Rocks on the Pond
A Study of Haiku by George Swede
by Joren Martin
August 20, 2013
George Swede is full of surprises in the haiku world. Haiku is historically built on nature and seasons. For centuries, the Japanese masters who created and formed the art followed guidelines and norms that Swede often neglects entirely when he writes. And the results are delightful and often moving. One of the main reasons I enjoy him so much is that he often looks past nature and writes about people, very real people. There is always a hint of brokenness, always a slight flaw or hint of shadow that gives the reader a picture into a real life. Better than a soap opera, it draws the reader into this person’s fears, cares, loves and losses. He captures emotions and presents life as it happens every day.
He writes about all kinds of such moments. Some are with mother and child; others between two lovers. There are some about the old and some about the young. However, the ones that stood out to me all revolved around a lake or a pond. Taken together, they appear to tell a story. As I read them, I wondered what this lake was and why Swede was so drawn to writing about it. There appears to be a consistent theme, regular characters, and the roughest of frames for a plot. While his happy marriage clearly shows his own life isn’t the subject matter, the lives tangle through these haiku seems incredibly real. And so, I decided to follow them and study this lake to understand what it was all about. In Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku by George Swede published by Brooks Books in 2000, George Swede writes this first haiku from the series of lakes and ponds:
lake without a ripple
I pocket the smooth
Swede, AU, 19
This haiku has an interesting level of intent to it. It seems to me as if the speaker came to the lake with his own stone to skip across it. Perhaps he found it on the walk down to the lake. In either case, he came with a reason, but the scene of the lake stopped him. I imagine he came with something to think about, even something that was frustrating him. He planned to hurl rocks across the lake until he had wrestled through them. But when he got there, the serenity of the lake took him aback. Something about the perfect calm of the lake must have settled the torrent in his mind, and the skipping stone he had brought was no longer needed.
For some reason I put this haiku in the evening, though I am unsure why. I appreciate the correlation between the ripple-free lake and the smooth stone, as well as the dichotomy of hard stone versus the liquid lake. It has a very tactile feel, as though the reader is holding the stone themselves, feeling the smoothness and the soft grit of the stone. Swede’s next haiku, possibly at this same lake, is equally tactile and introspective, but more active as well:
dropping stone after stone
into the lake I keep
Swede, AU, 25
I have to wonder if this isn’t a continuation of the previous haiku, perhaps another night, or another season, or even another year. It could be the same problem, or it couldn’t, the same lake or a new one. Regardless, the speaker is back at a lake with stones in hand. For being relatively similar subject matter, the two show a very different moment. There is no carefully chosen skipping stone, nor is there any skipping taking place. This time any stone will do, just to plop in the water. The speaker appears to be frustrated with himself, dropping the stones into his own visage. It is as though he knows his own reflection, and wishes he could change it. The lake is again a place of introspection and some form of therapy. It is a place to think and dwell on things that bother him, and possibly to change them.
Swede, AU, 42
In this haiku, we move to a pond, although I wonder if the circumstances just make the lake look smaller. Here I imagine a young man fairly early in the pregnancy, and just like at the lake before, he is wrestling with something. Most likely, his great issues are questions about himself. He might wonder if he is ready for this, or if he will be father he knows he should be. There are fears he will be just like his dad was, or maybe that he won’t.
At the same time I see him return, maybe just a few days before the due date. This time the question is all about when. There is excitement about the new baby and worries about labor and hospitals and doctors and chaos. Anticipation has built up over nine months and is finally about to burst, so the soon to be father does what he always does, and goes to skip the rocks across the same old pond. I start to see the pond as a kind of old friend. It is always there; it always helps, always listens.
no lovemaking for weeks
I throw stones at my reflection
in the pond
Swede, AU, 59
Again, the pond is there for therapy. The speaker is frustrated; his marriage is frustrated; his wife must be frustrated. The scene is very tense, and there is no skipping. He is not plopping in stones, nor picking them carefully. This time he hurls them. So much emotion is tied up in this haiku. I see a man who knows his own mistakes caused, and keep causing, this separation. He did something weeks ago that upset his wife. Ever since, he has keep doing and saying things that have only made it worse. Now he is so mad at himself and the situation he has become furious. But finally, after so many mistakes he goes out, finds his old pond, and deals with himself.
This haiku is much more direct than most of the others. The first person perspective provides the sense of a voice, as though the first line runs through speaker and readers mind just before the throwing begins. I can feel this fist clenching around the rocks, and hear the sound of them crunching under pressure. The sight and sound of the splash as my own face bursts apart. The strangest sense is that I am ambiguous to the other party. While furious at myself and the circumstances, none of it is directed toward the spouse. The pond, serving as a mirror, is the only thing that I want to throw rocks at.
the divorcee’s ring
of white skin
Swede, AU, 76
Again I feel this haiku could be the continuation of the previous one. This time, however, I imagine a woman. What was once her husband’s hideaway is where she now looks for answers. The scene is again tactile, and a chill is on everything, including pond, heart, and naked finger. The ring of ice around the pond suggests the beginning of winter, a time when everything that was alive and vibrant is now dead, just like her marriage. I love the connection between the newly found white rings, and the hanging image of the second line. There seems to be something reluctant in the woman, as though she is still committed to the man. Perhaps that is why she has come to his pond, to remember her connection with him. If this really has been the same man at the same pond, he has dealt with more of his life here than perhaps anywhere else. If this is where he has always gone to find himself, then there is nowhere better for her to go if she wants to find him as well.
Swede, George. Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku by George Swede. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books, 2000.