Approaching Infinity: A Favourite Haiku

First published, in a slightly shorter form, in Frogpond 23:3, Fall 2000. Written 28 February 2000. Christopher Herold’s poem first appeared in the 1993 Ueno Bashō Festival Anthology.

 

dark dark night

a leaf strikes the pavement

stem first

 

        —Christopher Herold

 

This poem approaches infinity. It is not just about a leaf falling, but about a mere part of a leaf’s fall—that moment, and only that moment, when the leaf’s stem first touches the ground. We know the leaf will immediately fall to its side and come to rest, but for the split second captured in this poem, the leaf has only just struck the pavement and remains balanced and suspended in time. We as readers benefit from the poet’s sensitivity and revel in the poem’s focused expression of what James Hackett and others have called the “eternal now.” This delicate instant is made even more captivating by the time of day. The night is so utterly dark that perhaps the poet doesn’t even see the leaf at all but only hears it. What subtlety, by sound alone, to sense that the leaf is landing stem first! The briefness of the moment is thus made more profound through the means by which it is perceived. As biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once wrote, “To a clear eye the smallest fact is a window through which the infinite may be seen.” Here, with this poem, the poet has crystallized one of the briefest moments I’ve ever seen in a haiku. By converging keenly on such a fleeting moment in time, the poem approaches infinity and, in the process, lets us touch the very face of timelessness.