Saturday 2 March 2019

A haiku or two... by Sue Purkiss

My day job, if you like, is writing full-length novels for children. But sometimes, I like to stretch my writing muscles (or perhaps more accurately, procrastinate) and write something much shorter: a short story, perhaps, or - even shorter - a back-of-a-postcard story*, or - a haiku.

The version of the haiku form that I use is very simple. It's a tiny poem, three lines long, consisting of 17 syllables. So the first line is 5, the second is 7, and the third, 5. Naturally, being so short, it focuses on something quite fleeting: a thought, an object, a flower. But that doesn't stop you making some sort of statement - or dropping a stone in the water, and seeing where the ripples spread.

The watery image happens to be appropriate, because the haikus I've been writing recently were composed on board a ship - albeit a stationary one: the SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's beautiful iron ship, now moored in Bristol harbour, where she was originally built.

I volunteer on the ship once a week. It's a very popular attraction, but there are times, particularly on weekdays in winter, when there aren't many people about. On one of these occasions, I had the ship pretty much to myself. It's an immersive experience: there are soundscapes, so as you walk through steerage, you hear snatches of conversation, a baby crying, someone singing. As you pass the galley, the smell of baking bread wafts out, and in the background, you hear the sound of the engines as the ship - the largest in its day, and the first to be built of iron - makes its way through the sea. It's quite dark down below, though there are cleverly constructed skylights which allow some natural light to percolate down, and there are softly glowing bulkhead lights. It's not difficult to imagine that you're on the ship as she sails to New York or Melbourne, Australia, but late on a winter afternoon, with no-one else around, it can be a little spooky.

I always carry a little notebook around, to jot down anything new that I find out: but on this particular afternoon, as I wandered round, feeling a little like a ghost myself, I used it to make up a few haikus. Here are some of them - the photos are an attempt to illustrate them, but they don't quite do the job - for instance, the first one doesn't really show the lovely curve of the hull. But anyway:

Bright flags fluttering
The restless heave of the sea
Her hull's sweet smooth curve.

The ship's restless ghosts
Whispering, sighing,sleeping.
Lives lived and lives lost.

Metal like torn lace
Eaten by the sea, which once
It sought to master.

I suspect that the original Japanese form is much more complex than the version I use - but I find it a really satisfying thing to do. Unlike writing a novel, it doesn't take months or years - and it does make you focus on the moment you're in. It's so easy not to do that.

* For more about postcard stories, see here

And this is a short novel I wrote some years ago, which is set on the ship.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for these, Sue - I love hearing about your time on Isambard's beautiful ship!

Sue Purkiss said...

It's just as well, Joan - I do go on about it a bit!

Anne Booth said...

What a fascinating post! How wonderful to have that inspiration - and I will look out for that novel. I also enjoyed the haikus.

Ann Turnbull said...

I love writing haiku too. It makes me pay attention to everything around me. The ship must be a wonderful source of inspiration for poems and stories.

Andrew Preston said...

Been there. Very enjoyable. And the exhibition area beside the ship is excellent.

I do like a smooth curved keel.The heaving was a bit lacking though.Unlike a crossing I did long ago on one of the Irish ferries, a ship called the Munster.
I arrived at Holyhead on a wet, windy evening. Shortly after driving the car aboard, I made my way to the toilets. First thing I saw was a pair of legs, flat out, poking halfway out from under a cubicle. Early start to the drinking, I thought, for some bloke going home for the weekend.

This rather set the tone for the rest of the journey. It was a rough crossing, and the Munster didn't have stabilizers. In the lounge all these pale figures braced in their seats as the ship rolled and plunged its way across the Irish Sea. One by one, they'd finally lurch towards the deck to attend to their needs, or to the toilets. In the toilets, the air was heavy with the smell of vomit. Splashed across the basins, over the floor.

Arrrr, them were the days.

Lynne Benton said...

Love the Haikus, Sue - and the ship too! Most impressive - and clearly inspiring!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Ann and Lynne. Andrew, I remember a very similar crossing to Ireland. Definitely prefer my ships safely stationary!