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Notions of Metamorphosis in English Haiku

Richard Gilbert
Frogpond, 27:3, Autumn 2004

Now I shall tell of things that change, new being
Out of old . . . give me the voice
To tell the shifting story of the world.
-- Ovid, The Metamorphoses, "Invocation"
(trans. Horace Gregory, 1958)

 Metamorphosis, the magical transformation of form and identity, is a primary mark of existence. For more than a century, the dissolving and accelerated mutation of “identities” (buildings, towns, transport, jobs, landscapes, media, art) has come to represent a fundamental aspect of the modern environment, most recently reflected through the lens of postmodernism. Writers like Bill McKibben have expressed concern over contemporary metamorphoses occurring between nature and society: the potential loss of human identity through future human genetic manipulation, discussed in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, and the loss of wild nature, a main concern of his work, The End of Nature.

 Varieties and variations on the theme of metamorphosis are innumerable. In Greek myth, the Earth is created from inanimate matter and given life by the hands of Gods; a larvae spins a cocoon, emerging as a butterfly; coal becomes diamond; carbon dioxide, limestone. The hero transforms him or herself, confronting initiatory challenges through stages of life. Snakes shed skins, seed becomes flower, magicians transform flowers into pigeons. Computer-generated s/fx morph reality in cinema – metamorphosis is a given in dreams. Couched in the metaphors of language and narrative story, metamorphic acts offer roads of vision, and pose mysteries: how form transforms, how one becomes “other,” and how that other becomes “I.” The universe harbors magical powers, transforming identities, reversing, converting, or fusing them. Metamorphosis indicates that the faces and “fingerprints” of identity float upon deeper seas. Dudley Young points out in Origins of the Sacred that metamorphosis embodies the sacred energy of the swarm, psychically resonant with Dionysus and divine madness: the universe as flagrantly, seethingly metamorphic, its transformations extending beyond human conception. In this sense, the moment of metamorphosis remains part of the wild. Gary Snyder posits that the wild is “a measured chaos,” from which one may discover “the grain of things:”

“I will argue that consciousness, mind, imagination, and language are fundamentally wild. 'Wild' as in wild ecosystems – richly interconnected, interdependent, and incredibly complex. Diverse, ancient, and full of information. At root the real question is how we understand the concepts of order, freedom, and chaos. Is art an imposition of order on chaotic nature, or is art (also read 'language') a matter of discovering the grain of things, of uncovering the measured chaos that structures the natural world? (Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds, 1995, pp. 163-172).

 “The grain of things” arises through fundamental contact with the wild: an inchoate imagination, an “uncovering [of] the measured chaos that structures the natural world.” Tapping the treasury of the Western imagination, Ovid (whose Metamorphoses has been described as the most influential book in the history of western culture), provides tale upon tale of shocking, irruptive metamorphosis, from God to human, human to plant or animal, human to God, etc. Through irruptive metamorphosis, lines of identity and reality are crossed and the world, as “consciousness, mind, imagination, and language,” is revealed as sacred and wild.

 The sense of metamorphosis in haiku is a topic which can only be touched on here; I would like to comment on several haiku which evoke a landscape of metamorphosis as an important feature, in that the identities of one or more phrasal images in the poem hover upon an extended moment of metamorphosis as the haiku coheres.

lakeside memorial
the single shadow
of clustered tadpoles        (Ferris Gilli, Frogpond 27:2, p. 5)

 In Gilli's haiku, the base image “lakeside memorial” retains its realism, yet within the lakeside shallows, an indeterminate image constellates. The single shadow is made “impossible,” as it is at the same time composed of a multitude of teaming, swarming lives. The shadow, typically a solid (inanimate) identity is possessed by (“of”) a swarm of tadpoles: one form of identity continually metamorphoses into another: neither just a shadow nor just a tadpole cluster; the haiku presents a metamorphic crux of image and action. The metamorphic act occurs within the superposed section, with the haiku grounded in the realistic environment of "lakeside memorial."

night wind
flexing window
reflections        (Christopher Herold, Frogpond 27:1, p. 5)

 At this poem's center is "flexing window," an intriguing collocation. There is an air of indeterminacy to the unusual collocation, catalyzed by the indeterminate syntax surrounding the verb: is it the window or the night wind flexing -- or both? A physical force (night wind) paradoxically distorts an ephemeral image (reflections). There is linguistic irruption – the ambivalent language is disjunctive, and our perception of reality is imploded or transmuted. Which sense of flexing (muscular or bending) is to be applied – and, how can wind flex a reflection? Although logically it is the flexing glass which causes refraction, the poem's rhythmic concision and assonance (night/wind/window & flexing/reflections) combined with collocational fusion (wind-flexing or flexing-window) evokes semantic indeterminacy and paradox, powering a metamorphic transmutation. The world is refreshed by the poetic magic of opened perception.

cold rain -
my application
to become a crab        (Fay Aoyagi, Modern Haiku 35:2, p. 116)

 Aoyagi's haiku poses a fantastical, Kafkaesque reverse-anthropomorphism, where an application (a bureaucratic social instrument) becomes a metamorphic instrument urging a transformative fusion or harmony ('no separation') with the natural world. Each line of the haiku wittily subverts the next, via semantic disjunction; the central metamorphic power resides in the high degree of disjunctive allusion: what does it mean — to apply to become a crab? Within a landscape of cold rain, an ambivalent image arises fusing three separate realities: elemental, social and wild/animal.

Jim Kacian's

a cow comes
out of the barn
half hay        (Jim Kacian, Presents of Mind, 1996, no. 43)

 begins prosaically enough with a barnyard, until the last line, a show-stopper of an impossible collocation, in its role as a compound noun. What strange metamorphosis is embodied in this creature, half plant and half cow? Having tended a homestead, I recall seeing cows coming out to pasture after a barn feed, their wide backs buried under hay. A friend had another interpretation: having eaten its fill, the cow has literally become half hay, via digestion. In any event, the central image of the poem humorously focuses on a creature (or perception) in a moment of metamorphosis. Again, an ambivalence or indeterminacy of identity is evoked through language, as “half hay” applies countability (half) to an uncountable noun (hay). A well-wrought and placed impossible collocation fuses surprise and transformation, creating a world rooted in poetic metamorphosis.

 Haiku, through concision, disjunction, use of nature-image and environmental sensibility (“objective” landscapes, imaginal or realistic), contain heightened possibilities for metamorphosis. Certain haiku bring these metamorphic qualities strongly to the fore, evoking a unique poetic experience which harkens back to archaic underpinnings in literary and cultural thought. The question of what we mean by “the wild,” and how we might value the wild seems relevant to both haiku and humanity's future. Through experiential moments of metamorphosis, the reader moves beyond fixed identities, potentially sensing the “grain of things,” which Snyder equates with “absolute freedom and wildness.“ Haiku, utilizing various means unique to the genre, can powerfully impact consciousness with embodied, psychically charged experiences of metamorphosis.

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