Mirroring Mortality: Calvin Olsen’s Haiku #100

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Anthology Poet Highlight 43/82: Calvin Olsen, Haiku #100

I’ve been fascinated with haiku since I started writing poetry and for a time I, like Calvin, used haiku as a springboard into writing longer poems. I think I was drawn to the form because it’s short, yes, but also because there’s a great deal of intricacy at work in the image-heavy body of a well-wrought haiku. And it takes a bit of paring down to get the focus and compression the form requires. Take, for instance, Calvin’s haiku #100:

A break in the trees
Cemetery with one man
Covering his face

With just these twelve words, these seventeen syllables, the poet—as observer of Nature and of human nature—weaves a moment of intense emotion. In this re/presentation, the first thing we’re made aware of is a stand of trees, which is used to frame—from the poet-observer’s perspective and, hence, from ours—a solitary man who stands/sits/kneels in a cemetery. Moving from and through the trees, the poet settles on a telescopic view of the man, who has buried his face out of what can rightly be read, I think, as grief. He is, after all, alone in a cemetery, which is the place we go to mourn our dead. A space set aside from the everyday rush, where we contemplate our mortal movement from dust to dust. And this contemplation often happens beyond the limits of language, which are revealed as we contemplate death and the (temporary) absence it represents. Hence the restraint of haiku, which is often used as a mirror for the ultimate spareness of mortality.

From these three spare lines, then, the poet re/presents an image rich in the human experience of mortality, which is ultimately mediated and framed by our place in and relationship with the natural world. And with the larger project of which this single poem is a part, a project titled Ten Thousand Haiku, Calvin explores the richness and the limits of language as a means with which to do that re/presenting.


2 thoughts on “Mirroring Mortality: Calvin Olsen’s Haiku #100

  1. Tyler Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Mark. The brevity and complexity of haiku certainly do make them worth reading and writing and contemplating…


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