A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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first warm day – H. Gene Murtha’s Bird Haiku

by Jo McInerney

Gene Murtha was a naturalist and time and again his poetry bears out this designation. Examining Murtha’s work, it is notable that many of his most remarkable haiku and tanka present the interaction between human beings and the natural world as represented by birds. Tracing Murtha’s treatment of the interplay between our species and the many bird species about which he wrote gives a valuable insight into the depth, subtlety and variety of his work.

spring mist –
a mallard paddles
through our stillborn’s ashes 1

The above may well be the best-known of H. Gene Murtha’s haiku. A deeply moving, indeed devastating poem, it brings the natural world and human loss into abrupt conjunction, while seeming to find a certain comfort in the bird’s indifference. This is an early haiku of Murtha’s and would certainly have alerted readers to the potential of his work.

In the haiku which follows he subtly suggests an unexpected aspect of the relationship between human observer and a wild creature, an egret.

snap of a twig
the egret’s neck
extends 2

The haiku opens with a sudden noise, ‘snap of a twig’, (note the short words, the plosive ‘p’, the hard ‘t’) made the more startling by the absence of an article before ‘snap’. When line two introduces ‘the egret’, we anticipate its reaction to the sound. Our attention is drawn to its neck, giving an immediate sense of its vulnerability. The snapped twig and the bird’s long neck seem to equate in some discomforting way. There is the possibility, if not the probability, of harm to the bird. Its flight, in response to this threat, seems imminent. Line three comes as a surprise. The bird does not flee, it ‘extends’ its neck - the action reinforced by the word spacing, with ‘extends’ deeply indented. The reader and presumably the observer within the haiku are left wrong-footed. The reaction we are shown is not what we expect. The bird exhibits curiosity, not fear. Let’s focus for a moment on that implied observer within the haiku. He has been watching the bird. It is the object of his attention, here preceded by a definite, not an indefinite article. The observer seems more startled by that ‘snap of a twig’, a probable consequence of his footfall, than the bird is. He has apparently been watching the bird for some time, seeking, soundlessly, to get closer to it, his intentions benign. When the twig snaps, he does not raise a gun or even a camera. He simply continues watching. His surprise, and perhaps delight, are indicated by that single word in line three.

Restraint and the capacity to rein in human ego before the natural world are frequent characteristics of Murtha’s haiku. The following monoku demonstrates these qualities.

eastern bluebird even i've known love 3

The bluebird has become a cliché, symbolic of happiness or love, often unattainable. It can easily be referred to with a trite heavy-handedness. Murtha’s bluebird, however, while retaining some of the cultural significance with which the bird has been imbued is a real creature. Note the specificity of ‘eastern’. The speaker’s statement about an aspect of his emotional biography, ‘even I’ve known love’, might appear an attempt to use the image of the natural creature symbolically, in a manner similar to Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’, against which the writer’s personal comment or emotional state can then be juxtaposed. The potential hazards of this type of writing are arbitrariness and obscurity on the one hand and a hackneyed or laboured connection on the other. Murtha avoids both traps. The haiku invites at least two readings. The speaker seems to acknowledge his relative lack of worth in relation to the simple beauty of the bird. This is suggested in part by the lower case ‘i’. There is no vainglorious self-assertion here. If anything is to be marvelled at from the human vantage point, it is that, despite his comparative inadequacy, he has been loved. The haiku can also be read as a direct statement of the wonder felt at the sight of the bird. Interpreted in this light, the love he has ‘known’ is that he has felt for part of non-human creation, not that which he has been given by another human being. The quiet matter-of-factness and lack of mawkishness or self-pity are impressive.

The capacity to see one’s own mortality within a wider frame of reference is a feature of some of Murtha’s best poems. It is there in his haibun ‘Directions’ in the reference to impending spring. Written in a voice from beyond life, which gives explicit instructions for the dispersal of the speaker’s mortal remains, the prose section concludes:
“It will be spring soon. Already, you can hear the chickadees.”4
The birds show the simple continuance of life. (For those who, like me, may not have heard these frequently-mentioned North American birds firsthand, this link will take you to several minutes of their song.

There is no bitterness, no regret, just acknowledgement of the relative inconsequence of a single human life – the natural world will go on and is to be celebrated.

However, Murtha’s bird poetry also reveals his consciousness of shared transience. The world of nature may not endure either.

brushing off sand
I walk what's left of
the pine dunes
my time here passes by
like the birds overhead 5

Everything here is shifting. Initially it is the sand, which is presumably being brushed from the speaker’s clothes. Perhaps he has lain down and it has stuck to his pants, his shirt, the palms of his hands. He, too, is in motion now, ‘walk[ing] what’s left of / the pine dunes’, the sand possibly slipping beneath his feet. The odd enjambment at the end of line two encourages the reader to wander just what has been reduced and is about to be cut off. Immediately it is ‘the pine dunes’. The tanka acknowledges this environmental degradation. There is a subtle sense of complicity; the speaker is also an agent of erosion, his very presence a small disruptive force. He is part of a shifting cycle of loss which includes all around him: ‘my time here passes by / like the birds overhead’. The concluding simile is quietly appalling; no mere figure of speech, it seems to embody the prospect of shared annihilation. The natural world is no longer a measure of life’s abundance. It, too, may pass. As with the haiku ‘eastern bluebird’, there is no simple split here between images from nature and human observation; the two are deftly interwoven and their interaction constant.

