a last year’s lambskin where mushrooms gather dusk — Lorin Ford, First place, Katikati Haiku Contest 2014
This poem, which won the 2014 Katikati haiku contest, has been called a “complex, profound and mysterious poem.”
To begin with, let us look briefly at the monoku as a form. An interesting feature of an unpunctuated monoku is its implicit ambiguity, which generally requires us to go forwards and backwards in order to uncover, among the multiple possible readings, the reading we feel most apt. This experience is analogous to the way we unconsciously process melody in music. As Ferrara states in Philosophy and the analysis of music, bridges to musical sound, form and reference: “We continually modify the original tone as the rest of the melody continues to be played. Each tone is both now and retained (undergoing continuous modification) in our consciousness. Too often we think of past, present and future as residing within different compartments of time . . . rather the past is experienced as achievement or as foundation, modifiable by present and future events. Thus, the past itself contains new possibilities.”
So, should we read the poem as “mushrooms gather dusk”? Or “mushrooms gather. dusk”?
The fact that mushrooms are usually gathered, using the passive tense, means that the first reading — that of seeing mushrooms as active gatherers — creates a disconcerting sensation. And when we see that they gather something as abstract as “dusk” we are even more alienated from a simple reading. The possible alternative reading of “mushrooms gather. dusk” is an equally poetic one. The idea of mushrooms gathering together, and doing it during a crepuscular moment seems particularly pagan. And no less poetic is the simple reading of a spot of mushrooms gathered together by natural forces.
This poem, for me, has what Lorca called “duende” that difficult to define dark essence that pervades all great poetic utterance. The Spanish word duende literally means elf or goblin, or some similarly mysterious, and often mischievous, supernatural being. The term is closely aligned with flamenco music, and many aficionados will praise an artist or a performance that has duende (and conversely disqualify others in which duende is absent). Lorca refers to duende as that “mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” And some of Lorca’s comments on the essence of duende are not a million miles away from the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, with its focus on the beauty of the imperfect and the ephemeral. In the 1933 lecture on duende that he gave in Buenos Aires, Lorca said the following: “The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies, in Spain grow tiny weeds of death, allusions and voices, perceptible to an alert spirit, that fill the memory with the stale air of our own passing.” (Translation by A. S. Kilne)
Are the mushrooms in Lorin Ford’s haiku a symbol of life, and of dark fecundity, or are they “tiny weeds of death”? Perhaps they are both.
Finally, the use of the phrase “last year” in a haiku may often lead us to read the poem as a new year poem of sorts, and perhaps we could imagine this haiku as one that speaks to some enigmatic ritual of nature, occurring in that moment between worlds — between light and dark, between an exiting season and the entering one, the old world and the new. Between life and death.
Poetry can certainly help us learn how come to terms with “negative capability,” an elusive term coined by poet John Keats that refers to an ability to exist in accord with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.” And Lorca’s comment that the duende “draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression” makes me think of the complex, profound and mysterious fusion of elements in this haiku.
Because this poem has duende!