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
candlelit shadows we forget we are mortal — Tia Haynes, Acorn, Issue 44 (2020)
Donal O’Farrell is struck by the moment of awareness:
What a beautiful haiku, so eloquent it hardly warrants comment. But let that not prevent us from some reflection and speculation! Wonderfully paradoxical: shadow and light, our fleeting mortality and the light of awareness — it brings to mind something Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about how the flame of the match lives on in the flame of the candle. Lest we forget, let us enjoy the shadowy dance of this short life and hope to pass on some of the light in the process.
Lakshmi Iyer focuses on dynamics:
This beautiful interpretation of candlelit shadows juxtaposed with the mortality of our lives is well framed by the poet. Shadows move, change and are gone. They move with time, change with the timeframe, and merge in time. The candle is used as a strong medium to explain the intense relationship within human lives. Alas! We hardly think of it and we allow ourselves to be ignorant. That we forget we are mortals is so striking and distinct. Just as the candle brings down the shadows, so too humans are mortal, never to come back once their lives are swept from this world. We, too, degenerate, our days are also numbered; in fact, we aren’t constant.
Nick T is drawn toward imagination:
This is a poem which really plays with the imagination. The first line sets the scene. We learn that it is night, the candelight implies a sense of intimacy or secrecy, and the casting of shadows adds a sinister element. The second and third lines deal with mortality. We are reminded of our mortality at times of death or illness or when afraid or in danger. For us to forget we are mortal, something must have happened to remind us of our mortality in the first place which, to me, is the crux of the poem. When you combine the sinister candlelit setting with the reference to mortality, I imagine someone in danger being forced into a confrontation for which they must summon their courage, putting aside any concern for their own safety.
A powerful haiku giving hope of good overcoming evil or light displacing darkness.
Sushama Kapur peels back the layers:
A compelling juxtaposition of images: one very visual: candlelit shadows; and the other, a truth as perceived by the narrator: we forget /we are mortal.
What, then, is the connection between the two parts?
The fragment implies space, probably a room lit with candles. And the “we” in the phrase suggests the room is occupied by people. Candles tend to cast shadows that are bigger than the actual size of objects. Could the connection between the two parts then be based on this fact? Away from the reality of daylight (where things can be seen as they are), being in a closed space lit by candles could be deceiving. Perhaps this space invites grandiose ideas, thoughts or plans that are impossible to achieve. And that is why the narrator reminds us of the rueful realization that we are mortal, and yes, subject to decay and eventual death.
The repetition of “we” in lines two and three seems to be a deliberate one, besides being pleasing to the eye. It includes all in the human race. All of us are mortal and probably must realize this before being deceived by the oversized shadows cast by candles.
It rather reminds me of Galadriel’s words in JRR Tolkien’s, Lord Of The Rings, when she proclaims (having rejected the ring and the offer for superhuman powers): “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”
It’s a strong senryu that leaves us at the edge of understanding, slightly mystified because of its layers that elude any one interpretation. Every re-reading of it, then, could invite a new experience!
Keith Evetts explains universal images:
For me, this senryu succeeds by the symbolism and the depth of meditation that it invokes. The well-used universal images of the candle (life and light) and the shadow (dark and death) have endured through the ages into this era of soft lamps and light-emitting diodes. It is the flame and the flickering — its temporary light and warmth, and its fragility — that makes the candle so evocative. Candles have many further associations, from a focus for meditative trance to votive offerings. Candlelight not only keeps the dark at bay, but casts shadows — not least, our shadows. Our moving shadows, alive. Which brings us to the use of “we” rather than “I.” This choice has several effects: It extends what follows to include everyone — the human condition (at the risk of sounding aphoristic); it invites the reader into the scene; and it conveys company — perhaps around a table, perhaps sitting and talking, or simply enjoying a quiet moment together. And in this moment, for the moment, we forget that we will die.
Because of the line breaks and no explicit cut, line two can also be read as a pivot: We forget candlelit shadows (to feel immortal for this brief moment); and, to be mortal is to forget. Lastly, the rhythm and musicality of the separate fragment and phrase, each complete, are satisfying to the ear.
So many thoughts, from a convivial evening in company all the way to the tomb and back, in so few words. Excellent.
As this week’s winner, Keith gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. (Keith states: Lest this be thought stereotypic, it could equally well read “her death/ added to his litany/ of complaints.”) We invite you to write a commentary to the poem. 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.
his death added to her litany of complaints — Tom Painting, tsuri-dōrō, Issue #5 (2021)
This Post Has 11 Comments
I like this poem very much. The author “knows” this woman and has been able to communicate his observation and insight about her very clearly. The poem brings to mind, a very unhappy woman. Her habit of complaining may have prevented her from experiencing the full range of emotions that often accompany a loss. And, her complaining has probably made the situation more difficult for those around her, who also were connected to the man who died. One thing I have learned from my own complaining, is that it severely limits my understanding of what life is presenting me with. It keeps me in a narrow, self-centered state of mind. And, it has a negative effect on those around me. Somewhere I read this: ” We are not alone in experiencing the effects of our thoughts”. I can imagine some possible feelings of anger, as well as compassion, that the author of this poem might have felt towards the woman. He might have known her well, to have written this poem about her. And the fact that he has noticed this trait in her, indicates to us, that he has had a very different reaction to the death. I feel compassion for both of them.
It was wonderful reading all the commentaries on the selected senryu. All the varied views of the writers – just how it should be for a really great poem.
Congratulations, Kieth Evetts! It was very rewarding reading your insightful commentary. The flow in it is remarkable and for me a learning. Thank you. 🙂
Sushama Kapur: thank you for the heart-warming compliment.
added to her litany
— Tom Painting,
One feels her anger, he’s gone, how could he leave her?
We are told that anger is one of the normal stages of grief, so is this woman processing the stages of grief for someone she loved and appreciated? The next lines suggests it wasn’t as simple as that… his death was just one more thing to add to ‘her litany of complaints.’ Did she constantly criticise him to his face or complain about him behind his back? This is left for the reader to interpret, but either way, it sounds like the poor guy could do no right. May he rest in peace.
I love the reactions of all of you who responded to the prompt! When I selected this haiku I was hoping it would trigger a good selection of responses. This is a really challenging haiku that takes us from a simple candlelit scene to contemplation of our mortality. Perhaps all our lives are nothing more than shadows on the wall. I love Sushama Kapur’s thoughts about the shadows cast by the candlelight being larger than life, giving us the impression that perhaps we are the immortals, till those shadows fade with the light of the candle and we discover once again our mortality. A thought that still comes to me as I read it is one that no one else touched on: Plato’s shadows dancing on the back wall of the cave! Am I completely off track? Tia Haynes, you have provided a haiku full of questions! Thank you and thanks to everyone for responding to my selection!
Thank you so much, Peggy! I’m happy you liked that idea.
And thank you also for selecting this poem. It’s a beautiful one! 🙂
I didn’t know about this idea, but will surely look it up. It does sound very interesting!
“A thought that still comes to me as I read it is one that no one else touched on: Plato’s shadows dancing on the back wall of the cave!”
Reading through each commentator, a pleasure indeed, imbibe new
ideas. Very interesting.
Dear keith Evetts,
Congratulations. The following observations really make us into re reading.
Philosophy of day to day lives – entwined.
“Candlelight not only keeps the dark at bay, but casts shadows — not least, our shadows. Our moving shadows, alive. Which brings us to the use of “we” rather than “I.” This choice has several effects: It extends what follows to include everyone — the human condition (at the risk of sounding aphoristic); “
Thank you. The candle and the shadow are very widely used, but they are powerful symbols; and each time they are used the symbolism is reinforced.
we are mortal
— Tia Haynes, Acorn, Issue 44 (2020)
Many thanks to Haiku Foundation for giving us a write by Tia Haynes,
offering us an opportunity to look into the aspects of life in its limited
Perspectives, including our sojourn in this earth.
The very first line of image compressed “ candlelit shadows” takes us
into a practical observation, that we cannot make attempts to see
shadows from candlelit on a longer duration, implying the observation,
it is impossible for it does not endure longer, sometimes; it does not happen at all for it glows higher.
Converting the image in a metaphorical perspective, we are into philosophy
Life, ephemerality of existence in this mechanized, mechanical fast running tit bits of life.
Any number of candle lit lamps, all around us, only prove transient or evanescent glow; for it does not last long just as our showy lives, or lives with false charm. Another thing, in most cases, the shadows, Or it could even be interpreted this way, that flicker of candle lamps do not endure or stay long
Since every possibility of being flicked away by outside force of gushing wind
or blowing air sudden;
Another viable inference is that “candlelit shadows”, extension of poetic
interpretation, that the speaker visualizes that man running after false pride;
seeming shows, which do not fetch much, small ness of his thinking, false attitudes dominating his ego etc., will only testify, we are only humans, mortals, we cannot achieve anything lasting;
in such being the case,
“ we forget
we are mortals”
distinctly signify that ephemerality of our stay on this earth, mortality or
death is imminent, just as flicker.
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