Sarah Alexander

Observer vs. Participant:
A Study of the Haiku of
Nicholas Virgilio and Alexis Rotella

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Sarah Alexander

Alexander's Haiku

Observer vs. Participant:
A Study of the Haiku of
Nicholas Virgilio and Alexis Rotella

When Nicholas Virgilio died in January of 1989 at age sixty, he was on the brink
of becoming the first to achieve "celebrity" status in the American haiku community.
The countless readers who were introduced to haiku through his work with National
Public Radio lost an individual whose poetry, in the words of Cor van den Heuvel,
"continues to illuminate the shadows of death" (li). His poems about the death of his
brother Lawrence, who died in Vietnam, are among the most quietly poignant in all of
English-language haiku. With these gently heart-wrenching images, Virgilio manages
gracefully to step away from the moment and take on the role of observer. At the same
time that he invites the reader to share in his fond reminiscence, the poet embraces the
ideas of Basho and Shiki in reminding the reader that the image—not the emotional
reaction to the image—is at the center of the haiku. The image, for Virgilio, comes first and foremost: it speaks for itself. For this reason, Virgilio's relatively objective haiku lend themselves to a contrast study with the work of Alexis Rotella.

Still an active member of the haiku community, Rotella infuses her haiku with "vivid exposures of her personal life" (van den Heuvel xxiv). Although Rotella, like any skilled haiku poet, acknowledges the central importance of the image in each of her poems, she clearly is a participant in the moment. Her own mood and emotions are integral to the reader's interpretation of the haiku. Rotella's intensely personal poetry represents an approach to haiku that contrasts beautifully with the subdued voice that pervades Virgilio's work.

A small sample of Rotella's and of Virgilio's haiku illustrates the distinction between the role of observer and that of participant. In the two haiku that follow, both poets invite the reader to imagine a light, tranquil snowfall. The mood that each poem evokes is undoubtedly one of serenity.

the cathedral bell
is shaking a few snowflakes
from the morning air

This image immediately convinces the reader of Virgilio's astute powers of
observation. The mellow toll of the church bell, the quivering snowflakes, and the
fragrant morning air all combine to remind the reader of the comforting freshness of an early morning snowfall. Despite the immediacy and accessibility of the image, the poet remains unquestionably absent from the moment. He is essentially like the Impressionist artist: his primary concern is to capture the moment as it occurs, to make reality stand still for the reader.

Alexis Rotella approaches this task in quite a different manner:

Against his coat
I brush my lips—
the silence of snowflakes

With this rather sensuous haiku, Rotella steps outside the "observer mode" and
relates her own emotion to the soporific rhythm of a quiet snowfall. Here, the reader is
asked to make a "perceptive leap": it is for her to imagine the connection between
Rotella's subtly erotic moment with her significant other and the protective silence of the snowfall. The palpable presence of Rotella's voice in the poem makes that leap fairly easy. She encourages the reader to imagine herself as the "I." At that point, the reader need only recall her own experiences to understand the intangible link between a comforting, romantic encounter and a snowy afternoon.

A number of Rotella's haiku seek to bring to life a fleeting but erotically charged
moment between herself and a male companion. As Rod Willmot explains, "[Rotella's] special gift is for the revelation of moments in her emotional relationships with others" (qtd. in van den Heuvel xxiv).

Although these "emotional relationships" are generally of a romantic nature, Rotella's haiku also reveal hints about her relationship to her late mother. In writing of a departed loved one, Rotella treats a theme that Virgilio mastered in his most eloquent haiku. The ways in which both poets approach this theme, though, are markedly different, as the following haiku indicate.

In the guest room
where my mother slept
I look for comfort.

Rotella's haiku, which is also a grammatically complete sentence, places the poet
once more in the role of participant. While she confides to the reader her feelings ("I
look for comfort"), she does not stand back and observe the moment along with the
reader. Rotella's use of the active voice and of a coherent sentence structure indicates
the degree to which she is herself emotionally involved with this haiku. She is clearly
not capturing a scene in an Impressionistic sense; instead, she compels the reader to
visualize the emptiness of the guest room and to imagine the poet's own active quest for solace in a place her mother once inhabited. In order to be genuinely moved by this haiku, the reader must first witness Rotella's own emotional outpouring.

