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
a taste of the river from my cupped hands... first homecoming — Chen-ou Liu, The Heron's Nest, Vol. XXII, No. 2 (2020)
Radhamani Sarma taps into the imagery of a homecoming:
As the summer slowly peers in, usually there is a scarcity of water: House taps go dry, kitchen sinks fill with utensils for want of water, let alone a flow that allows for shiny, clean dishes. Housewives and maids throng the street, queuing up at a common tap with plastic and metal vessels.
The necessity of water and the taste of water is a must for all city dwellers. As a matter of fact, people who relocate due to frequent transfers — perhaps government employees — on first stepping into strange soil, want to have the feel of water, its flow, and are concerned if water scarcity prevails.
Poet Chen-ou Liu has presented a test for the implications of homecoming.
The first line, “a taste of the river,” is expressive of the desire, a must, for the feel of a water source, especially if water tastes salty or insipid, or sweet. This is felt by many a transferred employee, or those who have relocated to a new locale; it’s quite natural.
In my younger days, in hamlets, where my grandparents lived, river water was the only source for drinking purposes, and we siblings went down to the river, crossing mounds and thistles, fetching water with a sieve of cloth.
In line two — “from my cupped hands” — the first person point of view reveals in vivid imagery the persona holding the river water, perhaps tasting it; the flow of water is controlled in the purview of his hands, “cupped” like a curved vessel. The image of the free flow of the river is brought and compacted through the cupped hands.
Yet another point of view might be that of a soldier: His “first homecoming” upon landing on his native soil may be to partake of jubilations amidst firecracker bursts, part and proceedings of a warm welcome. The speaker’s first choice is to taste the river water. He also adumbrates that his choice is not for juices or aerated drinks, but only plain water, straight river water. Also, he indicates a preference to discard vials and use only his cupped hands. Artificiality is shunned and rustic simplicity is reflected in his candid utterance.
Another viable inference is that a soldier, after battling for long for the sake of his mother country, returns home. He shed his blood and sweat, forsaking the comfort of his family and children, returning to his native soil, only to discover that much has gone wrong in the local town, a sea of change: His family is gone; he does not know where his siblings have gone. With dismay and discontent amid this disaster, he runs to open the rusted tap for a taste of river water in his cupped hands.
In villages, river water is synonymous with a worshipful aura; it’s a symbol of sacred woman offering bounty. One has to inevitably recall and connect with T. S. Eliot ’s “Ganga was sunken, and with the limp leaves/ waited for rain…” from The Waste Land.
Possibly the returning soldier, disheartened by such aridity, imagines a direction towards the river hoping for a taste in his cupped hands.
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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I’m writing a list Of all that had to perish To keep me alive — Pat Hull, Haikuniverse (2021)