skip to Main Content

re:Virals 271

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

 
     oxygen hiss
     my father talks to ghosts
     on Christmas day
          — Pris Campbell, The Haiku Foundation's Haiku Dialogue (December 2019)

Nick Taylor ponders two scenarios:

Pris’s poem conjures up sad images for me.

The first line, just two words but so powerful, immediately engages the senses, and I am transported to a hospital or similar institution where oxygen is being given to sustain a life.

Reading the second line, I find myself in two possible scenarios. In the first, a son or daughter is at the bedside of their elderly father who is seriously ill, possibly delirious or delusional, maybe having visions. Perhaps he is suffering from dementia.

The second, and for me more compelling, picture is of a young son or daughter wearing the oxygen mask while their father prays at the beside for his child’s recovery from what could be a serious illness or maybe a tragic accident. To the child, it appears the father has his eyes closed and is summoning the help of the supernatural; maybe he is or maybe he is talking to God.

The third line makes the scene even more poignant with the prospect of a life being taken away on Christmas Day, a day associated with celebration and birth.

A powerful, haunting haiku.

Radhamani Sarma focuses on contrasting images:

This week’s poem by Pris Campbell highlights a patient’s reaction, curiously enough, on Christmas Day, specifically, the narrator in first person envisioning her father’s reaction on Christmas Day. Oxygen is a must for all living beings, used for resuscitation of breath, keeping a person alive, etc.

In the first line, “oxygen hiss” implies a sound made by an instrument during a procedure. What follows is what’s seen as a ghost’s image, the interpretation of an image beyond the hospital ward, operation theatre, or the patient’s room.

What are the repercussions of the patient at this juncture? The poet exquisitely proceeds clothed in poetic terms. One possible inference can be found during the throes of pulmonary reaction, within the mask of the patient, in the following lines: “my father talks to ghosts/ on Christmas day.” Soon after taking in oxygen, her father “talks to ghosts.” The poet or persona is witnessing this sudden reaction, or lip movement, perhaps even the patient addressing some imaginary or preconceived figures on the wall.

“on Christmas  day” is the crux of the matter. It’s the end of the year and Christmas is being celebrated: Joy at the of birth of Christ, with an ambience of angels and an angelic aura. But the poet weaves a contrast among images. Ghosts (angels) are implied on Christmas Day. Similarly, the festive Christmas mood during celebrations contrasts with the hysterical pangs of her dying father talking to ghosts. Likewise, the year closes with this sufferer in the throes of ending his life.

Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă encounters a magical setting:

Nowadays, more and more people are using oxygen therapy in their homes to maintain active and productive lives. The hissing sound is a signal that something has gone wrong. Most likely, it’s a hole in a diaphragm. Even the provider of oxygen gets old and brittle.

Because oxygen is a kind of drug, it’s explicable why the author’s father seems to be a medium who’s making contact with the spirit world.

I think “Christmas day” was intentionally chosen for the last line. The magical atmosphere of the winter holidays makes the patient expect a miracle. A son or daughter witnessing this scene is not trying to do anything. There is no point in breaking the spell. Everything is a story that must continue, to move towards a happy ending.

The frequency of the consonant makes you hear that sibilant whisper, which insinuates and haunts you even after you have read the poem.

Alan Summers gives us seven points to consider:

The air that we breathe: Where do we go with an opening line? Seven bright points of a haiku:

1. Opening lines in haiku can be like opening scenes in movies. The Frank Capra movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” has a bell tolling, and it’s night, and it’s snowing hard, with bright hard stars, and society feeling unprotected, not by World War II, but by those within society preying on others.

2. How do we open in a haiku? It can be done many ways, for example, a single-line phrase or part of a two-line phrase.

3. Here we have a two-word opening line. It has to be a trigger, to enable us to open up to all its possibilities, and our memories from childhood through to young adulthood, often our most potent memories. We are all oxygen breathers, and every part of our body needs oxygen to survive from first gulp to the last.

4. The use of this opening to a haiku can be done many ways. We connect, it’s as simple as that. And now we want to know how we can connect.

5. From the “opener” to the next line and we have a startling line: “my father talks to ghosts.” We might wonder why, but a human being travels a vast distance in its lifetime, full of memories that become highly potent, as we approach the end.

6. The last line provides a seasonal stamp, and one associated with ghosts, especially Charles Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol.”  Is the parent in communion with his own ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future? What do they tell him, or what does he tell them, over the sound of oxygen hissing from within himself or from a portable machine at home?

