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
El alacrán Sale de un rincón en medio de un paréntesis y de una interrogación The scorpion Coming out of its position in between a parenthesis and an inquisition — Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz. Taken from the anthology Haiku from Iberia and Beyond, edited and translated by Danny Blackwell, MONO YA MONO BOOKS (2018)
Petru Viljoen inspects the inquisition:
Leaving one state, becoming another. A moment of hiatus–the parenthesis–the curl of the tail with its poisoned tip ready to strike–the inquisition–one thing. One instance. A bracketed menace. A defence I think. ‘Inquisition’ leads to enquiry, even if a threatening one.
The stark contrast between parenthesis and inquisition is startling. The hiatus created (the fright, the intake of breath, the moment before action) in the actual encounter described here is relived as sure as if one has been there oneself. The break in line after parenthesis gives a bit of a tumble in the tummy suddenly arriving at inquisition. Only the line breaks serve as punctuation.
Vicki Miko poses some interesting interrogatives:
To say Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz’s poem is delightful may seem unexpected at first. If I’m getting its meaning right, his poem is delightful with a little twist. From my meager research, it’s been interesting to learn more about Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz. An early creator of Mexican haiku and a fierce humanist, his work connected with the working class people during rebellious times.
Looking at the poet’s message without the title, “The scorpion”, the poem would be a mystery. At twenty-six syllables, it seems closer to tanka than haiku. Plus, he tests traditional haiku norms by using rhyme and metaphor; a true prerequisite for an inventive revolutionary poet.
This poem came in several ahas for me. I was totally puzzled. After studying it as a whole, I got the biggest hint from the title and first line “The scorpion / coming out of its position”. It’s yoga! As a yoga devotee, I saw the connection. “The scorpion” yoga pose demands great strength and flexibility. Not only to move your body into position, but also to hold it there and transition out of the pose. Does Cruz’s poem imply himself trying the yoga pose and perhaps feeling the stinging stretch, or is he observing a yogi moving into the acrobatic pose?
My next aha was Cruz’s “parenthesis”. Could the wordplay be one right parenthesis; a fitting metaphor for the yogi’s convex backbend in the scorpion pose. Think of the scorpion’s strong claws as your forearms. On the floor, picture yourself balanced on your forearms, ready for a headstand. Now lift your legs above your head. Arch your back. Bend your knees a bit to capture the true scorpion pose. Hold the position. To transition, the yogi reverses out of the pose “in between a parenthesis / and an inquisition”. That last line was a questionable riddle for me “and an inquisition”. I will try to explain, but first:
How would the poet come to write about a yoga pose? Could it have been inspired by his friend and ally, Hispanic haiku pioneer, José Juan Tablada? As a result of their connection, Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz, became dubbed one of the leaders in the Mexican haiku movement. For starters, José Juan Tablada was immersed in Japanese culture, he also practiced Zen Buddhism for years. Buddhism and yoga are inseparable. Although I found no actual reference, wouldn’t it make sense for Cruz and Tablada to share experiences, including yoga? Further, both poets seemed to support nonviolence and self-discipline. Buddhism and yoga recognize suffering, above all, the ability to free oneself from it.
One of Cruz’s book titles seems to reinforce these same ideals: “Your Life Is In Your Hands: Haiku of a Revolutionary”. After the era’s continuing militant events, at some point, Cruz steered away from mostly animal haiku to socio-political themes, circa 1923. Here are three:
How confusing life is;
dogs like politicians
politicians like dogs
for the rich a pleasure
for the poor an anxiety
Golden kernels of corn
the result of your labor of love
and you’re the corncob
Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz (tr. Ty Hadman)
The irony of “Golden kernels of corn” likewise in “The scorpion”, Cruz masterfully uses humor with sharpness. His engagement of the times forever saved in haiku. Cruz’s own revolution, his poems as his means to fight for equality for the workers and peasants.
The chill of Cruz’s last word almost made me not want to respond at all. In Cruz’s eyes could the painful appearance of the scorpion yoga pose reflect a direct likeness to the pain of the “inquisition”? Among the tortures, the inquisitors stretched, stabbed and poisoned their victims. A true metaphor for a scorpion.
