Visual Haiku of Marlene Mountain
by Aubrie Cox
Marlene Mountain, formerly known as Marlene Wills, is a contemporary, active haiku poet in the English-speaking community. She began writing haiku around 1969 and continues to experiment with various forms, approaches and topics. She is an artist of multiple mediums—the pen and the canvas—and brings them together in complementary form (Kacian, 8). Her experimentation has yet to cease after her many years of writing, which shows her amazing growth as an artist—she is willing to try something new.
One of her most unique and intriguing contributions to the haiku community has been her visual haiku. Mountain has a number of haiku whose form are crafted to take advantage of the aesthetics of words on a page; this intrigued me and I wanted to examine them in depth to see what the purpose this form had in the meaning of the haiku. Many of these haiku tend to focus on nature and rural elements, and all tend to use careful wording, repetition and positioning. For example, this particular haiku from her first collection The Old Tin Roof (1976) uses only three words:
newly plowed field
newly plowed field
newly plowed field
Mountain (Wills), TOTR
The repetition in this haiku show’s the consistency, and the repetition of plowing; rather than explain this by saying something along the lines of “over and over, the farmer goes down the rows,” Mountain uses the repeated lines to explain the process. Although the lines are the same, it does not imply three fields, instead, it indicates three rows of the field, and how each of these rows, freshly plowed, contribute to the field as a whole, just as each line contributes to the haiku as a whole. Rather than place each of the rows directly below one another, Mountain moves each line over further than the previous.
When looking at farm fields from a distance and on higher ground it is easier to see that it seems the rows in the field are often diagonal across the square patches of land. It also shows the progress the farmer is making as each row is plowed. Each line is moving slowly across the page, representing the physical action. This is not the only haiku that Mountain uses the progress/positioning of words on the page to show physical action. Another haiku from the same collection follows a similar pattern:
This one, like several other of Mountain’s haiku, takes form of the object (or one of them) at hand. In this case, it is the light chain from a lamp or light on a ceiling fan. The periods take on the role of the chain while “flies” becomes the knob at the end of the chain. As a reader, I am inclined to read “up and down the light chain” before looking to the left because I immediately see full words as I am used to seeing them. Automatically, I see the light chain to the left. Then, upon closer inspection, I see “flies” to get the full perspective. I see the image of flies flickering about a light chain. The stacking to make the haiku longer down the page gives the sense of traveling.
Another of her haiku from The Old Tin Roof, also printed in The Haiku Anthology (1999) edited by Cor van den Heuvel follows the same principle as the last two:
Mountain (Wills), TOTR
Like “newly plowed fields,” there is repetition, but in this haiku, there is only one word repeated. The word’s letters are shifted about to show the action. One interpretation of this could be the action of a frog leaping through the air, then coming to a landing.
The first “frog” is stretched out like the act of leaping--it is as though the letters follow the trajectory itself in the shape of a parabola. The word also is like the image of a frog in midair when it is stretched out to its full-length after being sitting crouched liked a coiled spring. The second “frog,” which is as it would normally appear on a page, then is the frog coming to a landing and/or in rest. This could be seen as the image of the frog sitting, just as he was before he jumped--compact once again just as the second “frog” is in comparison to the sprawled out, first “frog.” The haiku, in a way, is circular because the beginning letter for the first “frog” is on the same line as the second “frog”--the frog begins at rest, then ends at rest.
From The Old Tin Roof again, another haiku that shows action by arrangement of letters:
Mountain (Wills), TOTR
This haiku is rather simplistic, much like the previous one, but the aesthetics lend to the layers of the two simple words. As a whole, the haiku is in the shape of a rain drop. The descent of each line, emphasizes the action--dropping, falling--of the object at hand--the rain drop. The “o” itself looks like a drop of water, and with the word “drop” and its placement, it makes it appear as though it is falling. Mountain then gives us two images of a rain drop—the haiku as a whole, and the letter “o,” which she seems fond of playing with in more than one haiku. One thing unique about the letter is that it is already like a hole or gap to begin with; it is also circular, therefore, continuous and makes it perfect for use in visual haiku from Moment Moment Moments (1978):
Again, the “o” is used to represent a raindrop, or multiple raindrops in this case. The haiku as a whole could represent “this drop,” then each “o” is “this rain. This reminds me of the first drop of rain one feels when walking moments before the rest of the rain comes pouring down on a hot summer day. With the tactic of the poem as the whole almost being circular and the multiple “o”s, Mountain packs the several meanings into the singular visual: the “this drop” as the whole haiku, the “o”s as the rest of the rain, and “this rain” as the whole haiku.
Haiku like this can be a puzzle and/or even a work of visual art. At times though, they can be confusing and lead to frustration, such as this one:
o t uch-me-n t
Mountain (Wills), TOTR
Upon looking at it, once again, there is displacement and duplication of the letter “o.” This could be considered one some would find “incomprehensible,” but personally, I find the challenge gratifying when I first put it together and found “touch-me-not” within the text. In one way, the “o”s resemble the flower scattered across the ground. Though if looking at it like the previous haiku that show the action within the moment, the “o”s are like tracing the path of jumping about avoiding being touched. A person who dislikes physical interaction could easily relate to this haiku from past experiences of squirming out of hugs, tugs, and other actions resulting in physical contact. Connection and cohesiveness in this haiku are not as apparent, unless one wanted to argue the “o”s scattered about and the gaps within “touch-me-not,” but I believe that is part of the point as well. The phrase is “touch-me-not,” which means that contact will never be made.
I have also noticed two-line haiku of Mountain’s that are not only aesthetically pleasing in their appearance, but also have similar connectedness as the ones previously shown. For example, one that can be found in The Haiku Anthology:
acid rain less and less i am at one with nature*
*less and less nature is nature
Mountain, HA, 135
The most obvious connection, once again, is repetition—particularly with the use of the asterisks (after nature in the first line, then before in the second so that the asterisk are in direct succession and surrounded by “nature”) and the phrase “less and less” stacked directly on top of itself. In this haiku, I read that the more humans pollute the environment, and the more they choose to urbanize, the more they disconnect with nature; they are the cause of the acid rain.
The second line almost takes on the role of a footnote. The asterisk in the first is followed by the second, which offers the reader a little additional insight. I see it as following the first line with the definition of nature; one needs to understand the context of “nature” in the statement. In the haiku, the representative of nature is the acid rain, but this is a part of nature that has been contaminated by man and has become something unnatural. Because of the urbanization and pollution, nature is becoming less and less every year, and in this haiku, it is saying that there is not only that, but the fact that what is left of nature is being altered. Pollution is not the only culprit, but bioengineering and chemicals in fertilizers. In other words, nature is being redefined. In this new definition, nature is drifting further away from the true/original essence of nature. Nature is becoming less like nature; man is less connected with nature because nature is no longer nature; however, nature is less like nature because man has made it that way. The concept cycles and turns in on itself.
While not quite as circular, another two-line haiku that caught my attention is also taken from The Old Tin Roof:
tap:b tap:u tap:t tap:t tap:e tap:r tap:f tap:l tap:y
from my tapwriter
Mountain (Wills), TOTR
Like the “touch-me-not” haiku, I felt a certain pleasure at sorting through the “taps” that tie everything together to find “butterfly” spelled out by the “tapwriter” or typewriter. This particular haiku works both on the visual and audio level. I can imagine the hammers coming down swiftly in response to the pressing of keys on the typewriter with a resounding and distinct “tap!” and leaving a neat, clean letter on the page in its wake. By placing the “tap:” before each letter, Mountain once again accomplishes showing the action at the present moment in time. The tempo itself as one reads the top line is similar to that of a butterfly on the ground flapping its wings.
I am also quite fond of the choice of using “tapwriter” as opposed to “typewriter.” It emphasizes the sound coming from the typewriter, and reflects the series of “tap”s in the first line. It is a unique twist, and I do not think the haiku would have the same effect if Mountain had simply used “typewriter”—it would break the flow and rhythm of the words.
Upon exploring Mountain’s haiku that are considered more traditional in form, I found that even in these she finds a way to put visual interest within the lines. This one, however, particularly caught my attention:
a frog punctuation
a star falls punctuation
It recalls a famous haiku by the equally famous poet Basho. This is taken from the book The Master Haiku Poet Mastuo Basho by Makoto Ueda:
the old pond—
a frog leaps in,
and a splash.
Basho, MB, 53
The Basho haiku has a setting (the pond), a frog, and a splash. Mountain’s haiku also has a frog and a splash, but instead of a geographical setting, an outside object which could indicate the time of day. Both haiku have the splash isolated by itself. In some translations, the final line of Basho’s haiku is “the sound of water”—the water is making the sound rather than the frog who leaps into the pond. But with Mountain’s haiku, it is uncertain what makes the splash. Is it the water, like in Basho’s? Is it the frog? Or is it something else, like say, a falling star? The scene I envision is a pond in the middle of a field on a clear night; a frog is sitting at the water’s edge. The surface is quiet and still, reflecting the stars above. From here, I can imagine one of three things happening. The first is that the “falling star” is indeed a meteor that comes and crashes into the pond and the frog is a spectator of the splash (to make an understatement). The second is that there truly is no falling star, merely that the frog jumps into the pond and disturbs the surface (or it could even be coming out of the pond), making it appear as though a star is falling out of the sky. The third event, the one I prefer, is that frog leaps into the pond while in the distance a star is shooting across the sky (and reflected in the pond’s surface). This creates a connection between the immediate location and beyond because of the sense of falling in both locations.
As for the ending of each of Mountain’s lines—“punctuation”—I am honestly not sure of their purpose, but I am intrigued by them. They follow the pattern of the other haiku with the repetition to tie everything together. I am, however, inclined to appeal to the idea that each “punctuation” could represent a request saying, “Place your punctuation of desire here.” Changing the punctuation would more than likely change the interpretation of the haiku, much like how changing punctuation within a sentence can alter its meaning entirely. In the many translations of Basho’s haiku, I have seen many different versions of punctuation, or like Ueda’s translation, no punctuation. These, to me, alter the meaning of the haiku, or emphasize different parts of it. Nevertheless, the “punctuation” within each line is visual consistency that links everything together.
The haiku shown thus far are mainly from two of her earlier works in the 1970s. Marlene Mountain was generous enough to send me a generous amount of her work from the past four months. These days, Mountain directs the majority of her efforts towards haiku links. They are one line—strikingly different than her earlier work. In an interview with Jim Kacian in 1992, Mountain admitted that in her earlier haiku, such as in The Old Tin Roof, at times she “changed one-lines from a desire to have a visual effect” (Kacian, 9). These links topics are generally focused on feminist, political, social, and conservation/pollution issues. While these do not have the same visual aesthetics as her earlier works, they are well-worded and thought-provoking; they accomplish the same goals a haiku should, and her older haiku do, only in a different form with the same intention.
The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor van den Heuvel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Kacian, Jim. “Marlene Mountain: An Alphaview.” Cur*rent Linked Haiku. Mercer Island: Vandina Press, 1998.
Mountain [Wills], Marlene. Moment/Moment Moments. Battle Ground, IN: High/Coo Press, 1978. Mini-chapbook 2.
Mountain [Wills], Marlene. The Old Tin Roof. Elizabethton, TN: 1976.
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