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Burma Shave

Chris Wayan, 1982

I see the Centaur when I
.drawkcab seye ym nruT
But that starts to hurt
And I bump things:

Chairs and stoves
begin to wander
Into my shin--
Bruises sprout green.

"Don't look for demi

Gods when you drive

Inner view mirrors

Won't keep you alive"

--Burma Shave
centaur from behind, turning to look at us

Is tuning into your Center (or centaur), your Greater Self, really so different from jabbering on a cellphone while you drive around oblivious? I find that turning my eyes inward while busy leads to bruised shins, or even what others, bruised, call sins. It's one reason I do dreamwork--sleep's a safe(r) time to explore inside. You can't crash your bed into a lamppost! Well, not often. Unless you're Little Nemo.


The last five lines are in the American folk haiku form created early in the 20th Century by an advertising genius for the Burma Shave company. In this form, road signs on a lonely highway feed you (every quarter mile) one line each... so you have time.... to... think. The form consists of a wry, rhymed quatrain, but it isn't perceived that way; instead, there's a cryptic sign, and for fifteen seconds you wonder. Sign two tips you off; you think back and link it to the first line. By then the third comes up and you spend the next fifteen seconds guessing the punch line. Last comes the company's signature, as if it were a person--a poet.

The beauty of the form is that the product placement is a quarter mile away from the poem; the only link between them is in the viewer's mind--yet it's more effective than a mile-long billboard, without spoiling the scenery. Only a few Burma Shave road haiku survive today, on lonely rural highways.

But they're worth remembering, as a formal precursor to the Net. Half the art was in the links. Only instead of a vast, intricate, expensive network of computers, the linking mechanism was (depending, as Einstein pointed out, on whether you're at rest or in motion, and how long you've been in motion) simply...


or time...

or boredom.

LISTS AND LINKS: centaurs - staying off your cell phone when you're driving, and other issues of focus - oops! dreams of mistakes - dream haiku & dream poems in general - Burma Shave graffiti in the Mission, San Francisco - Little Nemo's Bed

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