James Ellenberger: Short poems are like potato chips: I often really enjoy the work, but am left wanting more. The best short poems seem to be able to circumvent the desire for more by engaging or evoking a world well outside of the page. In the case of haiku, the poem’s brevity isolates different cairns of human experience, directing us toward something impactful without telling us how that moment should resonate with us. For example, here’s Basho’s famous frog haiku (as translated by Robert Hass):
The old pond—
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.
This poem transports us without drawing clear guidelines of where we are, which leaves the piece feeling timeless. Even when we’re gone—and the words that we’ve fretted over, too, are gone—the old ponds will be older and the frogs, always new in their sleek skin, will continue leaping. It’s comforting to think that the burden of creating beauty isn’t on our shoulders, that sometimes it’s enough to simply linger in a moment.
“Tip,” a poem Andrea Cohen in issue 13.1, manages to say an incredible amount in only five lines. Here’s the poem:
Always, on the tip
of his tongue, something
cold and deeply unthinkable.
Around him you
always felt sinkable.
The first thing that drew me to this poem was its clever use of wordplay: The tip of the tongue becomes the tip of the iceberg, implying that what we say goes much deeper than the words themselves. In a slightly different way from the aforementioned haiku, we’re given an emotional cairn washed in allusion rather than the description of a single event in the world. It’s hard not to consider Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory here, particularly in the sense that, as readers, we’re never privy to what’s actually being said (or isn’t). The effect is rather magical: the sheer physicality of the tongue and iceberg must come to terms with the poem’s negative space (“unthinkable”). I see the other elements of this poem (the distancing effect of the self-reflexive “you,” the insistence on “always” as how this poem is framed in time) navigating the negative space that ebbs around these lines like an ocean.
Formally, rhyming “unthinkable” and “sinkable” forms a sonic bridge between what’s tactile and what isn’t; the feeling of being “sinkable” is stark and dire, while what’s “unthinkable” can’t be grappled with as directly. This creates a feeling of unease, one that’s made more poignant with the allusions to the Titanic, which serve to clarify the scale of this attachment (or detachment). It feels as though, in other words, the world, not merely the “you,” is sinking.