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re:Virals 23

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

     followed home
     by a dog i don’t know —
     autumn dusk
          — Jim Kacian, Robert Spiess Memorial Haiku Contest (2007)

Marion Clarke speaks of this poem with experience:

This haiku is one of those that manages to make me smile and feel a sense of sadness almost at the same time. The narrator has been followed home by a dog he doesn’t towards the end of the day (and the year) perhaps because it is lost. This has happened to me a few times quite recently — happily I reunited the animal with its owner in all three cases (even one when on holiday in Portugal!)

But it is that last line that makes this a sad ku. This is probably an old dog in its autumn years and it has latched onto the narrator. I hadn’t realised until just before Christmas, when we fostered a stray cat for a few weeks, that animals become very affectionate when ill or in pain. I have a feeling there might be a similar narrative in this poem.

Kathe L. Palka finds further resonance in the season:

At first glance we see a possibly lost dog simply following the speaker home at night. It is autumn, and the evenings grow chilly. The dog is perhaps in need of shelter and a meal. Things the speaker could likely provide if he decided to. Both are alone, maybe both lonely and sharing a need for company. A haiku flavored with a deeply traditional sense of sabi. But underlying the needy dog, their shared loneliness, and the decision to let the dog in and help it or not, there is perhaps something else needling the speaker’s consciousness. A hint at a different choice to be made. Some other event or need, previously unknown, is dogging him, having entered somehow into his sphere of experience and now quietly but persistently demanding his attention, his action. It’s the end of a day in autumn which hints at the prospect of a late life event — maybe retirement or an unforeseen career change. A potential health issue or a family issue. Something common, but previously unexperienced has followed him home and is begging his attention. Each reader will see the “dog” through the lens of their own experience. A fine haiku in which there are many possibilities to be imagined.

While Scott Mason needs two dogs to fetch his point:

In the field of visual perception there’s a striking effect — first identified in the 19th century by French polymath Michel Eugène Chevruel — known as simultaneous contrast. If you were to take two identical swatches of colored cloth or paper (let’s say they’re purple) and place them against differently colored backgrounds (say, one on navy blue, the other on a light lavender), the two swatches would suddenly look different from one another in hue.

An analogous effect takes place in the “perception” of poems (and much else): a given poem will be “colored” differently against the background of different readers’ personal experiences.

For some readers Jim Kacian’s intriguing poem could perhaps trigger thoughts of animal rescue (think St. Bernard in reverse) and maybe, more generally, the opportunities for personal redemption which might present themselves in the “autumn” of one’s life. A heartwarming evocation . . . and my personal “background” will have none of it. Instead I sense more than a whiff of mortality here. Whatever else may be operating in my psyche, this haiku instantly reminded me of another by Robert Spiess:

    the field’s evening fog —
         quietly the hound comes
              to fetch me home

Of course the two have their obvious differences. For one thing, Spiess’s hound is leading and Kacian’s dog is following. For another, “the hound” seems to be familiar to the speaker in the first poem; just the opposite applies to the “dog i don’t know” in the second. The result, for me, is a feeling of comfort (or at least acceptance) from the Spiess poem and one of ominousness from Kacian’s. But the end-of-life overtones that I discerned in the former have undoubtedly “colored” my reading of the latter.

The only certainty is that we’re each followed (and occasionally dogged) by the memories, associations or projections which derive from our different personal experiences. But as Chevruel might have put it, vive la difference!


As this week’s winner, Scott 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 23:

     no one calls
     she gently dusts
     her porcelain rabbits
          — Elena Naskova, Nest Feathers: Selected Haiku from the First 15 Years of The Heron's Nest (2015)
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