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
we talk about survival rates winter sky — Rachel Sutcliffe cattails, Issue 1 (2014)
Nick Taylor glimpses a ray of hope:
Rachel has written a very clever poem which, for me, conjures up contrasting images. Initially, the juxtaposition of the topic of survival rates with the image of a winter sky brings up dark images. I immediately think of the impact of COVID, but as I note that the poem was written in 2014, my next image is more personal. Perhaps someone has recently been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and their chances of survival are low.
However, weaving their way through these dark scenes are glimpses of bright sunlight on a clear, frosty winter’s day. This changes the image to an uplifting one where someone is giving welcome news which will hopefully give the recipient the strength to endure the trials of winter and look forward to the joys of spring.
Radhamani Sarma reflects upon the winter sky:
This week’s poem by Rachel Sutcliffe is a mixture of pain and prediction. The opening observation — we talk/ about survival rates — beginning as if it is a conversation or its outcome, mentions a doctor’s prediction or assessment of a patient’s life span after treatment.
Or perhaps a group of people, gathering with the specific intention of knowing about their future — mostly patients after prolonged treatment — either surmise or, after consultation with doctors, arrive at their predicament of this “survival rate,” taken in its totality.
The last line of this senryu is the crux, creating mood and ambience within this powerful writing. During winter, the sky can be quite clear, as clear as crystal. “winter sky” is the descriptive image and embodies gloom, lurking darkness and uncertainty. All are reflected in the cold air breathed at the human level. When affected by cold, lungs are disordered, especially phlegm and respiration, all determining one’s survival rate. So much is embedded in “winter sky.” In the sky’s depiction, there is uncertainty of life from the poet’s point of view.
Yet another possible interpretation could be all the different warps shading a winter sky: passing clouds, a starry night, for example, imply appropriate occurrences in human life, not only psychologically, but also health-wise, or even economic fluctuations in one’s lifetime, hence the “survival rate.” All these close observations establish connectivity with our living, life file.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă mulls over the juxtaposition of setting and subject:
The winter sky can be seen as a screen that records the passage of time or, why not, as a huge crystal globe in which the narrator looks and seeks to see something, signs that might give her some hope, might help her survive. The sun no longer has such great power and, except for the crows, the birds no longer furrow it, no longer invigorate it.
In this winter setting, the reader is struck by the topic of discussion, namely survival rates, which quickly leads one to think that the interlocutors are probably wardmates, patients suffering from a particular disease and trying to socialize to make their days more bearable.
Therefore, the combination of the glacial landscape and the strange subject of conversation makes us shudder and reflect upon the current situation facing humanity, for which there are still no clear solutions. Phonetically speaking, the noun at the end can be interpreted as a muffled cry that goes back revealing failure, helplessness. Slowly, we become numbers in a damn statistic…
Mark Gilbert finds chilling relevance:
For me, this is a very powerful haiku because of what is between the words and lines, but also because the sombre subject matter matches the tone created by the poem.
I don’t generally like to rely on the so-called fourth line (the writer’s personal details) to supply additional information to help the interpretation of a haiku, and in this case the reader may or may not know about Rachel Sutcliffe’s circumstances. However, this doesn’t matter, as lines 1-2 could apply to many situations, from that of the writer of this haiku to loved ones or patients, or a larger population. This year, of course, it has a chilling relevance to the current global pandemic.
Lines 1-2 are dealt with in a downbeat, deadpan way. No poetic tricks here. Just a straight transcription, perhaps, of a discussion in a consulting room. And then the writer’s eyes tear themselves away from the other face and happen to look out the window — back to an old-fashioned haiku moment.
There is a long temporal and visual space at the end of the first line, right in the middle of the enjambment into line 2. Time to think about implications, perhaps. And again after line 2. Perhaps some numbers and graphs to think about. The tone and pace match the subject, and I buy into the authenticity of the result.
As this week’s winner, Mark 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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oxygen hiss my father talks to ghosts on Christmas day — Pris Campbell, The Haiku Foundation's Haiku Dialogue (December 2019)