Joe Williams: Brief Comments on a Haiku by Nicholas Virgilio
heat before the storm:
a fly disturbs the quiet
of the empty store
The first line of Virgilio’s haiku establishes the traditional seasonal element of a haiku, in this case the summer, and further places us in a specific seasonal moment: the heat of the afternoon as storm clouds approach, darkening the sky. The colon that ends the line, the only mark of punctuation in the haiku, acts effectively as a kire-ji or cutting word, sealing the line as a full thought, the ambience of which will act to frame the content of the remainder of the poem.
The second line, “a fly disturbs the quiet,” not only establishes the stillness that precedes summer storms, but also emphasizes the depth of that silence, one so profound that not only is the tiny buzz of a fly heard, it actually “disturbs” that calm. The use of the word “disturbs” resonates with the feeling of disquiet an impending storm evokes. Notice how the effect of the line is quite different than if it had read, “a fly breaks the quiet” or “a fly is heard in the quiet.” The haiku’s final line proceeds to magnify that disturbance by actually moving it out of the poem and into the mind of the reader, making it his own experience of realization and disturbance when he is suddenly—and quite unexpectedly— cast inside the dust and dry darkness of an empty store, rather than standing outside viewing the clouds and feeling the still summer heat as the opening lines might lead one to expect. The use of a “store” rather than, say, a “room”, further emphasizes the quiet and isolation. A store, we assume, was once crowded with people and noises and items for purchase; their wholesale absence, coupled with the knowledge of their once presence, makes the final scene one of utter desolation inhabited only by a man and his sole companion, the most inconsequential of creatures, a fly. Notice how differently we would feel if the line had read “of the empty new store”, a construction that would carry intimations of hope, future, and coming fullness, a complete inversion of the feelings Virgilio’s actual line evokes. The fly, as natural spawn of rot, death, and corruption, is the model symbol for the Camden Virgilio saw all around him, an urban environment in deep decline and decay.
From a structural standpoint, it should be noted that this haiku (a strict 5-7-5 syllabic construction) contains significant alliteration in the words “storm” and “store”. The important position of these words at the end of the first and third lines respectively, as well as the head rhyme (indeed, it is almost a rhyme of identity) acts to intensify the imminent manifestation of the coming storm while, at the same time, the words “quiet” and “empty” paradoxically emphasize the presence of its absence, a contradictoriness which, assisted by “disturbs,” probably the key word in this haiku, lends a vague air of menace to the sense of desolation that ultimately pervades this poem.