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re:Virals 102

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     a last year’s lambskin where mushrooms gather dusk
          — Lorin Ford, First place, Katikati Haiku Contest 2014

Sandra Simpson kindly offers us an edited and expanded version of her report as judge for the 2014 Katikati contest:

A haiku that takes me straight back to my childhood — I can feel/hear the wind in the old macrocarapa trees as I stand looking at the scene — but it also a poem that demonstrates an expert grasp of language, rhythm and technique and is, I believe, an example of what Martin Lucas meant by “haiku as poetic spell.”

We have mono no aware (a certain melancholy that all things must pass) which is put into the context of the “circle of life” — the lamb’s carcass has nurtured the fungi which may yet feed the poet. (By the way, edible mushrooms grow only where sheep have been, not cattle.) And we have ma, the ‘negative space’ that gives us room to enter; the space between the words, the silence between the sounds. There is also a choice of whether to put a break between ‘gather’ and ‘dusk’, which adds to haiku’s mystery.

Although lambs denote spring, here we have the much darker “lambskin” and in the context of an open field or paddock the effect of the word is decidedly chilly. The skin is all that’s left of one of the spring births of the previous year — the carcass has been lying in all weathers and available to all carrion feeders for 18 months, long enough for the flesh to have been stripped and/or nourished the surrounding soil.

The season word is ‘mushrooms’, denoting autumn, supported by the gathering dusk, which may be read literally or as a metaphor for the close of life (‘dying of the light’).

Most words are single syllable which adds to the rhythm, while the repeated ‘m’ and ‘s’ sounds quieten the tone of the poem (there’s only one harsh consonant) allowing me to picture the quiet way nature has gone about the business of reclaiming her own.

Danny Blackwell explores the poem’s “duende”:

This poem, which won the 2014 Katikati haiku contest, has been called a “complex, profound and mysterious poem.”

To begin with, let us look briefly at the monoku as a form. An interesting feature of an unpunctuated monoku is its implicit ambiguity, which generally requires us to go forwards and backwards in order to uncover, among the multiple possible readings, the reading we feel most apt. This experience is analogous to the way we unconsciously process melody in music. As Ferrara states in Philosophy and the analysis of music, bridges to musical sound, form and reference: “We continually modify the original tone as the rest of the melody continues to be played. Each tone is both now and retained (undergoing continuous modification) in our consciousness. Too often we think of past, present and future as residing within different compartments of time . . . rather the past is experienced as achievement or as foundation, modifiable by present and future events. Thus, the past itself contains new possibilities.”

So, should we read the poem as “mushrooms gather dusk”? Or “mushrooms gather. dusk”?
The fact that mushrooms are usually gathered, using the passive tense, means that the first reading — that of seeing mushrooms as active gatherers — creates a disconcerting sensation. And when we see that they gather something as abstract as “dusk” we are even more alienated from a simple reading. 
The possible alternative reading of “mushrooms gather. dusk” is an equally poetic one. The idea of mushrooms gathering together, and doing it during a crepuscular moment seems particularly pagan.
 And no less poetic is the simple reading of a spot of mushrooms gathered together by natural forces.

This poem, for me, has what Lorca called “duende” that difficult to define dark essence that pervades all great poetic utterance. The Spanish word duende literally means elf or goblin, or some similarly mysterious, and often mischievous, supernatural being. The term is closely aligned with flamenco music, and many aficionados will praise an artist or a performance that has duende (and conversely disqualify others in which duende is absent). Lorca refers to duende as that “mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” And some of Lorca’s comments on the essence of duende are not a million miles away from the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, with its focus on the beauty of the imperfect and the ephemeral. In the 1933 lecture on duende that he gave in Buenos Aires, Lorca said the following: “The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies, in Spain grow tiny weeds of death, allusions and voices, perceptible to an alert spirit, that fill the memory with the stale air of our own passing.” 
(Translation by A. S. Kilne)

Are the mushrooms in Lorin Ford’s haiku a symbol of life, and of dark fecundity, or are they “tiny weeds of death”? Perhaps they are both.

Finally, the use of the phrase “last year” in a haiku may often lead us to read the poem as a new year poem of sorts, and perhaps we could imagine this haiku as one that speaks to some enigmatic ritual of nature, occurring in that moment between worlds — between light and dark, between an exiting season and the entering one, the old world and the new. Between life and death.

Poetry can certainly help us learn how come to terms with “negative capability,” an elusive term coined by poet John Keats that refers to an ability to exist in accord with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.” And Lorca’s comment that the duende “draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression” makes me think of the complex, profound and mysterious fusion of elements in this haiku.

Last year, Lambskin, Mushrooms, Dusk. I don’t know precisely what relationship all these elements have. But I’m okay with that for the moment.
Because this poem has duende!

Hansha Teki is familiar with the scenery:

As one responds immediately to the music of Lorin Ford’s haiku, the images attain a vivid familiarity for those of us who know the annual death and rebirth cycle of stock farming. While wandering over the farm, it is not uncommon to come across a small white fleece that is all that remains of a mostly decomposed body of a weather-slain lamb. Fungi are at work reclaiming the slower decaying wool that failed to protect the lamb from the harshness of the weather. The image in the haiku presents an almost maternal action of the fungi gathering life from the gathering darkness of death.

In New Zealand it is not uncommon to find such remains while gathering mushrooms in the warmer season. Echoing the image of the fleshly decay under the white lambskin is the dark underbelly of a white mushroom that becomes our food.

For those of us who are practicing Eucharistic Catholics, the suggestion of the Lamb of God is unavoidable.

As this week’s winner, Hansha gets to choose next week’s haiku, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
re:Virals 102:

     eye of the whale
     the center
     is everywhere
          – Michelle Tennison, murmuration (Red Moon Press, 2016)
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