Disregarding yoga though, with serious awareness does the poet refer only to the strike of a scorpion on its victim? Perhaps in the last word? I love the poem! It gave me unexpected resonance. Thank you, John Levy, for choosing it.
Editor Danny Blackwell performs an auto-da-fé regarding his translation:
This week’s haiku (chosen for discussion by John Levy in last week’s re:Virals) just so happens to be a haiku I myself translated. Since I have been editing re:Virals I have refrained from commenting on most of the selected haiku, but on occasions I have intervened. As this is a haiku I investigated for my project on haiku written in the languages of the Iberian Peninsula, I felt it would be good to point out one or two things. Firstly, the translation itself. A more literal rendering would be:
It comes out of a corner
in between a parenthesis
and an interrogation
I altered “corner” and “interrogation” (for “position” and “inquisition”), in order to maintain one of the key features in the original, namely the rhyme on line 1 and 3. Obviously when one aims to produce a rhyme one may have to make sacrifices. A non-rhyming translation is much easier but loses, I feel, part of the intrinsic charm that drives the poem in the original. Vicki’s comments, above, helped me see a reading I had not considered, that the haiku referenced a yoga pose, something which may potentially be a misreading facilitated somewhat by my use of the word “position” in the first line. That said, it is always worth considering new angles and even, as an exercise, to produce intentional, almost obtuse, misreadings (of which Alan Summer’s says he is rather fond). My instinct, however, was always to read it as a poetic description of an animal, with the haiku form displaying Cruz’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the genre (inspired no doubt by Tablada’s haiku). This haiku by Cruz is in keeping with most of his other animal-based haiku, which are generally metaphorical descriptions of varying creatures, in which the title solves the riddle of what the haiku is describing—a style that could almost be considered, however briefly, to have been somewhat of a trend in Hispanic haiku and which influenced, to a degree, haiku in the Iberosphere in general. These types of metaphorical haiku, so popular in the Iberoshpere, were initially inspired, it should be added, by the kind of early Japanese haiku of poets such as Sōkan and Onitsura, and these Spanish-language and Portuguese-language haiku take their inspiration from the kind of witty poetics and wordplay of early Japanese haiku; it is this kind of Japanese influence that has unfortunately been responsible, in part, for the perception that early Hispanic haiku practitioners had no idea about haiku, for while the English haiku world seemed to take Basho’s frog-pond haiku as the ideal template, many others were using haiku by Sōkan and Onitsura as reference points. Consider this, for example, by Sōkan:
The moon: give it a handle and you’ve a good fan!
(The fan referred to is an “uchiwa,” a round fan with a handle.)
Many poets also took a leaf out of Onitsura’s book and took inspiration from poems such as this:
A fallen flower returning to the branch? A butterfly!
So the oft-repeated prejudice regarding the supposed inability or ignorance of many non-Japanese practitioners may rely too heavily at times on a limited corpus of haiku and a limited understanding of what the limits are of haiku historically (all of which paradoxically often leaves the critics looking more ignorant than the poets they are criticizing).
One other feature worth noting is that this haiku has appeared in other publications with very minor variations in the original Spanish (see Haiku from Iberia and Beyond p. 150 for more details). In my book I also go into some detail regarding some of the features, such as rhyme and titles, that one may often find in haiku written in Spanish, and I compare and contrast these features with Japanese haiku.
Finally, after waffling for way too long, I’d like to also take this opportunity to let readers know that next week’s re:Virals will be my last as editor, as I will be passing on the reins to a new team. It’s been a pleasure editing nearly 100 editions of this great feature (99 so far with this one included) and it would be nothing without all of your illuminating contributions, and I look forward to reading them after I have moved on. But for the time being I am going to focus more on researching and translating haiku (and hopefully continue to compose and publish my own). Thanks to all of you for making it such a rewarding experience.
As this week’s winner, Petru 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!
maybe in my amygdala maybe a minefield — Eve Luckring, Bones 4 (2014)