an old doe turns
to face the flow
Through literal imagery alone, this lovely poem reflects the author’s faith in
the cycles of nature. Like most haiku that are written with perfect concision,
the poem at first glance appears simple. A meritorious haiku’s brevity, however,
can be deceptive, as “silted river” demonstrates. With a complexity that
is not immediately apparent, John Barlow’s work offers insight on more than one level.
The poet has carefully chosen his words, combining them in a structure that
creates an agreeable assonance and rhythm. This arrangement places less stress on
the long “o” sound in the mid-line “doe” than that of the same sound in the final
word. Instead, natural emphasis is placed on “turns” at the end of the second
line. This, followed by “to,” which begins the next line, leads to a quicker
reading of the third line. The last word lingers, however, contributing to a
pleasant overall aural effect.
Beginning with the first word, concrete imagery fortifies each line of Barlow’s
poem. Mudslides and surface runoff transport dirt or soil into creeks and rivers.
The smallest particles are deposited as silt, which makes the water muddy.
Containing tiny bits of organic materials, silt enriches the soil, which encourages
the growth of stream-clogging plants. Through the years, this changes the shape
and flow of a river. Major flooding cleans out the silt, but heavy rains start
the process of depositing silt all over again. Rich with connotations of time
passing and cyclical patterns, the phrase “silted river” establishes the
background and becomes the first doorway into the poet’s experience.
The subject of the poem, a doe, could be a deer or hare or even a kangaroo.
Readers are left to decide according to their own intuitions. I envision a deer
nearing the end of her natural life span. Although the word “old” is overused in
haiku, it is just right here and essential to the poem. It reminds me of the river’s
endurance, while allowing insight into the doe’s circumstances — and
another door opens.
The verb “turns” shows a deliberate movement that changes the animal’s view
of the river. It also hints at seasonal change, when temperatures and foliage turn.
The mood of the haiku suggests autumn, and the traditional autumn connection of
“deer” reinforces the feeling — and reveals another doorway.
As I imagine it, the woods are vibrant with the colors of dying leaves, the air
pine-scented and cool. Bird calls float back and forth across the water. Perhaps the
doe feels a renewed vigor as she pauses in the forest she has always known, beside
the river that will long outlast her.
Surely throughout her life, this creature has followed the dictates of her genes,
going with the flow of nature’s cycles. Who knows what brute forces she has
survived, what number of fawns she has brought into the world? As she looks into
the silt-clouded river, I wonder if her vision is somewhat clouded now as well.
How powerfully moving it is that, toward the last of her days, the old doe “turns
/ to face the flow.”
Could not the haiku reflect the situation of many people of a certain age?
Unlike the doe, bound by the inherited instincts of her kind, humans of advanced
years may make conscious decisions to face aging head-on; to move against time’s
current. We are cautioned to avoid overt metaphor in haiku, and “silted river”
has done that. Yet with skill and subtlety, the poet has created a poem that itself
becomes metaphor. Its poignant beauty touches me in a profound way.
I feel a connection with this “old doe.” My thanks to John Barlow for inviting
me to join him beside the river.