By contrast, in a haiku about the loss of his father, Virgilio reveals a tendency to
express grief in a more subdued manner.

another autumn
still silent in his closet:
father's violin

Virgilio's presence is not prominent in this poem; rather, the unused violin speaks
for the all-too-palpable absence of the poet's father. In concentrating his sense of loss on an inanimate object, Virgilio detaches himself from the emotion of the moment: he
simply presents to the reader the image of a silent, dusty violin and assumes that he or
she will feel a grief that has been blunted by time, as well as a tender desire to preserve
an object that calls to mind so many fond memories. Both the passionate "I" of Rotella's poem and the subtly poignant image of a timeworn violin are successful in evoking a mood of quiet sorrow.

Occasionally, Virgilio ventures in his "death haiku" to refer specifically to himself. In such haiku, it seems that the poet, like Rotella, feels the need to participate in the moment in order to elicit an emotional response from the reader. A closer examination of one such haiku, however, reveals Virgilio's determination to remain in an observational mode even when speaking of himself. The following haiku illustrates this point:

my dead brother . . .
hearing his laugh
in my laughter

With the phrase "my laughter," Virgilio appears to bring himself into the haiku
with Rotella-like directness. Yet, the second line suggests that the poet is actually
observing himself. He has seemingly stepped outside his own consciousness for the
moment and is hearing his own laughter from another's point of view. As he listens to his own laughter as if it had been tape-recorded, he recognizes the achingly familiar cadence of his late brother's laugh. The overall mood of this poem is open to interpretation: the poet may be pleasantly surprised to hear a sound he had nearly forgotten or may feel that such a vivid reminder of a loved one has re-opened an old wound. In any case, it is clear that the poignancy of Virgilio's verse comes from his ability to observe and respond to the moment along with the reader.

Like any gifted and versatile haiku poet, Alexis Rotella does not rely upon the
same voice and techniques to communicate the emotional significance of each and every haiku. In one memorable poem, she, like Virgilio, steps back from herself for a moment and observes the scene for herself.

Quickly I powder my nose
my mother
staring back

The effect of this haiku is very much like that of Virgilio's "my dead brother . . ." Here, the poet seems to have a rather supernatural experience. As she gazes into the
mirror of the powder compact, she watches her face appear to take on the features of her mother's face. The apparition calls a host of memories of the poet's mother to her mind. In writing of her "transformation," Rotella hints at her reaction, which is very much like that of the reader. Like Virgilio, she tries to process the moment right along with the reader. She is no longer the instigator of the poem's action; rather, she, like any other puzzled observer, is trying to make sense of it all.

The distinction between the role of observer and that of participant is often difficult to discern and is, quite possibly, merely a matter of the reader's own interpretation. It is impossible to deny, however, that the poems of Alexis Rotella and Nicholas Virgilio simply read differently. Rotella's sensuous lines seem to pulse on the page. The concrete—and sometimes seductive—images, particularly those involving flowers, communicate the emotional impact of the haiku forcefully. Even the reader who
attempts to race haphazardly through Rotella's poetry is pulled in by the immediacy and intimacy of her images. A single haiku illustrates Rotella's ability to pack three lines with robust, exciting imagery:

Lying in the wet grass,
him still beating
inside me.

As a poet who prefers to observe along with the reader, Virgilio employs subdued
but powerful imagery in crafting his haiku. The effect is more subtle: often, two or more readings are required for the reader to appreciate the full impact of the piece. Again, one example is sufficient to illustrate Virgilio's love of implication and "quiet" imagery:

autumn twilight:
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind

Without conducting extensive research, it's difficult to know why Nicholas Virgilio's and Alexis Rotella's verses read as they do. As a commentator on a nationally syndicated weekend radio news magazine, Virgilio may have allowed his "journalistic
voice" to seep into his work. Rotella's need to participate in the images she creates may be related to the fact that she hails from a generation that regards writing as a means of self-examination and even of therapy. Whatever the case, both Virgilio and Rotella are to be regarded as major figures of twentieth-century haiku who have contributed immeasurably to a literary movement that, in this culture, is still in its youth.

—Sarah Alexander

©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors