waiting room quiet
an apple core
in the ashtray
Among other things a satisfying haiku asks a number of questions from its reader. Some of them are interdependent and some of them stand alone. And not all of them can be answered, or should be fully answered. It is often this indeterminacy that gives the poem some of its resonance. Its images and ideas vibrating. Never quite settling into distinctness.
Hotham’s apple core haiku, like many of his haiku, is centered on an image-oriented experience with an obscured or understated narrative presence. Under this seemingly matte surface a number of questions are stirring. There is a tension in both the form and the potential subject matter that causes us to hover above its meaning like moths.
First there is the poem’s place in time. Its bid at social history. An ashtray in an office has become an obvious anachronism, and so refers to the time when there was less concern for smoking as a public health issue. Ads for cigarettes came with a physician’s claims for their health benefits.
Perhaps, though, we have moved on and the ashtray’s purpose has shifted to that of the generic waste receptacle. Still a familiar sight. Something no one had the energy to remove. The apple then makes its entrance as the healthy alternative. And so we get a different kind of public service announcement. But then there’s that apple core itself, sitting in the middle of the poem.
As with many of Hotham’s haiku, there’s a tangible representation of someone’s absence. A coat hanger in a closet. Warm shoes on the floor. A coffee cup in a hotel room. One of the underpinnings to Hotham’s work and its appeal is that images of objects can be far more provocative than images of people in terms of opening up multiple narratives, even contradictory narratives. It’s as if the people in photographs or paintings keep us out. Privilege the meaning of the work for themselves. They know the story and it isn’t yours. When things stand alone we have more freedom to enter into them.
The apple core stops being merely an apple core, opens itself up, and becomes the hand that set it there. The hand of the person who perhaps just left the waiting room. To visit with whom? Social Worker, Employment Counselor, Court Clerk. A Doctor perhaps. What sort of doctor? How serious is it?
The observer of the apple, who now enters the room and the poem as well, are they waiting for this physician too? Have they merely accompanied the sick person? And so the hand that was on the apple becomes more intimate, more familiar, and perhaps more dear. Perhaps this is the office of an Oncologist.
The absent person who has left some tangible and incidental item can now signify our daily encounter with separation, loss, isolation, or even alienation in our quiet and barren institutional environments. And removing people from the poem itself has merely invited them back in in greater number.
Let’s look at the craft of the poem itself, how it facilitates its intentions.
From a distance the poem looks eaten away, eroded, a haiku with its lower left corner missing, which suites the image of the apple’s remains, the ashtray with its cigarettes, or not, consuming themselves in fire.
The generous space before the second and third line also brings a pause, a silence that follows the quiet of line one. And finally serves to underscore the word of entry, waiting, which hangs above the empty space and seems attached to an already completed poem.
While the opening line is compact, concrete, and poetic, an already familiar grammar of the haiku, the second and third sound more like speech, or truncated speech, rendered invisible or flat with the inclusion of articles, absent from the first line. The effect is to create a further divide between the setting and the event.
The haiku diction of the first line suggests we will encounter a more traditional or familiar image to stir up our waiting room bathos, and despite the many places the waiting room takes us, we are ultimately left without a locatable narrative, the overwrought symbols of worry and difficult transitions (waiting room quiet my wife’s jewelry in my hand / waiting room quiet I unfold the letter again / waiting room quiet the water cooler adjusts itself) being absent and replaced by typical ashcan fodder, almost invisible because garbage has become so pervasive in our numerous landscapes.
We have in fact trained ourselves not to see it, and this haiku makes us do so, because if we want some meaning and resonance from the poem, some frayed thread of a narrative to keep us going back to it, we have to find it in the ashtray.
“waiting room quiet” was first published in Modern Haiku 6.2
Haiku Foundation Viral 7.2