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
ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god — Clayton Beach, Haiku Sanctuary (2019)
Radhamani Sarma plunges into the depths:
Pleased to view and comment on this wonderful haiku by Clayton Beach. It’s a delectable pleasure to consider this write in which a lobster comes to be abrogated, somewhat painfully. But with the involved persona, the speaker, we have a different perspective.
The very first part inspires readers to imagine a cave. The narrator sees a ghost in the ancient, echoing, vast cliffs of ages past, where history lurks and repeats or creeps along in multiple forms. This depiction of a ghost cave possibly alludes to taunting figures in numinous pictures, themselves appearing as ghosts, as seen in the cave’s portals or hanging from its walls. Moving through such a cave, the narrator notices many things in the passages: Parading throughout the walls are embedded animals such as horses; also flying kites, sketches of skeletal figures, or even skeletons by themselves, all among resounding echoes. Then, he chances upon a lobster occupying the scene at the same time, but puts it aside. In the foreground of this cave, the lobster is only for the eyes, to be set aside. One can imagine the Ajanta or Ellora caves, where paintings and carvings are a “feast for the eyes.”
However, there may be a different take on the haiku, wherein Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) echoes: “The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.” As the speaker swims into a dark, oceanic cave, he encounters gyrating waves full of turbulence. He is so thrilled while swimming that he prefers not to appease his appetite for eating the lobster, a marine dish. He sets aside his karma of dharma of tasting the delicious lobster. Images of the two attitudes are entwined by weaving a contrasting mood, of being in water and setting aside a lobster. Here, the lobster is not only an edible image, but also a sea symbol to be worshipped.
What does dharma here signify? Perhaps the narrator while swimming in a fathomless cave near the ocean prefers to continue to swim, to go deeper and deeper, so much so that he forgets to eat the lobster. His dharma of eating the lobster is now ruled out by his chosen path.
Delving deeper into this lobster image, according to Hindu mythology, the matsya, an avatar of Vishnu in the form of fish — a lobster — is synonymous with protection. Here, the speaker brushes aside the protector (a lobster god) and spends more time in the waters.
Efficient poetic diction highlights a contrast: “ghost”/ “god”/ “only.” Upon reading deeply, we have a distinct grasp of content.
ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god
With a giant leap into the ocean, readers now enter a more watery speculation: We may brush aside the lobster god, but not the real God.
As this week’s winner, Radhamani 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!
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the grating voice so out of key but mellow after a few drinks — Karen Harvey, The Haiku Foundation's per diem (2020)