On a haiku by Phillip Murrell

midnight garden
only the snowberries
take on the starlight

What a lovely, atmospheric haiku this is! Phillip Murrell has been writing haiku for many years and this is among his best. Like others which I have written about of late, it features in this year’s Haiku Calendar, from Snapshot Press.

The conflated time and place setting of the first line plunges the reader straight into the scene: a chilly, shivery, cloudless night somewhere, I guess, in rural England, probably in Oxfordshire. For British readers of a certain age, the words ‘midnight garden’ have a resounding echo of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce’s strange and beautiful 1958 children’s novel, in which the title character travels back to Victorian times when the grandfather clock in his aunt and uncle’s house where he is staying strikes thirteen (itself an echo of the unsettling opening of Orwell’s 1984).

The middle line has a fine sonic balance to it, with the ‘o’s working as well as those in Roy Orbison’s ‘Only the Lonely’. Snowberries – the white fruit of Symphoricarpos albus – are an American import, supposedly first introduced into Britain 202 years ago, although it’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed their proliferation. In his seminal Flora Britannica (1996), Richard Mabey says that one colloquial name for them, in Shropshire, is ‘lardy balls’, which sounds like an affectionate insult. Their fruiting season used to be May to September, but with climate change, that has extended into November and beyond, in southern England at least.

But it’s the ambiguity of the verb use in the third line which makes this haiku a winner: ‘take on’ could mean ‘absorb’, as if the starlight is burnishing the whiteness of the berries; but also, perhaps more likely, mean that the berries are challenging/rivalling the brightness of the stars. Either way, the sensation conjured up is one of the macrocosm of the firmament and the microcosm of the bush in a garden mirroring one another and illuminating an otherwise dark, late-autumn night.

A few thoughts on the sounds of and within the poem: I suspect that most English (or Scottish or Welsh) readers would pronounce ‘snowberries’ not as the three-syllable ‘snow-be-reez’ but as the two-syllable ‘snow-breez’, which improves the sound of the haiku on the ear, because ‘starlight’ is, of course, a two-syllable noun also. The ‘ar’ sounds in both ‘garden’ and ‘starlight’ help the overall composition too.

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