Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Ann Smith, was:
my son invents
— George Dorsty
The Heron’s Nest VI:7 (2004)
Introducing this verse, Ann writes:
My pet hamsters were named Samantha and Darren after the TV show “Bewitched” and they moved their noses just like Elizabeth Montgomery. This sweet senryu about our first experiences of death takes me right back to that time.
Wonderfully laconic. The words may not sing, but the thoughts do. Quintessential. It takes us from innocence to the outskirts of the human need to reconcile, and be reconciled with, the unexplained and often the unpalatable deep. A god invented, a ritual performed. Insightful, brilliant.
Amanda White gives the body a poke…:
Such a sharp and filmic glimpse into a first encounter with death and the need to construct a meaning to the unknowable. Whilst particularised into a domestic family scene this manages to embrace the wider philosophy behind all religions as well as our enduring fascination with/aversion to death. A hamster too lives for such a short time, yet thrives as a much loved pet whose life has accompanied the own short life of a child to date. Here, then gone, how do we make sense of it all. Children of course have their own unique and unsullied way that does not resort to a template and that which has come before, but identifies that need to commemorate and make sense of something that has now stopped breathing. So whilst on the surface of it we approach this haiku and get it instantly, on re-reading it reveals its wider philosophical inference, it pokes us to ‘think about it’, a dead hamster, a child, grief, life, fragility; and does it with the lightest of touches.
Radhamani Sarma — scope for satire on well-worn ritual:
Interesting to read a novel experience, imagine what a new religion for a dead hamster might be; to conjecture how much time the child spent with the hamster, and how inconsolable is the pain of its death: life intimacy, closeness, affection reflected in “my son invents a religion”
A broad perspective and definition of religion will only take us into a whole thesis on the topic. These days, humans are discarded the moment they breathe their last; no sentiments, a sort of mechanical performance for cleansing and chants . This haiku could serve as a satire in contrast. We could picture the portrait of a chubby hamster framed on the wall, in worshipful mode.
Alan Summers finds respectful thought in one well-crafted verb:
The bluntness of the opening line is usefully direct, as we have an immediate context with no ambivalence. I feel that this reader (myself) can surmise that this is a pet owned/looked after by a child. It might even be the child’s first major experience with death. So before I even have to go further into the poem, to go beyond the first line, I personally have a lot of information. Possibly the only question I have is not about the poem, as it unfolds, but how did the child, if this is biographical, deal with the demise? Did the child merely leave it to a parent to dispose of the creature, whether burial or trashcan, that was once a supposedly loved pet, and an honorary member of the human family? Of course the dead hamster might be discovered by anyone, anywhere, and not necessarily a home location.
How does the chosen haiku traverse the death of a hamster? The author’s child, his son, invents a religion. How wonderful! The son/child does not impose his own religion, if he has one of his own, or one inherited by his parents. The boy creates an individual religion, perhaps never to be repeated even for another pet. He has, out of respect and reverence perhaps, individualised the ceremony.
Now to the mechanics of the short poem of seven words. We have an adjective and noun set up which brings “an immediacy of address” to and for the haiku reader. There is an unequivocal approach, both with the opening line, and the last two lines. Breaking it down in line order:
adjective/denoting state of life = dead
concrete noun/animal = hamster
possessive = my
concrete noun/human = son
verb = invents
indefinite article = a
noun: abstract/concrete/human ritual/practice = religion
With George Dorsty’s haiku, I see that he has brought in a sense of humanity, not from himself, but from his son. This is perceptively achieved through the verb choice. Why? Because the particular verb choice (invents) suggests, to this haiku reader, that a great deal of thought, preparation, and respect, has been delivered by one small human, to what is, after all, another small and fellow animal species. The haiku appears to be very simple language, at first reading, though that choice of verb elevates the entire short poem, using something complex in a gentle underlying manner. This haiku reverberates for me, and I’m reminded, each time I read it, that each death of a life form should be respected, and not just in an automatically default or generic manner.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Alan has chosen 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, which take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentary’s author gets to choose the next poem.
Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!
64 crayons white the least used
— Margaret Walker
From: “Getting it Wrong” haibun
Babylon Sidedoor journal (January 2022)
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Footnote: Further material from Alan furnishes this week’s footnote:
“I guess many of us have haiku about dead animals, and death in general. I discover I only have one that starts with ‘dead…’
how light the evening
comes to a close
— Alan Summers
Haiku Canada Review, vol. 11, no. 2, (October 2017) ed. LeRoy Gorman
“This was the first fatality of our roof inhabiting sparrows, soon after we moved in, I am both upset and philosophical, but also keenly aware of the essence of how the day was closing down.
“Perhaps, in the case of one of the most famous dead animal haiku of them all, there could even be a concealed allusion, as Dr Randy Brooks wondered, concerning a specific war and one or many of its battle scenes?
dead cat . . .
to the pouring rain
— Michael McClintock
The Haiku Anthology ed. Cor Van den Heuvel (1st Edition, 1974)
Genesis of Haiku: Where do haiku come from? (The First of Two Parts)
— Dr. Randy Brooks, Frogpond 34.1 • 2011
Thank you, Alan.
I leave readers with George Dorsty’s entry in the THF Haiku Registry and a further senryu by him:
— George Dorsty
Best of Issue, Modern Haiku 40:1 (2009)