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
nil by mouth— peeling and dicing the moon —Helen Buckingham, water on the moon (2010)
Alan Summers sympathizes:
The haiku is from Helen Buckingham’s collection ‘water on the moon’ 2010 and is one of many classic modern haiku (now available as a PDF from The Haiku Foundation’s Digital Library).
It could be said that Helen is both one of our best British haiku writers, as well as one too often overlooked.
Her work falls between experiential/autobiographical, comic (biographical/fictive) and experimental (see Roadrunner Scorpion Award, November 2009 IX:4 and Roadrunner X:3 October 2010 for instance).
Helen Buckingham herself says: “The reading and writing of Japanese style short-form poetry is my grounding mechanism, be that ground high or low, urban or rural, external or internal.”
(Rattle #47, Spring 2015 Tribute to Japanese Forms)
Thankfully Red Moon Press have published her both in “A New Resonance 5:
Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku” (Red Moon Press, 2007), and the recently released Sanguinella.
Helen Buckingham says it herself in the book: “Fifty-eight years since the seed was planted, Sanguinella provides a scrump back through the often bloody orchard that constitutes my life until now, from the rural pickings gathered over recent years in the bonsai city of Wells, to the tangled branches of a childhood spent battling various forms of blight in a mulberry-stained corner of South London.”
In that haiku collection I have said that we will see the author measure up in her trials, tribulations, and also triumphs. Helen continues to triumph and mostly through the bloodiest of trials and battles with multiple operations and other invasive forays.
The opening line is a medical term, for which Wikipedia tells us the following:
“Nothing by mouth” is a medical instruction meaning to withhold food and fluids. It is also known as nil per os (npo or NPO), a Latin phrase whose
English translation is most literally, “nothing through the mouth.”
Variants include nil by mouth (NBM), nihil/non/nulla per os, or complete bowel rest. Purpose: The typical reason for NPO instructions is the prevention of aspiration pneumonia, e.g. in those who will undergo general anesthesia, or those with weak swallowing musculature, or in case of gastrointestinal bleeding, gastrointestinal blockage, or acute pancreatitis.
Hospital days are long days where even their food and sickly tea is often welcome. Of course we also have to have nothing to eat the day before we enter hospital for something. Food is both sustenance and comfort, and a sense of security. I’ve had to do an NPO at least once in my life, but also lacked additional money to buy food, or enough for two or three meals a day. Food helps to break up the day. At night many of us want to eat, perhaps a treat like a fish supper (fast-food fish, or chicken, with chips—aka fries) but this is denied to us. Even healthy food is off the table.
I both imagine a full moon being divided up for meals through the day, but the awful thought that other than water, maybe a drip, the patient is enduring an NPO for more than one night. I can also imagine the phases of the moon going by, and the only highly visible ‘white plate’ or ‘big white potato’ of a moon through a window that is both curse and visual treat.
I’ve found that verbs can distract, detract, diminish, or enhance a haiku, and this is a case where the middle line is paramount, denoting the extreme hunger pains, and wanton lust for food, not through gluttony but enforced denial by an authority, by an institution.
But going back to the haiku, it’s a chilling and long wait without food, to be cut open. Even a prisoner going to their execution is supposedly allowed a meal of their choice before death. Often it’s meat and potatoes, and there we have that big white potato of a moon again, both edible and inedible and unreachable.
I’d like to leave the last word to Jan ROUBÍČEK who wrote a thesis where
Helen Buckingham appeared:
“[W]riters of the English-speaking world, like Helen Buckingham, Bruce
Ross, Rose Hunter, Michael McClintock, etc., have each taken the classical haiku and adapted it not only to English prosody, but also to their personal needs and approaches (. . .) far from being only a haiku poet, she writes sonnets and free verse, humorous and darker.”
(Jan Roubíček, 20th Century Haiku in English)
As this week’s winner, Alan gets 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!
plum blossoms a specimen of my dream sent to the lab — Fay Aoyagi, Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks (2011)