makes up for the silence, adding a musical sound-effect which helps the poem to linger, encouraging us to dwell on the scene. Perhaps most appealing of all, though, is that the poem has no ‘end’. The stunning third line simultaneously introduces us to the ‘mirrored faces’ and ends our association with them at the same time – leaving us on a knife’s edge. How long will they have to endure this forced intimacy? How will they react? Who will blink first and avert their eyes from the confronting scene? Will they be motivated to look into each other’s real-life faces when the train exits the tunnel? Or will they simply slip back into their own worlds?

Martin Lucas once said, ‘Sometimes we are drawn to a particular poem because it recalls something from our own experience.’ That is certainly the case for me. Many poets have rendered George’s image, and whenever I come across them, I am always reminded of her indelible version. Her poem, though drawn from an ordinary scene, is descriptive and reflective at the same time, deeply evocative of the human condition. It is a fine senryu.

Cited:
Lucas, M. Stepping Stones: a way into haiku (British Haiku Society, 2007).

Haiku first published: Presence, Issue 22, 2004

Commentary by Rob Scott