L. Nicholas Saubers

Raymond Roseliep and Alexis Rotella
Zen in Haiku Versus a Christian Perspective

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Nicholas Saubers

Raymond Roseliep and Alexis Rotella

Both of the authors that I have selected to base this comparison paper on are modern haiku writers. Rotella is 56 years old, and currently resides in California.' She has written Sassy, a collection of her personal haiku. Roseliep, a renowned Midwestern haiku writer passed away in 1983 at the age of 66. Originally from Iowa, Roseliep also wrote several books of his own personal haiku, with his last work being The Earth We Swing On published in 1984, after his death.

On the surface, and at only a passing glance these two authors would seem to have very little in common. Roseliep's subject tend to be animals or conveying personal, general emotions upon inanimate objects of both nature and everyday life. Meanwhile, the work of Alexis Rotella tends to focus mainly upon personal relationships as they pertain to love and loss of love. Also, stylistically, Roseliep rarely uses capital letters at the beginning, or any punctuation at the end of his works. Instead he relies on spacing and indentations to convey differences in the style of reading. Rotella, is just the opposite, following more of a sentence quality in her work.

However, upon closer inspection, their themes actually often unify quite well, even if the subject is slightly different. Stylistically they do share one common thread, they both use humor and nature to convey there very personal views on life, love and the world around them. Through this paper I hope to show that even though their style may differ, the work, the soul of the haiku can still share a common meaning.

the cat
lowers his ears
to the master's fart


Sitting together on the stoop,
the dog's hip
presses mine


In the first poem, one sees a humorous juxtaposition of the set up to the haiku versus the ending. We are prepared as the reader, to expect something dark and sinister, since we are given the descriptive image of the cat crouching. We assume it is ready to protect itself, or kill another animal for food. The humor comes when we realize it is because the cats owner has gas.

The second poem can be taken two ways, the first is that they are sitting on the porch and the loyal dog is sitting beside them. This image invokes the very essence of loyalty and camaraderie. It shows a dog, sitting with his master, the best part of the poem, is that we as the reader are left to wonder if the author is otherwise alone. Which is where the other options come into play. If the author is not alone, then the dog simply becomes a third wheel, so I tend to favor the image that the author is now all alone in the world and their only companion is this one loyal beast.

These two pieces tie together, in the spirit of the loyal animals who love and stay by their masters. Despite all of their foibles, misgivings and shortcomings, these beasts remain true to those who are important to them.

white orchid
on her coffin
the pickle lady


Moving with
the clock-tower's shadow
the flower lady


White orchid on the coffin refers to death. Another trademark juxtaposition of Roseliep however is that he still injects life into the poem by calling the deceased woman "the pickle lady." This simple and humorous title brings her life rushing back into view both for the author and his reader. We see these two friends, who may share nicknames and fond memories, or perhaps just old acquaintances. Maybe this woman was just an important part of his life, a humorous and cocky street vendor he visited daily. While still not being directly within his close circle of friends, she was still an important part of his day, and will take a small piece of his life with her to the grave.

The second work also conveys the life of one of these vendors. We can plainly see this woman out peddling her flowers. Her face is hard but sweet, and her day is long as she moves to stay in the shade of the nearby building. All the while she must still continue to sell her flowers, for it is her livelihood and means of her own life. Yet this makes her a part of the authors life, and by extension, a part of ours.

    piano practice
through an open window
      a lilac


Yachts all docked—
the tinkle
of ice.


These two works, to me, both deal with stolen freedom. This is painfully obvious in the first haiku. We see the child sitting at the piano, teacher awaiting work for at least an hour, while the child wants only to be outside enjoying nature. At this moment, even the simple lilac is more intriguing to the author than the lesson. We all identify with this because who hasn't sat in on a lecture, or meeting, etc. and struggled to pay attention, especially when spring is beckoning just on the other side of those four walls.

The second haiku to me is slightly darker, but the meaning is the same. The boats of summer are locked up, seemingly permanently in the steely grip of winters tinkling ice. The interesting thing about using the word tinkle in this is that it conveys the image that the ice is thawing, breaking, dissipating, and those summer boats, like the small child at the piano will be freed soon enough and the joys of life will once again be given the top priority they deserve. To me these poems both share a tremendous amount of hope, because they both at their core tell us not to be mired down in the moment, simply because we do not like our circumstances, for soon they will change and we will be happy again.

  in the stream
stones making half
    the music


surrendering to a rain-washed stone.


The rocks in the stream shows us a very Zen-like view of life. In these three tiny lines we are shown the perfect symbiotic relationship. The water and the rocks are dependent upon each other in the making of their music, one cannot do this without the other. The sound this evokes to me is infinitely relaxing, the running water as is trickles over the gently clinking and clacking stones creating a sense of simple, serene, serendipity.

The second work is obviously open to much more interpretation than the first. This is a prime example though of two very different haiku (in form at least) that still share common threads. To me this poem is about someone who is so consumed with their life that finally out of a need to get away, they "surrender." In other words, they take a step away from their crazy life simply to ponder the wonders of nature, the smooth, slick surface of a stone, gently worn to perfection over many years by the rain.
The connection here is more than the obvious water and rocks. These haiku show serenity in nature as an escape to the hardships and drag of the regular daily routine. They offer us a new way to hear and see things, that helps put everything back in perspective.

brushing my sins
the muscatel breath
of the priest


After the atheist's sneeze
I bite
my tongue.


This is the perfect Roseliep haiku. In this humorous take on religion and cleansing the soul through holy confession, he compares the experience to someone brushing their teeth. He uses his priest as the tooth brush. The true humor is that his comparison is inspired by the breath of the priest. This is a perfect image of the priest, in close proximity with their confessor, deeply concerned with his sins and faults since his last confession, while the confessor is more concerned about his breath in such a tight space.

Rotella also takes a slight twist on a less formal, yet still at its core a religious superstition. It was believed long ago, through a superstition that the devil could enter you when you sneezed and steel your soul for eternity, which is why when people sneeze even today we say "God bless you." Although now it is done more of a habit than out of any actual fear of demonic possession of our friends and loved ones, Rotella still humors the atheist by withholding her godly blessing following the traditional sneeze.

In both of these works, a tradition is taken and packaged in a humorous way, conveying the message in a new and fresh way that makes us question our own views on these rituals and their meanings and importance in our own lives.



today's role dangles
from a metal hanger


Finally, these last two works deal with the freshness and rebirth in the new day. In Roseliep's, we are taken on that first step outside after a heavy snow. The ground is that perfect blanket of undisturbed white, the white that covers the imperfections of the earth, and unifies all under one serene soft, cool, blanket. It is the kind of perfect snow that makes you briefly debate actually stepping in it, because it will disturb even a small section of this new and perfectly serene beauty.

The second poem by Rotella, while a completely different subject is still the exact same emotion. A woman stands naked before her closet. Each day, by the outfit she wears she is a new woman, her body like the snow covered earth of the last haiku is a blank canvas of infinite options and variety. Both are full of beauty and possibility.

The first author has been presented with the ultimate gift, a completely new day in which everything is truly new and possibilities are as endless as the tracks he chooses to leave in the snow behind him. The woman has the same choice. The day is hers for the taking, and the form she chooses to take it in is entirely up to her and the multiple hangers presented to her.

So, in conclusion, it matters not what form haiku take for them to share one common universal message, as presented here in the comparison of Raymond Roseliep and Alexis Rotella. They may be a man and a woman from two different areas of the country and two different generations, but their themes are universal and cannot help but unite us, with our personal views on life, love and the world around us.

—Nicholas Saubers


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors