hosts: Firdaus Parvez & Kala Ramesh
poet of the month: Kate MacQueen
20th July 2023
A Thursday Feature
The Catbird’s Tongue
The path to the beach begins at the end of Macy Lane. We walk single file down a boardwalk through spartina, turning right onto a sandy path at a gap between the end of one boardwalk and the beginning of another. It is almost dawn. The air is chilly and the sky is gray with clouds from a front that passed through the day before. Fall migrants rode the front through the night and now the shrubs and grasses are alive with the twittering and jumping of hundreds of hungry birds. Everywhere we step the muted sun- rise reveals the pale yellow plumage of palm warblers and common yellowthroats.
the azure-edged brown
of an indigo bunting
I am with people I have known less than twelve hours, and in little more than two days I will leave them behind. I am passing through with the warblers, seeking a little spiritual sustenance while avoiding entanglements. The birds have brought us together at the south end of Jekyll Island where a fall banding station has been in operation for over twenty years. Two tables with awnings are set up among the beach dunes, daypacks piled on one while the banding station crew sets up shop on the other. Volunteers fan out along wooded dune paths to open the nets, teasing fine black threads apart, shaking the nets until they are strung like spider webs twelve feet wide and nine feet high.
Warblers are caught in the nets almost as soon as they are opened. The more experienced volunteers carefully free the birds and place them in cloth bags. The novices, like me, carry the birds back to the banding table, dangling the bags from cords looped over our wrists to avoid jostling the birds against our bodies. The bags are so light they sway as though empty in the slight breeze of our walking.
my quiet steps
on the sandy path
a dragonfly rattles its wings
Back at the station the crew is banding birds at a steady pace, recording weight, wing length, and the amount of fat visible under breast feathers. After their long flight most of the birds have no fat left, and they weigh less than ten grams. Their skin glows red with pulsing blood. I watch a man handle the tiny warblers with a gentleness so casual it must begin in his bones. Holding a yellowthroat warbler in his palm, he shows me how to grasp its tiny drumsticks between my fingers. For a brief moment the bird sits against the back of my hand, then flutters its wings. I let go; four tiny tail feathers remain in my hand.
He tells me not to be afraid of the bird. I remark that I’m not afraid of it, I’m afraid of hurting it. Same difference, he says.
the dune path weaves
from shadow to sun
sanderlings and waves
the feathery edge
of windblown sand
The cold front moves on and the next day sparkles with sunlight. At the banding station I hold yellowthroats, palm warblers, and an indigo bunting. I watch as others band a rainbow of birds: magnolia, black-throated blue, parula, blackpoll, waterthrush, and cardinal. At night I dream of colorful birds that emerge from trees and rocks, sea grass and flowers. They fly away, flashing in the sunlight, filling the blue sky above the sea.
tree swallows turn
in the morning light
our white breath
The people who were strangers become people with names and personalities. Little by little I learn some of their stories, begin to discern the fine threads weaving them together and the struggles that threaten to rend them apart. The man with the gentle hands has a laugh that ripples and lights up his face. It is sun on the water, and like a thirsty bird I can’t resist splashing there. Words, too, tumble from him, tripping over all he wants to say until they pool into a place of clarity on my last night. Startled by what is reflected there, I retreat into jokes and witticisms. Only later, when I am alone, do I admit to my thirst.
turn of the tide
a gull walks the shore
with a broken wing
The next morning before leaving I learn to remove birds from the net. I free two palm warblers, small and familiar now to my hands. Then I encounter a catbird. I contem- plate the oneness of fear: that of hurting, and that of being hurt. Spreading the net open I reach in to grab the drum- sticks, then lift the bird toward me with one hand as I untangle the threads from its wings with the other. It snaps its beak and complains loudly, but its back and breast are warm silky velvet against the palm of my hand. I place the bird gently in a bag, to be banded and set free again.
the catbird’s tongue
darts quick and pointed
· American Haibun & Haiga, 2001, Volume 2, (find it here )
· stone frog: American Haibun & Haiga Volume 2, edited by Jim Kacian & Bruce Ross, Red Moon Press 2001
We're delighted to share Kate's beautiful haibun with you this month; let us know your thoughts. We asked her a few questions and she kindly took time out to answer them. Here's the next.
Q. How do you create diversity in your writing? Many writers bank on experience to write, but eventually, a writer has to create something outside of it too…Any thoughts or advice?
Kate: I think creating diversity in writing is one of the most challenging things to do. I’ve gone through periods where I stepped away from writing a particular form like haiku or haibun because I sensed that my writing had become formulaic. Reading and working in other forms has been helpful. Tapping into my life experiences in new ways also helps, that is, not confining haibun to certain types of experience or ways of thinking about an experience. One way I’ve done this is to be more open to letting my scientific research brain influence the way the world I live in flows into my creative writing. I now ask myself a lot of questions and I challenge the answers I come up with. I look things up and go down rabbit holes. Learning should be part of the way we experience life!
Some of my haibun evolve in unexpected ways because an observation or experience became a gateway of inquiry. For example, Morningstar began as half a haiku in early July 2022: “that patch of dirt / where everything dies”. A month (and many journal pages) later I was thinking about Hiroshima Day and the “dog days” of August and began to think about bringing them together in a haibun. I wondered why are they called dog days? That question took me down a rabbit hole where I learned that Sirius, also called the dog star, rises with the sun in August in the Northern Hemisphere—hence, the dog days. New questions led me to stories about Lucifer Morningstar and connections between North Carolina, where I live, and the bombing of Hiroshima. In the meantime, stories about the potential for war-driven nuclear destruction in Ukraine appeared in the news. The threads of history wove themselves into a haibun that would not exist if I had drawn solely on my personal experience of hot summers and the little I knew about the bombing of Hiroshima.
Kate MacQueen is an anthropologist and public health researcher; much of her writing is published in scientific journals and is decidedly unpoetic. She began her haiku journey in the mid 1990s; since then, her short poems (haiku, senryu, haiga, tanka, haibun, tanka prose) have been curated by a variety of journals (Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Acorn, Prune Juice, Presence, Mayfly, Trash Panda Haiku, Rattle, and others) and anthologies (Snapshot Press Haiku Calendars, several Red Moon Press haiku and haibun anthologies, Haiku 2014 (Modern Haiku Press 2014), Nest Feathers (The Heron’s Nest Press 2015), Wishbone Moon (Jacar Press 2018), and The Best Small Fictions 2022 (Alternating Current Press, forthcoming). She illustrated two Haiku North America anthologies, Dandelion Wind edited by Michael Dylan Welch and Lenard D. Moore, 2008, and Sitting in the Sun edited by Michael Dylan Welch and Crystal Simone Smith, 2019. She is plotting retirement and compiling chapbooks.
Prompt for the week: What a beautiful haibun. It's long yet it hooked me from the first paragraph. The language is simple and descriptions are detailed and I wanted to know more. Kate has a keen grasp over the language and she uses it well to engage the reader. I can almost feel the warbler on my palm. She's peppered her prose with such beautiful haiku. Let us know how you felt after reading it. Now, here's the challenge for the week: If you've been to such a place like Kate did, or something similar, tell us about it, or take a walk and describe what you see, hear, feel, taste, and/or touch, all little things matter. Use all your five senses or at least most of them. See where that takes you. But don't get carried away, keep it under 300 words. Remember link and shift when you write the haiku. You may write outside the challenge too. Have fun!
1. Only two haibun per poet per prompt, and only one haibun in 24 hours. Please put your name and country of residence under your poem, it makes the editors' work easier. Thanks.
2. Share your best-polished pieces.
3. Please do not post something in a hurry or something you have just written.
Let it simmer for a while.
4. When poets give suggestions and if you agree to them - post your final edited version on top of your original version.
5. Don't forget to give feedback on others' poems.
We are delighted to open the comment thread for you to share your unpublished haibun (within 300 words) to be considered for inclusion in the haikuKATHA monthly journal.