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re:Virals 20

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

     envelope my thumb slips open the seal of his tongue
          — Janice M. Bostok, Amongst the Graffiti: 
                Collected Haiku and Senryu 1972-2002 (2005)

Marion Clarke sets the table for us in regarding this classic poem from the godmother of Australian haiku:

A highly-charged haiku that is all the more effective for having been written in one-line format, thereby building up tension until we get to the unexpected image of ‘his tongue’ at the end. This immediately demanded that I reread the monoku — just to savour the surprise once more!

And John Stevenson brings us further into its realm:

We live in a time in which miracles surpass miracles, to the point that we become insensible of the miraculous.

We call it “snail mail” now; and not out of a sense of wonder or admiration. It seems absurdly clumsy and old fashioned to carry on our conversations by post now. And those who have never done so may have forever missed the experience of entrusting words to invisible others who deliver those words from our hand to the hand of our intended correspondent, sometimes on the other side of our planet. The same miracle is occurring right now, though the agency of “invisible others” is more invisible than ever before.

This poem manages to add to the miraculous a strong sensation of the erotic. If the writer and reader are of one mind, the Eros arrives entirely intact and undiminished by the invisible others.

And it’s clear that Jan’s poems speak keenly to her fellow Aussies. Here’s Marietta McGregor’s astute take:

This haiku begins with the initially prosaic image of the ‘opening of an envelope’. Then it quickly reveals its true colours: like so many of Janice Bostok’s poems, it reaches sublime heights of sensuality. We see the poet sliding a thumb into the envelope, clearly thinking about how the missive has been sealed — with the tongue of a lover, two slow licks the length of the gum. There’s a sense of anticipation, regarding both the letter and the sensation of the touch and moistness of those sealing lips.

Of course, another reading could be that some mystery has been penetrated, something heretofore hidden from the poet which will now be revealed when this letter is opened. The sliding sibilance of the s serves to heighten the anticipation.

Sad to say, it’s a museum piece as well — in the age of self-adhesive envelopes, no-one writing about letter-opening will ever call to mind that slow sensual caress of a tongue on funny-tasting gum!

However, pride of place belongs to Jo McInerney’s keen dissection of the poem’s many elements:

The meaning of Bostok’s monoku unfolds or evolves over the course of the line in a way peculiar to some one-liners. They are poems of transformation, rather like some of Escher’s etchings, where the images shapeshift across the page, morphing from one form to another, overlapping as they do so.

It opens by calling attention to an ‘envelope’. The word is not preceded by an article; it is almost as though the envelope were being addressed (pun not intended). There is an inevitable pause after the first word. If this were a three-line haiku, this single word would occupy the first line. What does the pause do? Create a sense of expectancy; suggest the potential importance of the message within? Imply that the speaker has recognised the handwriting, knows from whom this is sent? Yes, on all counts, I think. Then there is an apparently simple action. The envelope is being unsealed, but for just a second there is the possibility the speaker’s thumb has been cut, ‘my thumb slips open’. Paper cut? Something worse? There is a fleeting suggestion of pain. But no, it is ‘the seal’ of the envelope that is being broken. Yet the previous ‘misreading’ leaves an after-image. The letter has significance, perhaps the capacity to wound. Then the poem delivers its greatest surprise, the seal that is being opened is ‘the seal of his tongue’.

The ‘seal of his tongue’ could mean no more than his silence, but when ‘thumb’ and ‘tongue’ are suddenly brought together the result is startlingly sexual. Opening an envelope has been transformed into part of an act of lovemaking. On a literal level the description is no more than accurate — the speaker’s thumb is opening an envelope sealed by the tongue of the man who sent it. However, that is not the predominant image the monoku creates. ‘Thumb” and ‘tongue’ seem to touch in the same intimate space. Interestingly, a penetrative role has been assigned to the apparently female speaker. Indeed, the more the haiku is considered the more the various actions potentially performed by each lover challenge the reader’s erotic imagination.

For the time at which it was written, perhaps for any time, this is an audacious haiku, both in form and content. However, Bostok’s one-liner is not only a witty wordplay intended to amuse. It is a revelation of the multiple dimensions of intimacy and their capacity to be embodied in word.


As this week’s winner, Jo 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!

re:Virals 20:

     dry wheat grass . . .
          the whiteness of
               a child dying
          — Robert D. Wilson, A Lousy Mirror (2011)
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