Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2003

Amy Soderberg

Marlene Mountain:
Naturally Visual Political Haiku

Amy Soderberg

Amy's Haiku



Marlene Mountain:
Naturally Visual Political Haiku

Simply by running through the many haiku that Marlene has written, one can tell instantly a great deal about the writer herself. From her haiku I could almost determine where she lived or got a lot of her inspiration from. What drew me to her was the haiku, on this cold/spring 1 / 2 night 3 4 / kittens/ wet/ 5. At first I imagined five kittens taking turns entering the house to get out of the rain. But then it struck me after reading it a few more times. Instead, she could be referring to the birth of five kittens. I loved that I could create a double image from her single haiku as well as the nature and natural aspects to the others as I read more of her work. To Marlene Mountain the natural aspects of life are important and she describes them in such clear and vivid detail, but these are also naturally visual, political haiku.

Upon reading that Marlene lives in the mountains of Hampton, Tennessee I realized that to me her haiku seem to fit perfectly with the atmosphere that she apparently gets some of her haiku art from. I also discovered that Marlene has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting as well as a Masters of Arts in painting. This becomes very clear from some of her haiku as she describes images or landscape.

Born on December 11, 1939 Marlene's first volume of haiku was published when she was 37. The book entitled The Old Tin Roof contained visual haiku which was created like a piece of hanging artwork or haiku that used elements of spacing making the meaning accessible only when visually considered and read to oneself as opposed to heard out loud. She also included a lot of one line haiku. The audience that would most enjoy Marlene’s haiku would be people who enjoy nature and the simple joys and details in life. More recently, she has explored the the place of haiku in politics from gendered perspectives. The following haiku are ones that I have chosen that I enjoyed the most from the ones that I have read by Marlene Mountain.

he leans on the gate going staying

This haiku was probably the first one that I responded to by Marlene Mountian. When I read it the image that I got was of a man that is standing at the front gate of a fence that surrounds a country home. The picture that is left to me is up to interpretation. The man at the gate could either be leaving or just coming into the yard. By saying, “going staying” Mountain almost asks this as a question to the reader that they are free to interpret for themselves.

seed catalog in the mailbox cold drizzle

In my family my parents are very active gardeners. We have a very large backyard for a suburban home and every spring we add to our plethora of rose bushes, flowers, and trees. Because of our love of plants of all sorts and desire to not only buy pre-grown plants as well as start our own from seed, every year we get several seed catalogs in the mail. Since planting flowers is usually done in the warm spring afternoons and early summers getting a seed catalog when the weather is so dreary is almost a let down, a sad reminder that it’s too cold to plant yet. At the same time this haiku also tells the reader that the winter is almost over and planting season will begin very soon. Instead of snow falling, the weather is a “cold drizzle.” Although the weather isn’t very warm, it could be colder. The cold drizzle is a sign that spring will come eventually.

'wanted dead or alive' loved ones of the rubble

Marlene created this haiku in response to September 11, 2001. She also wrote another one but to me that other sounded cliché, the way that many people express their feelings towards the events that happened on that day. I feel that this one has an interesting spin on the whole idea but with an entirely new different cliché. In the wild west of the United States as represented in films and books the term “wanted dead or alive” always asked the people to help find and turn in wanted criminals either dead or alive depending on the ease of bringing the criminal to justice. To use this western idea in this way is very creative. Instead of a terrible criminal, the haiku is asking for the people to work together to find the people within the rubble of the Twin Towers to be found for their families whether they are dead or alive. This haiku represents the closure the families wanted from the rescuers.

the purple flowers
above the grass

I love the image that this haiku brings to mind of a huge field full of the little purple flowers that sometimes cover the grass thickly. In grasses that are left up entirely to nature, these purple flowers grow very early in the spring. The words “self-heal” in this haiku represent the healing that the earth does every spring after the death and dormancy of fall followed by winter. Giving the appearance of a blanket from the distance, the little purple flowers grow above the grass so that they are mostly all that a person can see of the ground. Because of the early spring setting, I can not only envision the haiku but I can also feel the coolness of the spring that is still new and hasn’t had a chance to warm up.

empty mailbox
i pick wildflowers
on my way back

What I like best about this haiku is the calm casualness of the actions. To get to the mailbox seems like somewhat of a long walk. Once they reach it and find that there is no mail, it’s less of a disappointment because the narrator seems pleased to just wander back to the house, picking wildflowers along the way. There is no rush to this haiku and it almost forces the reader to stop for a moment and smell the roses. I also enjoy the simple ness of this haiku and it’s ability to create the feelings of the narrator without actually saying them.

on this cold

         spring 1

   2 night     3    4




Of all the Marlene Mountain haiku that I have read, this haiku is my favorite. Aside from the fact that I absolutely love kittens I love the image that this presents to me. As I said before, the first time that I read this haiku I imagined the kittens coming in from the rain after being out in the fields catching mice all day. But after a second or third reading I realized that there was a possibility of Marlene describing five kittens being born one at a time. What I think is so cute about this haiku is that instead of saying that there are five kittens, Marlene interrupts herself by counting each on of the kittens as it comes into the world. The spacing of the words also shows the length of time between each kitten’s birth.

at dusk hot water from the hose

In the summer time when one spends their entire time either inside the house or away from home at a job and they finally have a chance after work or when it gets cooler in the summer to play in the water they get this scene. Since the hose is outside in the sun all day the water that remains inside the hose gets a chance to warm up with the temperature. This causes the first burst of water that comes from the hose to be very warm and sometimes hot at dusk. So, instead of a cold refreshing blast of water, the person turning on the hose is surprised to feel warm water gushing onto them.

above the mountain mountains of the moon

This haiku is interesting to me because of its double use of the word mountain. Being that Marlene changed her surname to Mountain and she lives within the mountains of Tennessee, I feel that this haiku almost represents the author. The image that this creates for me is that of a large mountain range and behind it, the moon is rising. I feel that the area that Marlene is referring to must be very dark and therefore the craters of the moon can easily be seen. It’s interesting that Marlene refers to the craters of the moon as mountains because they are hardly ever though of as that. However depending on a person’s outlook the craters could seem much like mountains.

old pond a frog rises belly up

This haiku is great because of its obvious word link by connecting this haiku with that of Basho’s most famous haiku. Instead of the traditional and historical image of a living frog jumping into an ancient pond, Marlene has the frog dead rising from the depths of the water as opposed to purposely sinking itself into the depths. In using the words “old pond” Marlene is firmly asking the reader to remember Basho’s poem that referred to an ancient pond. The words are synonymous. I really enjoyed this twist on a classic poem. It almost calls for a quick chuckle on an otherwise morbid haiku.

Finally there is this haiku.




This haiku is very different from the others that I have seen by Marlene. Instead of the classic three lines or single line that I was used to seeing by her, she created this piece of artwork. In this haiku she merges both her love and talent for haiku with her love and of art. The message of this poem is very important as well.

To me, Marlene is making a point that sometimes Basho’s haiku isn’t quite translated the way that he intended. Because of the mix up in translations his haiku is used against us by trying to have us understand and model a haiku that isn’t exactly the same as Basho’s original work. Basho’s translated haiku is also used against him because it causes the reader to form a judgment of Basho’s work based on the ideas that a translator had in regard to what they thought that Basho was attempting to write about. Behind the ransom note type writing, it appears that behind the haiku is a telephone pole with crossed wires.

I think that this represents the literal crossed wires that can happen as a person tries to translate a haiku from Japanese to English. This haiku also feels to express the chaos that can occur when there are several different versions of the same haiku that have been translated differently by several different people as in Basho’s famous, ancient pond and frog haiku.

—Amy Soderberg

©2003 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors