Alexis Rotella: Simple Complexity
by Kersten Haile
Alexis Rotella, a contemporary American haiku poet, graces the world of haiku with poems that have the power and ability to tap into the common experiences of humankind. There is a connectedness that rings through her haiku, and as she captures each moment with her words, they come to life. Furthermore, there is a simple beauty that her haiku reflect in the moments they tell of. They bring forth a beauty that is often overlooked in the small moments that are often ignored, she compels the reader to slow down, breathe in, touch, and listen to the moment at hand. Here is an example from Rearranging Light:
His loud muffler:
of my every cell
Rotella, Rearranging Light
The moment of this haiku shakes you with the rumble of an old car’s muffler. The smoke from the failing muffler runs through your nose and bombards your eyes, as the car pulls up next to you at a stop light. The muffler in this haiku feels like it is inside you. The specific word choice Rotella chooses “aware of my every cell,” places that feeling exactly, and gives words to a feeling that nearly everyone has experienced—the annoying old car in need of a new muffler and perhaps an oil change.
Alexis first started writing haiku in her late 20’s, after she came across a rhymed form of haiku while finishing her undergraduate thesis in Zen Buddhism. Enthralled with the art she wanted to start writing her own, so that’s just what she did (Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.”). In the beginning her works were not often published, but soon her first haiku was published in High/Coo: A Quarterly of Short Poetry:
haiku for dinner again.
Rotella, Ouch Senryu that Bite, 6
Alexis says that after writing and publishing the above haiku (which is better classified as a senryu) the poems and the words just began to flow, “From that point on, the haiku and senryu kept coming. I had primed the pump and the faucet was turned on. The rest is history” (Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.”).
The exactness of Rotella’s haiku, and the ability that she has to choose words that connect the moment with the reader leads one to believe that her haiku are stemmed from personal experience. However, it would be a mistake to assume all the haiku Rotella writes are inspired only by personal experience. Rather, she uses both personal experience and observation as a pathway into her haiku. “Much of what I observe includes the suffering that people are destined to go through. Buddha said, ‘Life is suffering’ and to deny that fact is to be out of touch with reality. This includes my own suffering, that of my family member, friends, acquaintances, strangers and patients. It’s not unusual for me to deliberately put myself in the shoes of another person and write as though the experience were my own. So it would be a mistake to think that every single thing I write about is something that I personally endured.” (Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.”). Truly, Rotella’s haiku do reflect the suffering of life— they present everything from the minuet suffering and tinges of angst in life, to the pain and anguish of loss and death. Alexis believes that it is an attachment to a thought that causes suffering. She believes that 'what is' is really neutral territory.
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.
Rotella, An Unknown Weed
In this haiku from the collection of her haiku in the book, An Unknown Weed, the suffering presented is not by any means life threatening or physical pain. However, it is still an intense and common suffering amongst humans that is represented in the poem—the pain of wanting someone that cannot be yours. The haiku is a moment, a feeling, and an experience that resonates with nearly everyone. You can feel the wind dance through the air and across your face, it almost inspires you to express your feelings, relieve yourself of the angst, yet you say nothing. Instead, you remain just friends and watch from afar. Nevertheless, there is something beautiful about this haiku— The dress dances freely in the wind, exuding a peacefulness that floats even with the tension of unspoken words. Another haiku that reflect Rotella’s ability to capture beauty in pain is from the The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor Van Den Huevel:
Quickly I powder my nose
Rotella, The Haiku Anthology, 177
The pain that this haiku reflects is the pain of getting older, and realizing that youth does not last. Again, this experience connects with a vast population, specifically women. The angst of being confronted with wrinkles and lines that are reminiscent of ones heritage, seeing pictures of elderly relatives reflected in the mirror—it is a scary moment, and the response that Rotella pegs is spot on, we rush to cover up this realization, hoping that loads of powder will some how reverse fate. The angst in this haiku is again accompanied by a sense of beauty. There is a sense of pride and comfort in seeing ones mother in ourselves, a sense of connection and roots, which eases the shock and angst of seeing life pass by right on your skin.
Clutching a fist of hair
from my brush
I watch him sleep.
Rotella, The Haiku Anthology, 173
“Clutching a fist of hair,” the haiku begins with extreme tension, a fist is clenched around hair. Obviously something is wrong, someone is in pain or suffering, and they are taking it out on this brush. But then the moment is interrupted by the peacefulness and beauty of sleep. Whoever it is clenching the hair in the brush is unable to act upon their angst because it is overcome and halted by sleep. In this case the quiet calm interrupts suffering and wins.
A plum branch
slits the moon
I sleep alone
Rotella, Rearranging Light
This haiku is wonderful because it feels like a teeter-totter that is teetering back and forth between beauty and pain, peace and suffering. The moment captured in this haiku is uneasy—it isn’t a settled moment. Which is beautifully emphasized with Rotella’s word choice: “slits the moon.” The moment, like the moon, is slit in half. There is peacefulness and a comfort in being alone, it allows you to notice and appreciate things that having an “other” might distract your from—like the moon, for example. This haiku is also interesting because it presents the beauty first: “a plum branch.” Then it slowly introduces the uneasy/undecided aspect of the moment: “slits the moon.” Finally it brings in the suffering of the moment and mixes both sides of the moment together: “I sleep alone.” The simple word choice makes the moment more real and furthers the universality of teetering between comfort and discomfort in being alone.
In the guest room
where my mother slept
I look for comfort
Rotella, The Haiku Anthology, 173
The pain and suffering of parting with a loved is reflected in this haiku. However, the ever-present power of love that lingers even after someone is gone is also reflected. It hurts that the mother is gone, yet even the memory of time spent with her has the power to bring comfort. Furthermore, this haiku presents the discomfort that one experiences once they grow up, having to part with their childhood, part with their parents, and become and adult. It shows that even in “adulthood” we still long for the comfort our mother provides, and that it is an instinct, which is ever present within us. In the instinct/bond between mother and daughter that this haiku presents there is a beauty that accompanies the pains of saying goodbye.
for no reason
my grandmother cries
Rotella, Rearranging Light
Beauty is found in the lilacs—an innocent flower, with a fragrant aroma. Yet, something about these beautiful flowers brings tears to the eyes of an elderly woman, mixing suffering and beauty into one moment. While there is suffering in this haiku, there is still an overriding feeling of peace that the Lilacs bring. The placement of “lilacs” in the first line gives them power over the rest of the haiku, and set the scene with beauty, which is interrupted but not tainted by the tears. The tears create a quiet sad beauty in the moment.
The above are only a select few of Rotella’s haiku, but they exemplify one of gifts she has as a haiku poet. What is so wonderful about all of these haiku is that while they deal with the grimy pieces of life—the hard stuff, the things we don’t like to shed light on—there is still a beauty in the words and phrasing that reminds us of a beauty that is ever-present, even in difficult times. Rotella herself admits that there is some way to find beauty in everything, “ I’m a spiritual woman, a lover of truth and beauty, even though sometimes what I see is not beautiful, but to be able to put into words the reality of what I see is in itself a beautiful thing” (Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.”). Whether or not the moments experienced in each haiku were experienced directly by Rotella is unimportant, whatever the inspiration behind each there is undoubtedly a universal experience and truth behind each that rings true in some way for each of us.
When asked if she considers her many degrees and experiences as enhancements for her poetry, this is the response Rotella gave: “I think every single thing a poet experiences enhances their work”(Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study”). Noting that not only has her formal education informed and enhanced her art, but rather, it has been a culmination of all the things she has experienced and observed in her time spent in this world that seeps into her poems. Her response could not be more accurate. While Rotella’s poetry has always had a quality that expresses her knowledge and understanding of the human experience, her later works take a step above and demonstrate how deep her understanding and experience goes. It is difficult to choose favorites from her later works because they all have a quality about them that ring true. When reading Rotella’s later work a smile constantly slips across one’s face as they read nodding their head to the truths inscribed on each and every page.
Again I lower
my level of joy
so my miserable friend
won’t feel quite so bad.
Rotella, Lip Prints, 29
In this tanka (which is another form of haiku) from Rotella’s recently published book Lip Prints, the universal truth of our tendency to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, even if means not enjoying our own happiness rings true. Whether or not this is a healthy practice amongst friends, it is no doubt a fact that friends tend to act as chameleons, shifting their mood to fit the mood of the other. The way this particular tanka was written, beginning with the word “again” presses into the reader that this is a common occurrence, and perhaps a feeling of annoyance rings through as the friend tires of sacrificing his or herself for an Eeyore of a friend. Rotella’s tanka in this book also capture the ironies of life:
who never let up—
Rotella, Lip Prints, 35
This tanka is wonderful, because within the moment that is presented there is also a back story that is quite vivid which develops and then stings with irony. We imagine the nagging boss that slithers around the corner with a stack full of paper work and slams it on the tired mans desk five minutes before the end of the day, who “strongly suggests” that he finish these before midnight tonight. The husband with tired fingers dials home and informs his wife that again tonight he will not make it for dinner, as he must attend to his boss. The workload and the nagging boss, who sits in his office all day playing with sticky tack, nearly destroy the marriage. Then one day, unexpectedly the boss dies of a heart attack. Out of obligation the man and his wife attend his boss’ funeral, and for the very last time is forced to attend to his boss, carrying the casket. Irony strikes when even in death this man is carrying his boss, slaving away for the boss, and will not ever receive a bit of thanks. Rotella’s later works also continue to capture the beauty in life’s small moments:
inside the greenhouse—
to her unborn child.
Rotella, Lip Prints, 47
This moment is so small and so seemingly so simple, yet there is so much love and warmth that emanates from the poem. We feel the warmth of the green house, and imagine the mother strolling through the greenery, her hand gracing the leaves and she traces the veins that shoot throughout each individual plant. Her other hand is on her stomach circling and keeping time to the tune she is humming, a lullaby, perhaps something original, to her unborn child. The greenhouse keeping the mother warm and nurturing her and the plants, while inside the mother she has her own “greenhouse,” which nurtures and warms her unborn child.
In addition to Rotella’s recent tanka and senryu work she has began to work with another form a haiku—haiga. Haiga is a form of haiku poetry that incorporates pictures and haiku poetry in order to emphasize and focus in on a particular moment. The focus that haiga demand is, in fact, one of the reasons that Rotella was intrigued by the art form, “…an art form, when undertaken with commitment, is really a meditation and a way to focus the mind. I enjoy the focus that haiga offers” (Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.”).
(Rotella, Alexis. A Blog About Poetry and Art. 2008.)
In this haiga we see the focus that the combination of photo and poem can give both the artist and the reader. We are supplied with the setting and scenery right before our eyes. However, the beauty of the haiga is that while some key facts about the moment are given, there is still a vast amount of room to ruminate in ones imagination and let the senses take control to finish the story. Who’s the woman in the picture? What does the fishing boat mean to her? What coastline is she peering over? There is a focus, but it doesn’t demand one single story, the reader can still make the moment his or her own.
For the most part when creating haiga Rotella works with her own photographs, however she has written several poems in collaboration with the work of Karen McClintock in the “2Lips Gallery Venture” in 2007. Rotella has also collaborated in the reverse manner with haiga, providing the pictures and coupling it with the poetry of Denis Garrison. She does not have a set process for her haiga or any of her art really, instead she allows the process to naturally unravel, trusting whatever comes her way, “ I guess you might say I go with the river of life and if I’m rafting down the river and see a gypsy camp, I might stop off to see what’s happening. How long I might linger remains to be seen” (Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.”).
Rotella also has a playful side, which she lets out with her senryu and haiga poetry. Here are a couple of examples from a recently published collection of Rotella’s senryu, entitled Ouch Senryu that Bite. (The haiga can be viewed at A Blog About Poetry and Art. 2008).
I buy him two balls—
our dog who
just got neutered
Alexis Rotella, Ouch Senryu that Bite, 132
The master’s fart—
we all pretend
we didn’t hear.
Rotella, Ouch Senryu that Bite, 102
(Rotella, Alexis. A Blog About Poetry and Art. 2008.)
The comedy and laughter that Rotella exemplifies in both of the above poems in contrast to the earlier presented haiku, which exemplified a darker, more painful side of life, shows her versatility, and the solidifies her ability to connect to the truths of life—life is neither black nor white, it is a mixture of a prism of colors, and Alexis Rotella understands that. Alexis Rotella’s poetry paints in all colors and that is what makes her poems both powerful and universal. There is not a single aspect of life that her poems reflect, instead they dig into the nitty-gritty parts of life and magnify them. Her ability to dig and understand lives universal pains and joys and then inscribe them with both words and pictures is a gift, and it is gift that we members of the haiku community are privileged to get enjoy.
Huevel, Cor Van Den, ed. The Haiku Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Rotella, Alexis. A Blog About Poetry and Art. 2008. AlexisRotella.com 14 April 2008. <http://a.rotella.home.att.net/>.
Rotella, Alexis. An Unknown Weed. n.p.: King Road Press, 1991.no page numbers.
Rotella, Alexis. “Global Haiku Study.” Email interview with Alexis Rotella. 12, April, 2008.
Rotella, Alexis. Lip Prints: Tanka and other short poems 1970-2008. Baltimore: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007.
Rotella Alexis. Rearranging Light. Passaic, N.J.: Must Pie Press, 1985. no page numbers.
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