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re:Virals 31

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

     radiation leak moonlight on the fuel rods
          — Melissa Allen, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (2013)

Alan Summers sums this up tersely:

Where moonlight meets death . . .

And Marion Clarke, nearly as tersely, discerns its message:

In just seven words this monoku reveals a disaster. The moon is a spotlight, highlighting from space the devastation that man has caused on earth. Effective and alarming.

Jo McInerney shows us exactly how the poem is constructed:

Nuclear energy with its destructive capacity in terms of weaponry and waste disposal cast its fearful shadow over the second half of the twentieth century. With non-proliferation treaties and the break-up of the Soviet Union, other fears have come to bulk larger in popular consciousness. Indeed nuclear power is now proposed as a clean replacement for that generated using fossil fuels.

Allen’s haiku deftly brings these conflicting potentials into vivid juxtaposition. The first word of the monoku — radiation — continues to evoke the dread first felt in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A dread fed by periodic later disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Its second word — leak — extends this fear, suggesting the insidious spread of a poison that can be neither seen nor felt yet can kill and maim into subsequent generations.

Often in monoku, a particular word functions as a pivot, being able to be attached to the words that precede it to create one meaning, and to those that follow it for another. This is almost the case with leak; however, the reader’s attempt to shift from a radiation leak to moonlight leaking is thwarted. For this reading to be possible, Allen would have to have written radiation leaks. Instead, what we are left with is a caesura after leak. Thus there is a disjunction between radiation leak and moonlight which seems appropriate as the latter is beautiful and benign and the former is profoundly not.

Allen then disturbs our expectations again and has the moonlight fall across fuel rods. What is the intended effect of this? A benison? A suggestion that our fears are misplaced? Perhaps. But for this reader, at least, the effect is ironic. Moonlight is, like radiation, tasteless and odourless, unable to be touched, yet, unlike radiation, it is completely without harm. This poem ultimately seems a warning not to mistake the continuing threat of nuclear energy for something innocuous.

But Stella Pierides brings it all the way back to redemption:

In current usage, the word leak refers to a variety of situations: from leaking a document and bringing into the light a secret, to taking a leak, to a wasteful dripping of water, to seepage of radiation. This poem, with its radiation leak, immediately opens up a danger zone. Step in at your peril into an image that gives rise to paralyzing fears, to the dead zones of Chernobyl, Fukushima; to the forbidden zones. Anything could happen here.

From a leak to a fireball, from the atom to the apocalyptic mushroom cloud, you could be walking into a minefield of the results of unbridled ambition and unscrupulous greed, a Faustian deal . . . Whether the leak is from a technological or scientific project, where man sees himself tirelessly bent on expanding knowledge and power over nature, finding solutions to the human problems of illness, poverty, and environmental degradation; whether hubris or dedication to the common good, here is a consequence: the spewing of poisonous material, the fall into a dark, man-made Hell.

But now the poet brings moonlight on the scene. Like a benevolent, all-seeing Eye of God, moonlight bathes the fuel rods in light we associate with understanding, with cool logic, in forgiveness. I am reminded of the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos’ Moonlight Sonata, where moonlight hides smaller-scale follies such as showing white hair as golden, at the same time relentessly intensifying shadows. In Allen’s poem too, moonlight is both kind and cooling, as well as relentless and permanent, not allowing the fuel rods to hide in the shadows. An image burned into the mind.

Note that the fuel rods are not spent. The young man in Ritsos’ poem too, is present all through the poem, at the end leaving full of energy, bursting into laughter as he walks away. Life continues in its boundless energy, in its perpetual flow, beyond leaks, beyond the night, beyond our human follies, beyond life itself.


As this week’s winner, Stella 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!

re:Virals 31:

     when the river is as slow
     as the night
          — Burnell Lippy, The Heron's Nest XVIII.1 (2016)
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