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re:Virals 21

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

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

Jo McInerney has taken the unusual step of commenting on her own selection, which provides insight into why she wanted to give this poem greater exposure:

I think Wilson’s haiku is on the very edge of what literature can do, reaching off the page and deep into the ethical lives of readers. It is appalling in the original sense — it leaves the reader dismayed. It is a challenge to our shared humanity and to whatever beliefs we hold about what makes life meaningful.

It begins benignly enough with “dry wheat grass”. This is a soft-sounding line — the first two words, with their long vowel sounds, the doubly aspirated wh, the gentle sibilance of grass, combine to allow us to hear what seems like a sough of the wind. The sigh is attenuated via the ellipsis. The second line continues the effect, again a long vowel, aspirance and sibilance in whiteness; however, this is followed by the syntactically odd enjambment through of; the line-end coming mid-phrase forces the reader to pause when s/he would normally continue smoothly to the next line. The reader may use the pause to begin to consider the significance of whiteness. A first thought could be to associate it with the grass, with its pale, bleached colour in late summer.

Line three is confounding. The whiteness we find relates to “a child dying”. The mind is likely to recoil from this image and then wonder, perplexedly, how such a distressing occurrence connects to whiteness. Whiteness has a long associative history in European culture — suggestive of innocence, purity, and joy. I don’t think this death is being offered as a cause for joy; instead the terrible disjunction between death and young, innocent life is felt. On a realistic rather than a symbolic level, there is a link with the pallor of inadequate blood flow, restricted breath, malnutrition. The reader is taken back to line one and an additional significance emerges. That “dry wheat grass” may be a blighted crop, the young shoots killed by drought before the grain can form and ripen, leaving people only grass to eat. News reports or historical accounts of those enduring such circumstances may stir in the reader’s mind; however, the haiku confronts us with nothing remote in place or time. There is no comfort to be taken in distance.

Line three wracks our compassion. This is not a dead child; it is “a child dying”. The child’s suffering is in the present continuous — happening now, still happening. Those whispered initial lines and the catch at the end of line two now seem to mimic the sufferer’s shallow, halting breath. It is difficult to read, even as a vicarious experience.

For me this haiku has echoes of Melville’s chapter on whiteness in Moby Dick. The narrator, far closer here to Melville than Ishmael, states, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” What follows is a discourse on whiteness and its significance in many cultural contexts. It concludes by suggesting the colour is terrifying because it implies a void, an absolute lack of meaning beneath the surface values humanity attaches to existence. I think Wilson’s haiku confronts us with a similar prospect. How can there be meaning in a world where such things happen? I find this haiku highly discomforting, at least in part because to do no more than discuss it seems self-indulgence.

It is against this background that our other commentary, by Marion Clarke, might be read:

This is a heart-wrenching haiku from Robert D. Wilson that compares the colour of the dying child’s skin to that of the pale wheat grass, or perhaps the fact that the wheat grass is dry and brittle rather than thriving and healthy. Many believe that wheat grass has health benefits — perhaps the mother of this child had been trying to provide some nourishment in the hope of a cure, but now it lies shriveled up beside the small body.

Or perhaps the wind rippling through a dry field of wheat grass is like the last breath from the child . . .



As this week’s winner, Marion 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 21:

     dripping tap
     I begin to think
     you’re right
          — Rachel Sutcliffe, Frogpond 36.3 (2013)
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