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re:Virals 329

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:

dead hamster–
my son invents
a religion

— 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.

Opening comment:

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!

re:Virals 330:

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…’

dead sparrow
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:

senior Scrabble—
I draw
another blank

— George Dorsty
Best of Issue, Modern Haiku 40:1 (2009)

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. This haiku is so powerful. Having been a wife of a junior navy officer who was in Vietnam, as well as finding my old cat dead in the same say, i see both images, one overlaid on the other, Randy Brooks wrote a great article referred to in here.

  2. Another commentary after the deadline from Bidyutprabha Gantayat:

    “This haiku straight took me down in to the memory lane of my childhood .The picture was very much relating but grim when first we came across the tryst with life and death in a very playful wayward mood .

    Children play with a dragonfly or butterfly by fixing its tail part with a long string and setting it to fly .The fly tries to fly for life but at last succumbs to death . Here children observe pulsating is life and stillness is death! Unknowingly they discover this universal truth.
    No doubt finally they dump the dead fly and run away . This is religion !!! Their very personal finding that there lies a great barrier between life and death and beware!

    The word religion again takes me to the ancient Vedic scriptures of Hinduism . Religion is what someone puts on , goes with it personally . A kind of awareness or realisation .No teaching or acquired knowledge needed!

    In the ku a kind of enlightenment as the very first line thunders… A surprise element blows in L2 andL3

    “my son invents
    a religion ”

    A sudden change occurs just as in the case of prince Gautama’s . He saw an old man, a stickman, a dead man and finally a hermit. Decided to leave the mundane world!

    Gauram invented his religion and became Buddha the enlightened one!

    Last two lines indicates a substantial change in the boys mind after coming across the dead! Thus universal truth experienced personally but by different people differently .
    And this process goes on .

    A great haiku great thought kudos .
    George Dorsty
    Keith Evetts and
    Alan Summers ”

    Thank you Bidyut – yet another fascinating light on this senryu. Readers add so much.

    1. Dear Keith,
      Thank you so much for acknowledging my comments on re:Vitals 329 .
      Was it beyond deadline?
      I remember Alan Summers asked me to comment within Tuesday that’s 18th January 22 .
      For future weekly comments can you please mention the date and cutoff time so that we /I can post comments within deadline .
      You’re doing a good job !
      Bidyut Prabha

      1. Dear Bidyut – if you read the section announcing the winner and the new poem they have chosen, the time frame is stated. This week’s poem that was proposed last Friday is:

        64 crayons white the least used

        (see above) and the deadline for commentaries on it is midnight Eastern Standard Time tonight, Tuesday 18 January. The commentaries will be posted as re:Virals 330 this coming Friday, 21 January, when a new poem will be chosen and the cycle begins again. Hope this clarifies.

  3. I contacted Keith to ask if he had decided not to post my comment this week, but he replied that he hadn’t received it. I’ve just found it on an open tab of my laptop–unsubmitted! So here it is, for what it’s worth!

    Apologies, Keith. :-)


    George Dorsty’s haiku transported me back to a childhood in which religious ceremonies featured a lot. As if going to mass every Sunday wasn’t enough, my six younger siblings and I used to play at make-believe mass on the stairs of our house. I’m certain that if we’d possessed a hamster that died, there would have been a big funeral!

    The child in this haiku goes one step further. Is he so devastated by the death of this pet that he invents a religion on his own terms, perhaps one that would involve his hamster coming back to life?

    I have heard it said that every child should have some experience of caring for a pet, even if it’s just a stick insect, so that they learn to cope with loss at an early age.

    A simple haiku that reflects the depth of love between a child and his pet.

    1. Thanks Marion! A nice comment that would certainly have been included..

      Look forward to your insights on 64 crayons, as an artist and as a haibun witch. And featured poet for the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku this month…

  4. On McClintock’s outstanding verse:
    dead cat . . .
    to the pouring rain
    — Michael McClintock
    The Haiku Anthology ed. Cor Van den Heuvel (1st Edition, 1974)
    …. so many of us love cats, their cuteness, their inscrutability, their mix of ruthless predation and a love of lazy gentle warmth. It is for me the sudden shock of death – “open-mouthed” – and the incongruous “pouring rain” (that I imagine as cold) that makes this so powerful. Death can come upon us at any time and place, in any circumstance. I wouldn’t see it, as Brooks did, in the context of Vietnam, but to all instances of being overtaken by death: not always the satisfying bedtime scene that we like to picture. (But then, I am not an American living in those vivid, searing times).

    1. I believe why Randy Brooks felt it might be about Vietnam is because of Michael McClintock’s hamburger hill (Vietnam) haiku, poems, sequences, and pieces, that also strongly influenced me when I was living in Australia, as I could get this book locally:

      New Zealand Haiku Anthology (Jan. 1993) ed. Cyril Childs

      A brilliant anthology and something I needed when I first started on my haiku journey.

      And this feature gives a clue as well:

      Haiku in English by Barbara Louise Ungar

      “The problem is in words, but the answer is in perception.”
      —Michael McClintock

      Of course no war dominates Western society anymore. We deserted Afghanistan and now talk about wine and cheese, or wearing masks, instead.

      We can’t know any longer that this might be about Vietnam or any other war, and great loss. As a poem about a cat, dead, alone, in rictus, it is shocking.

      Sudden death is unnerving, as I’ve attended a couple myself, one was a husband and father, dead just an hour or so and still in the shower, with his family downstairs.


      1. I think the great haiku transcend their immediate context, like McClintock’s, although context can add greatly to appreciation subsequently.

        I hope readers will meditate on Margaret Walker’s monoku this week *before* reading it in its haibun context (personally, I gained a lot from doing it that way…) Another intriguing one, thanks Alan..

  5. Dear Radhamani Sarma – I was very struck by that part of your commentary that contrasted the boy’s new heartfelt religion with the notion that the ceremonies of others have become perfunctory and emptied of sentiment. It certainly made me look at the lines in a different way. I think I understand what you mean. Although, for relatives and close friends of the deceased, the sentiment and grief is as much as ever it was, sometimes the ceremonies – and those administering or officiating at them – do seem to have lost their immediacy and real engagement. On the other hand, there is perhaps comfort in a familiar ritual whether or not one believes in the verbatim content. I do wonder whether we have become so habituated to death, particularly in war times or the current pandemic times, that some sensibility to it is lost.

  6. To Alan Summers
    Dear esteemed poet,
    Greetings. Going through your Footnotes, comprising two examples, of dead sparrow and dead cat; so much make us understand we have to still learn a lot more.
    with regards
    Radhamani sarma

  7. To
    Alan Summers,
    Dear esteemed poet,
    Greetings. Apart from the comments , with a vital touch of message, the following observations, quite inspiring, make us re read into it.

    “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

    1. Dear Radhamani sarma,

      Sometimes, when someone says they cannot understand a haiku, then I ask them to take one word at a time: To understand each word’s function, and have that as the base source to unravel the phrasing and possible other meanings.

      In my Haiku Society of America Newsletter ‘Haiku Spotlight’ feature (January 5th 2022) I use this technique in a 2,700 word treatise.

      Getting the basic grammatical components down like this can really help understand the author’s choice of engagement of their poem. And I hope it helps the rest of us when it comes to writing our poems too. I know I could have benefited from this back in the early 1990s when I first started out! :-)

      warm regards,

  8. Dear keith Evetts,
    Always a pleasure reading all comments in this forum, great enriching.
    I would like to dilate upon my comments on the following:

    “These days, humans are discarded the moment they breathe their last; no sentiments, a sort of mechanical performance for cleansing and chants .”
    One aspect of the comment is that based upon a newspaper report, one individual struck by sole penury , had his wife’s dead body on his shoulder, with his two children, by his side, walking, none came to his rescue: all due to penury, want, extreme drudgery. This is one sordid aspect, very recent one.
    yet another aspect, is that veneration , for the dead soul , departed is going away, “Dead”; for in day to day observations, I hear the moment a person is dead and gone, hurry to dispose off the dead, only calculating his treasury, happening all around us , Such is the scant respect for the body, from which breath has gone, his possession are in count. Of course, exceptions are there.
    A contrast with the boy’s religious care to show respect for dead hamster.
    Human values disappearing, in contrast with the persona’s mention of his son’s care for dead hamster.
    A high philosophical read.

  9. Followers please note that thanks to colleagues Tom Borkowski and Dave Russo, we now have a DEDICATED SUBMISSION FORM for commentaries. This should make it easier for new contributors to send them in. For those accustomed to the old ways, should you inadvertently act on autopilot and use the former method, it will still reach its intended destination – for a while, anyway.

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