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re:Virals 301

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

     graveyard shift
     the leftover radish
     tumbles in the lunchbox
          — Elmedin Kadric, The Heron's Nest, Volume XVII, Number 3 (2015)

Lakshmi Iyer finds much beneath the surface:

This poem seems to read so simply, but isn’t the image far too deep? Yes, this wraps up the story of a person doing his shifts in the graveyard. The level of understanding and experience resonates with so many of us. As far as I know, the graveyard shift goes on until 8 a.m. the following morning. But maybe the person is forced to stay over into the next shift. Continuing until lunch is very tough, since he may not get the sleep, food and rest that are very necessary to continue doing his shift. Whatever the situation, the poet settles for the leftover radish to help him get water and nourishment and stay awake. I really love the way the poet uses the phrase “the leftover radish/ tumbles…,” showing the economic condition of the family, yet taking it so lightly to heart.

The vertical axis widens the philosophical aspect here. The corona virus has worsened the economic and social status of even an ordinary person. Hence, any work big or small always holds a place of acceptance. The person in a difficult situation doesn’t see the status of the work. He respects and regards his work and strives to be in it, even if his work deprives him of his rest.

Allow the little things in your life to tumble and continue to glorify your living!

Sushama Kapur sifts through meanings:

The opening phrase, “graveyard shift,” places the reader in a setting that could have either or both of the following two meanings:

1. A workshift that runs through the early morning hours, typically covering the period between midnight and 8 a.m., depending on the time zone;

2. “Graveyard Shift” is the title of a short story written by Stephen King, first published in 1970, in the genre of horror.

Here then, in line one, we seem to have a person presumably on shift as shown in Meaning 1 above. However, it may be asked: Has the narrator obliquely started the ‘ku with words related to the story mentioned in Meaning 2? At this point, the reader is unsure but game.

Moving forward to the image in the phrase of lines one and three: On first reading, this is fairly cryptic and leaves the reader with many questions: From what food is this “leftover radish”? From a sandwich? A salad? And more importantly, where is it falling from? The mouth? The hand? Because it “tumbles” in the lunch-box, not on the lap or to the ground.

The choice of the verb “tumbles” is an interesting one. It implies something that happens unexpectedly and over which the person in question has little or no control.

It seems that, while on this shift, the watchman is eating a meal with radish in it, and he sees something materializing or happening in front or around him in the graveyard. He is surprised, possibly frightened, horrified, or more. He is struck with immobility, his jaw falls down. “the leftover radish / tumbles in the lunch box,” which in all probability is directly below his face.

At this point we may ask if the second meaning of the phrase “graveyard shift” comes into play here. Would this ‘ku, in fact, be a horror-ku? Does the person see something supernatural, alien or mutated? The reader is left wondering.

For me, however, the ‘ku displays many layers, and I feel the image in the phrase should not be put in any specific niche.

Perhaps without warning, some human arrives on the scene, someone the person in question is not expecting. An escaped prisoner, perhaps? Or a serial killer, even? Or maybe he sees a terrible crime being committed before his eyes? Or could something as incongruous as a romantic tryst be going on?

An open mind boggles at the variety of reasons available!

Whatever actually happens, the focus is on the reaction in the person with the lunchbox, who is gripped suddenly by an unforseen emotion, which seems to have affected him physically. To carry this line of thought a step further: Has he, in fact, collapsed and is he now in shock and unconscious, or has he even lost his life, perhaps from a heart attack?

This nine-word haiku, then, has built up the elements of surprise and suspense beautifully and uniquely by withholding all details of the “why” and “how” in what happens. And by doing so, the reader has been given the freedom to find their own sequences to follow, or even to choose their own reasons and endings!

Keith Evetts digs deep:

Digging deep, there is an enormous amount to disinter from this very powerful senryu. The “graveyard” shift has been chosen deliberately over the “night” shift because the origins of the term are the sexton’s watch over the recently-buried to check that they were not, in error, buried alive. The subliminal image of a body stirring in its buried coffin is contrasted with the rattle of a radish in a lunchbox — a reminder of the quick and the dead. Aside from its ability to make a noise (a leftover lettuce leaf was clearly ruled out here), the “leftover radish” is a small hard, bitter vegetable that grows typically half-buried, the upper half red as life, the lower white as death. “Leftover” carries connotations of being unnoticed, ignored, perhaps a pauper, as well as the unfinished business of death. “Tumbles” conveys both movement and the noise, and also hints at “tomb” where the trapped undead may be stirring. And lastly, the lunchbox provides more than a convenient container in which the boxed-in radish signals its presence. Eating sustains life, although the sexton, having eaten the rest of the contents during his long watch, may no longer be eager for the bitterness remaining insistently within the box.

A whole poem.

As this week’s winner, Keith 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 302:

     of course​
     the mountain
     wasn't always
          — Tiffany Shaw-Diaz, Cold Moon Journal (2021)

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading each commentary. When I first read this senryu, it puzzled and intrigued me so much that I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought about it a lot without arriving at any cogent understanding. I waited for Friday so that each person’s reading and interpretation would throw some light on this poem for me. Therefore, I am grateful for each person’s reading and comments. A special thanks to Keith Evetts who delved ‘deep’ into ‘this very powerful senryu’.

  2. Thanks so very much for the wonderful comments! They truly were a delight to read.

  3. e:Virals 301:

    graveyard shift
    the leftover radish
    tumbles in the lunchbox
    — Elmedin Kadric, The Heron’s Nest, Volume XVII, Number 3 (2015)

    Many thanks for giving us a senryu by Elmedin Kadric, veering into graveyard
    Shift. A little bit of religion, ceremony, ritual, all combined in this form and content. Graveyard is a place, where dead are buried, remembered ; here,
    there is a shift of this graveyard, this place into another building as a cafeteria, or mall, or small hotel etc., total conversion of graveyard, instead
    of mourning for dead, a possibly a place of food makers, during which time
    food comprising radish into lunchbox of some worker or attendant. One
    hypothesis here.
    In Hindu rites, possibly, an offering done to the departed souls, with cooked food stuffs, in remote villages, or hamlets, where sophistication has not crept,
    where tradition and custom linger in the habits and performance. This way,
    in simple terms, radish leftover, or remnants , occupy empty boxes for hungry
    Another more viable interpretation, during work shift of late hours, nearing
    lunch session or night shifts, person winding up for the next session, getting
    relieved, is gathering all etc., food of radish in the lunch box; shift not only
    for persons, but also for food stuffs, timing is such.A subtle irony in this write.

  4. Really enjoyed reading Keith Evetts commentary on the poem. Yes, even I had read about the history of the “graveyard shifts”, but couldn’t really bring it forth. Keith has surpassed all boundaries and how beautifully has explained the life and death; so profound and subtle. Thank you so much!!

    1. Thank you, Lakshmi. I spent a long time cogitating on this one.
      I’ll be very interested to see the readings of Tiffany’s poem, which at first sight defies several haiku orthodoxies, but which also gave me much interesting scope for meditation – I kept coming back to it.

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