7. See how the opener line and the closer line reflect each other in conversation, as for some of us making it to Christmas Day is important, and a heroic struggle.

Haiku contain more than they appear to contain. We need to be looking into “the eye of the haiku,” not just around it. What was that Christmas Day like? Was it full of joy and terrible jokes, knowing it will be our very last one together, ever?

virus2
As this week’s winner, Alan 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!

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.

re:Virals 272:

 
     the open lids of grand pianos sailing a sun-struck wall
          — Jo Balistreri, NOON, Issue 16 (2020)

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. A very powerful poem indeed and thank you Alan, I have enjoyed your thoughts on this poem as well as many others.

  2. #272
    Exposure – lids open to expose the intricate mechanisms which create the ephemeral beauty of music.
    Transformation – solid wood lids transform into swans floating.
    Melding – Music and silence, stillness and movement, softness on a brick wall.
    Magic.

    1. This image is striking. I imagine the music on the wind of sails across the room of sunlight like a pleasant afternoon in a sailboat. The open lid of the piano mimics the arch of the sail as it appears as a shadow on the wall. The word “struck” is the act of the pianists striking the keys of the piano, but we don’t see the person, just the piano and the wall and can imagine the music flowing like sunlight. I’m curious to read what others say about the two line structure and line break as it seemed unusual and drew much attention to itself.

      1. Dear Seretta,
        .
        I’d love you to send the commentary so that THERESA CANCRO can receive in the contact box. 🙂
        .
        .

        “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!”
        https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/contact/
        .
        .
        I’m going to send a comment myself with a note from the author who has been a classical pianist. I’ll say no more. 🙂

    2. Dear Alice,
      .
      I’d love you to send the commentary so that THERESA CANCRO can receive in the contact box. 🙂
      .
      .

      “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!”
      https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/contact/

  3. I’m very pleased to see others respond to this powerful haiku. I first read it last year when I found that it reminded me about past experiences through a visceral route, which I feel is rare in haiku. Of course this year, with the COVID pandemic, it has additional resonance, although such scenes were happening long before the pandemic, and will of course outlast it. Thanks again to Pris.

  4. I appreciate having my haiku chosen to be discussed this week. It was interesting reading the different ways that readers came to their own version of what I was saying here. Everyone seemed to realize that yes an oxygen source was present in the room with my father. He was dying on Christmas day. Even though he was close to death, he stayed very clearheaded but on that particular day all day he spoke to people that none of the rest of us there with him could see or hear. He spoke aloud to them. It was very moving because we knew that he was making his transition. He died the next day. I feel that that it was meant that he get ready for that passage on Christmas because his soul was so pure.

    1. Pris –

      I purposely did not send a response because I knew the background for your haiku. But, nonetheless, I could never have responded with the completeness with which Alan analyzed your haiku! (I am always amazed at what he finds.)

      It is a beautiful haiku – one to which I could closely relate. The first line is (sadly) perfect for this poem.

    2. Such powerful imagery and I can so relate to this verse! My paternal grandmother died on a cold Christmas evening in 2010.
      Thank you for this verse Pris Campbell and Namaste from India.

    3. What a powerful memory, Pris. You have done a beautiful job of condensing that transition and all the emotions swirling around it into this beautiful haiku. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Pris Campbell’s poem comes full circle, from birth to death and beyond. The birth represented by Christmas, the impending death implied by the hiss of oxygen, whether in a hospital setting or at home, and finally a conversation with ghosts. What is interesting is the arrangement of these elements. We begin with hissing oxygen (impending death), then move to conversations with ghosts (perhaps the pull of long-gone family or old friends to join them), and finally the Christmas scene (birth). Perhaps this serves to remind us that birth and death and the passage from before to after are all part of life. We can’t separate them, and perhaps we can’t even put them in ‘order’ because they are one single piece of existence. At first glance, this poem seems to be very concrete, based in specific elements. But as we look deeper into the poem, we see that there is much more within the simple words. As Alan has so aptly said, ‘ We need to be looking into “the eye of the haiku,” not just around it’.

  6. Dear esteemed poet,
    Greetings. Reading seven points analysis, point by point indeed very interesting; “How do we open a line”
    line phrase and the interpretation of last line, establishing connectivity et;

    Again, very ponderable point,

    ” We need to be looking into “the eye of the haiku,” not just around it. What was that Christmas Day like? ”
    Very ponderable point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top