In his 2007 book The World Without Us, the environmental journalist Alan Weisman quoted a New England farmer: “If you want to destroy a barn, cut an eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof. Then stand back.” What follows is a chapter-length meditation on impermanence where Weisman examines the ways that water can get into manmade structures, despite our best efforts to keep it out. In the same vein, each of the winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s challenge used the season word “roof leak” as a metaphor for environmental collapse.
- Kelly Shaw turns a “trickling roof leak” into a meditation on indecision and delay in the face of climate change.
- Elizabeth Nolcox compares a glacier to a roof “laid atop Greenland”—a roof that leaks, raising sea levels everywhere.
- Freda Herrington sees “an unknown coastline” emerging from the leak stain on her ceiling, redrawing the map of the world.
Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.
You can submit a haiku for the April challenge here.
Spring Season Word: Roof Leak
trickling roof leak
if ever there was a time
I was of two minds
— Kelly Shaw
Two studies released in the last month (in Nature Communications and The Journal of Climate) indicate that sea levels are rising faster than projected along the coasts of the southeastern United States. These were followed by an article about Charleston, South Carolina, that raised a question no one seems to have an answer for: what do we do about an environmental apocalypse that, while it is clearly already happening, “is taking place relatively slowly compared with the human attention span”?
Charleston has grown in size from 9 to 140 square miles since 1960, expanding through low-lying areas that are vulnerable to storms and tidal flooding. Because of its topography, and the fact that so much of it was constructed atop fill, in all likelihood it will be among the first US cities to succumb to rising oceans. Property development continues unabated in the meantime, as Charleston continues to grow. The city is projected to reach a population of one million by 2040. The same thing is happening along other coastlines throughout the world.
The issue is complex, but the problem is simple: we are of two minds when it comes to climate change. One mind knows the long-term consequences of ignoring the rise in average global temperature. The other knows that whatever “storm” we are presently experiencing will surely pass, after which life will go back to normal—at least for a while.
In this case, the poet has been honest about his lack of resolve. He knows he should fix the roof. But to do so will disrupt his routine, as he contracts roofers, supervises their work, and endures the sound of nail guns and heavy footsteps plodding back and forth above his head. Not to mention the expense of the repair. So he remains “of two minds”—which means that nothing happens either way.
The season words of haiku are repositories of past meaning where our experience of nature is concerned. But they are not sealed in amber. The fact that so many of our poets saw a connection between a leaking roof and climate disruption reflects the rise of extreme weather events around the globe.
This month’s winning haiku couldn’t be simpler. The poet tells us that his roof is leaking… but that he can’t decide whether to fix it now or wait. That such a plain statement could tap so deeply into our core predicament as a species says much about the crisis we are living through now.
We know that we should act. Some of us know that we must act. But at the collective level of nations, and even at local municipal levels where it should matter even more, nothing happens. We are of two minds, or perhaps many minds, when we ought to be of one.
laid atop Greenland
the roof of our home has been
leaking and leaking
— Elizabeth Nolcox
the roof leak sketches
yellow lines on the ceiling,
an unknown coastline
— Freda Herrington
You can find more on March’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:
Spring season word: “roof leak”
the roof is leaking
the sun is shining this house
is a box a rain
Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the spring season word “roof leak.” Your poems must be written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively, and should focus on a single moment of time happening now.
Be straightforward in your description and try to limit your subject matter. Haiku are nearly always better when they don’t have too many ideas or images. So make your focus the season word* and try to stay close to that.
* REMEMBER: To qualify for the challenge, your haiku must be written in 5-7-5 syllables and include the words “roof leak.”
Haiku Tip: The Anatomy of an Allusion
One of the most underutilized techniques in English language haiku is allusion: the use of an indirect reference to history, music, art, or another work of literature to give additional depth to a poem. Allusion is especially important in haiku, where our words often have to do double duty to achieve a satisfying turn of thought.
I tried for decades to write a haiku about my favorite Grateful Dead song, but I could never figure out what to do with the words “Box of Rain.” Then, one March a few years ago, right at the tail end of a torrential rainstorm in the Catskills, our roof began to leak badly from several places at once.
The opening words of the song came back to me just as the sun was coming out:
Look out of any window
Any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
Birds are winging or rain is falling from a heavy sky
The song debuted on The Dead’s 1970 album American Beauty as a collaboration between bassist-singer Phil Lesh and lyricist Robert Hunter. Lesh wanted a song to sing to his father as he lay dying of cancer. He composed “Box of Rain” on the way to and from the nursing home, complete with vocal melody, but without any lyrics. Hunter listened to Lesh’s scat-style singing and added the words as a kind of “translation” of those sounds.
The meaning of the song—and especially its title—was debated by Grateful Dead fans for decades. Finally, in 1996, Roberts revealed in an email interview:
By “box of rain,” I meant the world we live on, but “ball” of rain didn’t have the right ring to my ear, so box it became….
I’d had a hunch about that for years. What else could it be? But Roberts was right. “Ball of rain” didn’t have the right ring to it, so he made it a “box” instead. Such a beautiful way of personalizing the sorrow of a whole planet by bringing it down to size.
That was how I came up with the line “this house is a box of rain.” I wanted readers to hear that bittersweet song about Lesh losing his father playing like a soundtrack behind the syllables of the poem.
A note on roof leaks: In Haiku World, William J. Higginson observes, “Roofs—especially thatched roofs, still not uncommon in Japan and parts of Europe—often suffer damage from winter freezes, causing leaks with the thaws of spring.” But even with the best modern building materials, we can’t always keep out the rain. Especially as a house gets older, leaks are a fact of life.
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