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