A sense of nature under duress is even more poignantly expressed in the following haiku, which once more focuses on the position of a bird, here threatened by what is possibly a naturally-occurring phenomenon.

summer haze –
a crow flaps free
of the asphalt 6

This is a haiku which reveals its grim meaning gradually. Line one is subtly paradoxical. In Japanese haiku there are particular words to refer to the ‘haze’ or ‘mist’ of spring and the ‘fog’ of autumn and winter – all with the potential of beauty. This is not what is alluded to here. This is a heat haze, created perhaps by petroleum fumes. Such beauty as it has is illusory. Line two shows a crow apparently flying freely; however, line three reveals this too is an illusion. It is freeing itself from the ensnarement of bitumen, perhaps from a natural tar pit, perhaps from a road surface, perhaps from a tar sands tailings pond. The ‘haze’ of line one now seems like the optical illusion of water apparently shimmering on a summer roadway. The dragging effort involved in the bird’s apparent escape is suggested by the alliteration, the repeated ‘f’s’ catching in the reader’s mouth as teeth make contact with bottom lip. The bird’s freedom may well be temporary.

First impressions mislead in this haiku. The crow is likely to have been soiled by the black sticky substance that had trapped it. Its contamination may be permanent, though not immediately apparent on its black, shining wings. Images of seabirds mired in oil slicks may come to the reader’s mind. This is another poem that ultimately treats a wild creature’s problematic survival with simple, unflinching directness.

Yet, Murtha’s position is not always that of an observer of despoliation and loss. He appears to write with such subtle power about destruction and degradation because his work recognises the value of what is endangered. His poetry is therefore as capable of enjoying the natural world as of chronicling the threats its denizens face.

There is frequent wit and humour in his presentations of nature. The next is an attractive piece of appreciative fun.

when you think
you’ve heard it all —
brown thrasher 7

The broadly-focused, colloquial, first two lines are followed by a bird’s name. This is a bit of an in-joke, whose full appreciation relies on having heard the bird’s call. (Again, for those who, like me, have to rely on recordings, this link will take you to nearly four uninterrupted minutes of its song.)

There is a humorous disjunction between the common, almost disparaging, indeed almost scatological name the bird has been given and the bright, abundant medley it produces.

However, the haiku operates on a level beyond this. The phrase with which it opens is an everyday expression of world-weariness, albeit without the melodramatic component that often accompanies such an attitude. It implies ‘life has no more to reveal to me’ and whatever follows is frequently uttered in long-suffering tones. Murtha’s haiku is a genuine challenge to this view. Alerting us to the remarkable song of a large speckled bird; it allows readers the sly hope that the world has more to offer than we may have anticipated.

Wit, in Murtha’s haiku, often enables him to suggest that more is available to us than we first perceive. The following is a fine instance of humour with an unexpected dimension.

first warm day
a robin works
the infield 8

‘first warm day’ is a favourite fragment of Murtha’s. It is easy to see why. As an opening line, it has all the delight of new experience, of a sensation savoured for the first time. Yet there is more here: it implies warmth doubly welcome because it is a respite from what has come before. For the mature reader, this is spring sunshine following winter. Line two introduces the bird, a robin. A migratory bird which winters along the Pacific coast, it has returned to the Atlantic seaboard with the sun. (Murtha last lived in Wildwood, New Jersey, and was resident there when this haiku was written.) This robin ‘works’, presumably picks over the earth. That is what line three reveals to be the case, but with an engaging additional dimension. The robin is working ‘the infield’. We suddenly find ourselves on a baseball field, and near the middle of the action. In baseball parlance, for the pitching team, ‘working the infield’ means fielding near the centre, hoping to catch a mishit ball, unlike the robin, which is seeking to catch a bug. There is no cloying anthropomorphism here, just an amused recognition of parallel behaviour. But the scene has widened attractively, both bird and players are enjoying the sudden sunshine.

Perhaps the last feature to be noted about this haiku is that the bird is oblivious to the human activity. It has its own business to be about, which oddly takes us back to Murtha’s spring mist and the comfort to be derived from life that runs along a different, if related, path to our own, without any awareness of our concerns.

Gene Murtha’s bird poetry offers a valuable point of entry into his work, revealing the subtlety and range of his concerns and the variety of perspectives adopted. The clarity of his observations and the skill with which he gives form to them remain with the reader.


All the poems discussed except ‘eastern bluebird’ (from Biding Time) were first published in the specified editions of the journals named in the footnotes.

spring mist, snap of a twig, Directions, brushing off sand, summer haze and when you think can also be found in Murtha’s Biding Time: selected poems 2001-2013.

1. The Heron’s Nest Volume IV, Number 11: November, 2002

2. The Heron’s Nest Volume VI, Number 7: August, 2004

3. Biding Time: selected poems 2001-2013 page 4

4. Contemporary Haibun Online ,Vol 4, No 2: June, 2008

5. Ribbons 2009 Summer issue (5.2)

6. Frogpond, vol. XXVII:1, 2004

7. The Heron’s Nest Volume XI, Number 4: December, 2009

8. The Heron’s Nest Volume XVII, Number 3: September, 2015


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