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
eye of the whale the center is everywhere — Michelle Tennison, murmuration (Red Moon Press, 2016)
Clayton Beach discovers there is more than just loneliness:
This haiku has an immediate sense of vastness, opening as it does with a gaze into the eye of a leviathan. The reader is immediately dwarfed by a sense of the great expanse of the ocean and the endlessness of nature. For most readers this will be a disorienting, foreign image, few having dived with whales, but we can imagine ourselves under water, face-to-eye with the giant and feeling so tiny and insignificant. Those who have swum in the open ocean know that it is a deeply humbling experience, with nothing but miles of blue around us — while out of our element the ocean can be truly awesome and terrifying. Here, the existential terror of the “pale blue dot” effect is softened by the sentient gaze of our distant mammalian cousin, the soft, wise look of cetacean intelligence that is so alien and yet sparks a feeling of connection and heightened intimacy as only a brush with such a wild, free and magnificent creature can do. Through the whale, we are brought into the embrace of the ocean and all its magnitude without being overwhelmed by our own diminution.
“The center” could refer to the pupil of the whale, but on a deeper level I take it to refer to that feeling of being unmoored in the vastness of the sea, where the center truly feels everywhere, and land seems only a faint memory, equally distant in every direction. As we lose our sense of self, the center becomes that of impersonal nature, something at our core that belongs to everything and exists everywhere, so this haiku actually exhibits a fair amount of Bashō’s conception of sabi — but there is more than just loneliness, there is connection as well. It exhibits a complex and layered mix of the humbling, raw intensity of impersonal nature with the almost magical intimacy of the brief connection with an otherworldly creature, and the subsequent expansion of consciousness as we merge with the infinite in our poetic thought-space and allow ourselves to be immersed in the dark ocean of the mind.
The ocean is associated with the unconscious, dreams and our primordial past, with the chaotic, unformed space at the center of the womb, and all of these elements swirl in the currents of the mind, gravitating toward the inescapable singularity of the gaze in the “eye of the whale,” truly an instance of when “you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
Danny Blackwell gazes into the eye of a duck, and the eye of the duck gazes back at him:
Question: What do we have in this haiku?
Answer: The eye of a whale.
I am, of course, referring to the concrete nouns we can easily pin down.
Obviously the poem is reaching for much more than that, with its philosophically ambiguous assertion that “the centre is everywhere.”
As this poem is somewhat elusive, it may seem acceptable to investigate the connections we make, and the symbolism that occurs, when we talk about whales, and about centres. (All of which is perhaps a roundabout way of prefacing some rather subjective digressions, for which I apologize in advance.)
I recently came across a fascinating article in Catalan called “Cocodrils i balenes a les esglésies” (“Crocodiles and Whales in Churches”) by Joan de Déu Domènch. The author of the essay says that in the past the appearance of a whale provoked a question that nowadays might seem insignificant: “What does this mean?” (A question we find ourselves asking in regard to this haiku.) In the old dairies referenced in the essay we find people including the beaching of whales alongside portentous events such as eclipses, storms and comets, and Domènch’s essay goes on to show how the word “monster” is derived from a Latin word that means more or less, “indication” or “warning.” The whale bones most frequently found in churches are the ribs, which are more often than not placed outside the church, in front of the doorways. (Obviously this was a habit in lands here whales were not common and were therefore considered almost mythical beings.) The symbolism behind this, of penetrating into the belly of the whale through this symbolically charged church portal, might be further explored in the myth of Jonah and the Whale. And what better spirit guide to explore this myth than Joseph Campbell:
“The whale represents the personification, you might say, of all that is in the unconscious. (. . .) In reading these things psychologically, water is the unconscious. The creature in the water would be dynamism of the unconscious, which is dangerous and powerful, and has to be controlled by consciousness.”
Ultimately the conflict is resolved in the Jonah and the whale myth with the hero killing and assimilating the monster, in order to transcend humanity and, “reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, from which our mind removes us.” Campbell closes by saying that we are deceiving ourselves when we think that our consciousness is in control, stating that consciousness is “a secondary organ of a total human being,” which must submit to something greater.
Admittedly Tennison’s haiku is not about being inside the whale, but it is difficult not to have these symbols peopling the depths as we read the haiku. And Campbell’s assertion that the “I” that we think is in control is not the centre — and his comments about the symbolism of water and whales — gives us pause for thought.
