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
half a lifetime . . . the lemon tree yet to grow a peach — Julie Schwerin, is/let, April 4, 2021
Florin C. Ciobica detects pain and regret:
The first part of the poem highlights a deep pain. If we take a look at the second part, we can speculate that this is about a woman who deeply regrets that she is not fulfilled in her emotional needs; more precisely, that she has not been able to give birth to a child.
Suspension points can be interpreted as an invitation to meditate on the passage of time or as tears of pain that overwhelm the person in question.
The phrase of the poem contains a paradoxical image, which clearly emphasizes the bitterness of the life of one who has been deprived of the magic of sweet fruits.
The haiku, on the whole, spreads a sad atmosphere that follows you long after reading the lyrics and makes you somehow empathize with this sufferer.
Priti Aisola mulls over a riddle:
This haiku puzzled me, filled me with a lot of questions, and slowly refused to leave me.
Line one is very dramatic: “half a lifetime.” What has happened or not happened in this half a lifetime for the narrator to have this as a mystifying, startling, opening fragment? Is there regretful sadness that something could not be achieved? Is there weariness because half a lifetime is behind her? Is there frustration that there isn’t time enough for the fulfillment of a certain dream?
Then come lines 2 and 3: “the lemon tree/ yet to grow a peach.” Will a lemon tree ever grow a peach? Isn’t this an unnatural expectation? The word “yet” intrigues — it is as if the lemon tree was supposed to magically grow a peach. Why is such an expectation there in the first place? The lemon tree has its own identity; it has its own distinct presence and uses. The lemon juice, peel, rind and the leaves — all are used in cooking. The lemon tree will yield lemons — a natural expectation. Why should it grow a peach, a juicy fruit with a subtle aroma and delicate sweetness? And how can a lemon tree grow a peach at all?
Is there a veiled message in the ‘ku about unreasonable expectation, about the failure to value a person for being who he/she is?
This haiku is like a riddle, and one cannot hope to penetrate the core of this conundrum to arrive at any satisfactory understanding of its essence.
Lakshmi Iyer works through the dilemma:
Human birth is so precious and beautiful; all the more wonderful if we are able to live a hundred years!
What is it that the poet wants to convey in the first line, “half a lifetime”? The years spent in toiling hard for a purpose or a long journey yet left to cross? Lines two and three extend the dilemma of the poet: the lemon tree/ yet to grow a peach.
The lifespan of a lemon tree is fifty years; almost half a lifetime of a human being if taken as a general statement. It really requires mental grit, physical energy, space and time to take care of a lemon tree. Maybe the poet is having age-related constraints to take care of the lemon tree or maybe the lemon tree has reached a saturation point of zero yield. So now the poet wants to switch over to quick results, like growing a peach tree that can yield fruits in as little as two years.
Is this a satire on human values, or is this slang to convey that one moves on to new things and leaves off the old?
The poet has cleverly crafted the haiku and left the reader to decide the impact of the line “half a lifetime.”
Sushama Kapur discerns an underlying message:
At first read, we note a light touch in the haiku. With so much karumi, it is a delight to look at.
As we dwell on its meaning, we begin by wondering: Whose “half a lifetime”? The narrator’s or the lemon tree’s? The life of healthy lemon trees is around fifty years, and it takes about four months or so for it to produce fruit, generally between winter and spring. So “half a lifetime” is a long time for the tree. The ellipsis at the end of line one points us to this fact.
Why does the haiku begin with this phrase, though? The answer in the next two lines is startling: to grow a peach! Why should a lemon tree grow something it is not “programmed” to produce? After an involuntary laugh, the reader starts thinking. I mean, can a lemon tree grow a peach? The tone is so matter of fact, as if the narrator is reporting something ordinary that the tree should be doing but hasn’t “yet”! One wonders.
And then the answer arrives in a recollection of the second meaning of this word, “peach.” It is a light pinkish yellow fruit, yes, but also informally could mean a person or thing that is especially attractive, liked, or enjoyed. So this lemon tree may have produced lemons — but not “a peach” yet, not a great one yet; not the best it perhaps could yet!
The lines report something wryly, so much so that surely there is an underlying expectation somewhere in the words. Perhaps the narrator knows how much this particular tree has been nurtured and tended to. And despite all efforts of the gardener, regretfully, it has not borne the expected quality of fruit.
Carrying this thread of thought forward is that small but significant word “yet.” There also seems to be a feeling of hope — why almost a certainty — that one day the tree will produce wonderful fruits, its best crop perhaps. “Peaches,” in fact!
A good poem is many layered, and another possible layer here could be an allusion to a young human, who has not been spectacularly brilliant (in the eyes of the narrator, the surrounding society, perhaps) — yet! Despite the best education, despite a wonderful environment, despite opportunities, encouragement, support, love, this person has not yet produced a “peach.”
In both layers, I see this haiku to be a gentle critique against holding expectations of any sort. Why should the lemon tree grow a “peach”? Perhaps, through no fault of its own, it cannot. And again, on another layer, why should it try to be something it is not?
On an aside, it reminds me a little of the beautiful Alice Walker poem on the frugality of surprise — Expect Nothing. Although the poem is many layered with other themes, the words “expect nothing” resonate.
So, enjoy things as they are. And if something unexpected happens or comes to pass, be surprised in the most delightful way!
Shalini Pattabiraman moves beyond the incongruous:
Julie presents an interesting opening to her haiku, “half a lifetime,” which draws forth a set of questions: Whose lifetime? How long would “half” be? Does it incorporate memories of childhood or does the half spread over youth and some decades of adulthood? In my mind, “half a lifetime” embodies a life which is rich in experience no matter what length.
The phrase then extends this sense of playfulness and mystery, which is accentuated by the fragment. I ask, “Could it be a child who playfully planted a seed expecting peaches?” It seems slightly incongruous to imagine that one couldn’t differentiate between a lemon seed and a peach seed, since they vary in size and shape so distinctly.
At this point, we arrive at the metaphorical meaning behind this interesting ‘ku. Why do people have so many expectations of their children, at times expectations that are too specific, not taking into account their existing shape and form (here a lemon) which is already unique and beautiful? Often, parents spend their lives wanting to change their children, demanding they become something or someone else — in turn giving up on a lifetime of celebrations. Each time the flower bloomed, took the shape of the lemon, spread its fragrance, brought zest and added an element of surprise with its tanginess, someone ignored all of these beautiful gifts and experiences and kept looking for the peach that would never appear.
I found the ‘ku exceptionally moving, embodying so much more in just three simple lines. The juxtaposition of “half a lifetime” set against this metamorphosis presents a tragedy of sorts across the world where one is forced to think they are not “whole” and somehow “less.”
As this week’s winner, Shalini 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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newspaper kite the obituary page now closer to heaven — Lakshmi Iyer, Honourable Mention, 24th Mainichi Haiku Contest 2020