Late one afternoon, it was my job to stand well back and call out
guidance to my husband as he pruned a tall ligustrum. He wanted
to give it a rounded shape, to match its mate on the other side
of the front porch. Even before he silenced the trimmer’s
motor and asked me to come “steady” him as he climbed
even higher, I was thinking of Robert Gilliland’s lovely haiku:
At first, this seems an unlikely coupling of images. What in the
world does “late wisteria” have to do with a stepladder,
and one that wobbles, at that? Nothing-and everything! I imagine
the poet outside. Perhaps he is cleaning windows or painting a wall
or repairing a hole made by a woodpecker along the eaves. Perhaps
a bit of pruning or adjusting a downspout. My knowing exactly what
job he’s doing is not important to the levels of meaning below
the surface of the poem.
While the poet is intent on his chore, a familiar scent comes to
him now and then on a breeze. Finally he pauses and acknowledges
the source. Ahh, the wisteria, still in bloom. Then, just as he
takes another breath of sweet fragrance, the ladder wobbles. I can’t
help but perceive Gilliland’s poem as a metaphor for the ups
and downs of our lives. So many times, when we are contentedly taking
care of business, or just as we are thinking what a pleasant time
we're having, the unexpected catches us off guard. The day wobbles.
Isn't that the way of it? Sometimes we come crashing down, but usually
we find our balance and keep going.
There are several varieties of wisteria, a genus in the pea family.
The aroma of its showy purplish or white racemes may be intoxicatingly
heavy or tantalizingly faint. But it might be best known for its
climbing woody vines that can grow as thick as tree trunks. The
main trunk is actually a combination of twisted and coiled stems.
Wisteria can tear down balcony banisters and damage roofs and gutters.
If allowed to grow unchecked for many years, the huge stems can
lift a house right off its foundation. When I was a child, an ancient
oak that supported a huge wisteria was “Tarzan’s jungle”
for my friends and me. We used to climb the large, twisted stems
like monkeys. Some of the smaller ones that hung down from the oak
branches had grown into stiff crooks and circles and loops. We used
them like the hanging bars on a swing set.
For one who knows wisteria, this poem is sure to bring out a sense
of contrast between the strength of the plant and the wobbliness
of the ladder or person. Similarities between wisteria and ladders
and between the plant and people also come to mind. The flowers
tremble or “wobble” even when there’s no wind.
In its growing season, the new tendrils reach out, grasping anything
in their path. The heady beauty and perfume of wisteria can make
people feel wobbly and, of course, a person on a ladder that begins
to wobble will reach out to grip something firm.
The opening words “late wisteria” are pleasant and
inviting. Following the clear caesura, the poet creates a little
tension by leaving “the stepladder” alone on the second
line. As I see it, the final telling word, “wobbles,”does
not end the poem, but rather leaves readers with several intriguing
possibilities. At this point, we can let our own experiences show
us what might happen next, or we may simply enjoy the small drama’s
bit of mystery.
This haiku is rich with implied color and scent. For me the appeal
of “late wisteria” is not so much in what it says, as
in what it does not say. The author concisely sets up the scene
for readers. He shows only enough to draw us into his moment so
that we can make it our own. I am delighted that memory and imagination
allow me to participate in Robert Gilliand’s elegantly rendered