the uneven edge
of a quahog shell
An exceptional haiku can link poet and reader to layers of discovery that expand and deepen as the poem is allowed to do its work. This issue’s award winner is an excellent case in point. It engages my emotions, senses, and intellect, and after repeated readings I am still finding new levels to appreciate. I enjoy imagining how it came to be written and exploring its contours and growth rings.
Unemployed. One word and it is easy to empathize with the speaker. Whether joblessness is chosen or imposed, it is almost surely an unusual and unsettling state that raises a variety of concerns and calls for thoughtful exploration of potential courses of action. The language of the second line affirms an unbalanced edginess, even as it leads to the striking final image that makes me see what is happening and opens the way to a wealth of associations and insights.
I love to walk along the Atlantic shoreline and am especially drawn there when I have major adjustments to work through or important decisions to make. Almost always I pick up a shell to take along. No need for worry beads when a readily available natural object can provide so much tactile satisfaction. That is how I visualize the unemployed poet, then—walking on the sand and absently running his fingers around the edge of a clam shell. Perhaps he pauses to look out over the water and then focuses on the thing he has been experiencing on a purely sensory level. A quahog shell. Surely he smiles. Maybe he even laughs at himself as he recognizes the haikai twist in his situation. The tangible messages he has been receiving come from the source of purple wampum, prized from ancient times by Native American Indians and recognized as legal tender by early European settlers of New England. The whole idea of “needing a few clams” infuses a serious poem with welcome humor.
A little research strengthens the connection between the two parts of the haiku. The quahog’s scientific name is Mercenaria mercenaria from the Latin for “wages,” but neither the contemporary poet nor the early natives of the New England coast could lazily gather shells for a living. Wampum beads are painstakingly shaped into tiny cylinders, drilled lengthwise through the center, and fashioned into belts and other adornments. Before wampum became more or less like money, it signified prestige and commemorated important events, treaties, and mystical revelations. Almost certainly the unemployed poet longs for work that is deeply meaningful as well as a practical means of support.
The sounds are hard, especially those of the most significant word: “KO hog,” “KWA hawg,“ or “KWO hawg,” depending upon which regional variant one chooses. The irregular rhythm and circular structure match the physical and emotional information. Meticulous craftsmanship is part of what attracted my immediate attention and continues to earn my admiration for this significant and highly compressed poem.