On a haiku by John Stevenson

Throughout February, the following haiku, by John Stevenson, has been periodically catching my eye on my desk at work, as it’s featured on this year’s Haiku Calendar, from Snapshot Press:

canned peaches
the darkest corner
of the cellar

Verbless haiku or senryu, without any action for the reader to imagine, are often rather cerebral and this one certainly is. It relies, it seems, not on the surface scene (presuming, that is, that the two elements actually make up one scene), but on the associations which the nouns have for the reader.

The first line reminds me of having tinned peaches, with evaporated milk, as pudding after Sunday roasts in the ’70s, and also of the Dylan Thomas short story ‘The Peaches’.

The rest of the haiku conjures up a (literally) very dark place indeed: that trope of horror films which has been rendered more forbidding by the revelations 25 years ago about Fred and Rosemary West, and 11 years ago about the Austrian Josef Fritzl and the terrible things he inflicted on his daughter for 24 years, and of other similar cases in the States and elsewhere.

So how does the reader bring the two elements together? I’m not sure I’ve found an answer to that question. It might just be that the inhabitant of the house stores tins in the cellar and has to stumble about in the dark to find what s/he is looking for. Alternatively, it might be a picture of a survivalist stocking up tinned food in case of the bomb dropping or other disasters, but that seems unlikely somehow.

If it isn’t either of those, then what leap does Stevenson want the reader to make between the two elements and what exactly or approximately is he getting at? For me, it’s not enough simply to say that the reader will make of it whatever they want, otherwise the writer may as well write put any two elements in a random manner and see what lands. I don’t for a moment believe that’s what Stevenson has done here, since he’s consistently been one of the very best haiku poets in English for many years, yet neither do I think that he’s given the reader, or me anyway, quite enough to go on. All the same, as I say, I’ve been drawn to it repeatedly and it can’t only be the mention of the peaches and the Proustian memories they trigger which has intrigued me.

Sometimes, perhaps, it’s enough for a haiku, like many a longer poem, to pique one’s interest without even half-explaining itself.

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