On an even more askew tangent, I found that upon reading about the “eye of the whale,” in relation to some mysterious “centre,” I could not help thinking of David Lynch’s comments on the eye of a duck. The following quote is taken from an audio transcript which I have edited slightly for easier reading:
“You know, nature can teach us a lot of things, and there’s something about, in painting, you’re working within a certain shaped canvas and there’s many things that one does intuitively — to move the eye, you know. There’s repetition of shape, there’s repetition of color, but when you start looking at a duck, you see your eye is moving in a certain way, and you see textures and colors and shapes and you start wondering about a duck, what it can teach us about, you know, any kind of abstract painting, or proportions or even sequences, scenes . . . and it always is interesting that the eye is in the perfect place — if you move it to the body, it would get lost, if you move to the leg or the beak it’s two fast areas competing, even though the eye is the fastest.”
Here the interviewer interrupts Lynch to ask him what he means by slow and fast and this is the response:
“An empty room is a certain speed, and a person standing there is another speed, and that proportion can be beautiful, if the room is a 2 and the person is a 7 — I think a person is around a 7. Fire and electricity can go up to a 9, for instance, or a really intricately designed decorative room is pretty disturbing, sometimes. It’s too fast. But then if you put something slow in it, it could work beautifully. A busy room and a person, they fight each other. It’s a relationship thing, I think. Fast and slow areas.”
Lynch’s comments, in turn, got me thinking about the Pythagorean concept of musica universalis, also referred to as harmony of the spheres, which is a now pretty much discredited but nonetheless enduring idea that the celestial bodies of the sun, moon, and planets produce sounds (inaudible to the human ear) that define our understanding of harmony in music. It is evident that in order for harmony to work we generally need a home key or tonic note — a centre, so to speak, to which everything else is held in relation. Lynch’s ideas of number — where a person is around a 7 and fire can go up to a 9 — presuppose some sense of implicit cosmic balance. And we can actually find some cosmic constants that are allied with our instinctive aesthetic judgments in things such as the Golden Ratio of mathematics. The Golden Ratio is not necessarily about a centre (it is more similar to the photographic idea of the rule of thirds) but it seems to imply that there is indeed an underlying order to the world — at least on the surface. Scientists, especially in quantum physics, seem to offer us models of the world based alternatively on order or chaos. Is the centre spoken of in Tennison’s poem a stable reference point, or is it a concept in flux? The poem under discussion might be interestingly juxtaposed with Larry Gates’s haiku (included in Haiku in English: The First Hundred years):
passing whale’s eye . . .
the islands on the horizon
sink and rise again
So what, then, is this elusive “centre” that gives us a reference point?
Maybe we will never know. Maybe it is indeed everywhere. And perhaps we need to think in terms of what are the right questions, more than what are the definitive answers. Or what are the best doubts. Some prefer to explore the mystery with science, some with gods, and others with poetry. Whichever we opt for, it would seem, for the time being at least, that haiku is still available for offering up more mysteries.
Hansha Teki allows the image to sink in:
This poem has an immediate visual impact that accretes richer overlays of significance as one allows the image sink in. My memory first refocuses on images of the mass stranding of about 400 pilot whales in a remote part of NZ in February this year, the biggest of 85 strandings that occur each year in parts of NZ. We even have an organisation called Project Jonah that mobilises stranding rescue operations.
The first line of Tennison’s haiku also calls to mind spyhopping orcas such as I have witnessed off the Kaikoura Coast. The whale’s eyes may be seen slightly above or below the surface of the water, enabling it to see whatever is nearby on the sea’s surface.
God’s words, from the heart of the tempest, to Job in the King James Bible translation “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?” also rise to the surface as does the story of Jonah and the whale forever accompanied for me by the music of John Taverner’s “The Whale”.
The next two lines allude to Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal” in which Borges posits that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.
In his Pensées, Pascal had written “Let him contemplate all nature in its awful and finished magnificence; let him observe that splendid luminary, set forth as an eternal lamp to enlighten the universe; let him view the earth as a mere speck within the vast circuit described by that luminary; let him think with amazement, that this vast circuit itself is only a minute point, compared with that formed by the revolutions of the stars . . . All that we see in of the creation, is but an almost imperceptible streak in the vast expanse of the universe. No idea can approximate its immense extent . . . This is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, but its circumference nowhere. In short, it is one of the greatest sensible evidences of the almightiness of God, that our imagination is overwhelmed by these reflections.”
In a mind-blowing three lines Tennison has given us the latest intonation of an enduring metaphor.
As this week’s winner, Clayton to choose next week’s poem, 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!
inside a bat’s ear a rose opens to a star – Eve Luckring, roadrunner 11:3