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re:Virals 33

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

     your hair drawn back
     the sharp taste of radishes
          — M. Kettner, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (2013)

Jo McInerney finds a mythopoeic resonance in the fruit of the garden:

Kettner’s remarkable haiku brings sight and taste startlingly together.

Line one gives us the curve of a neck, the long sweep up from the shoulder and then the suddenly exposed skin at the nape with the line carrying through to the swelling of the back of the skull. The image is at once vivid, vulnerable and gently sensual.

It is dramatically intensified by line two. “[T]he sharp taste”, following on from line one, suggests a love bite. The reader images the pale flesh of the back of the neck marked by teeth or the sampling, sucking pressure of a lover’s lips. Then our expectations are subverted. The taste is “of radishes”. What a wicked yet apt reversal.

Suddenly we have the red-skinned, roundness of the radish and its white, exposed inner flesh. A beautiful echoing of curves — the shape of the radish, the shape of the bite and behind them both the curve of a human neck and the dome of a human skull.

It works a little like the description of the Grimm Snow-white. “It was the middle of winter, and the snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, and a Queen sat at her window working, and her embroidery-frame was of ebony. And as she worked, gazing at times out on the snow, she pricked her finger, and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow. And when she saw how bright and red it looked, she said to herself, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” Not very long after she had a daughter, with a skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony.

Here also, one image overlays the other and their qualities interpenetrate. Not only is Snow-white beautiful, but there is a vulnerability in her virginal whiteness and the possibility of deflowering in those drops of blood. Later she is poisoned by biting an alluring apple where red, white and the ambivalence of sexual appetite are suggested even more directly.

In Kettner’s haiku, sight and taste come wonderfully together. The pungency of the radish takes on a sharply sexual quality such that I don’t think I will be able to look at this vegetable in the same way again.


As this week’s winner, Jo 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 33:

     glimpse of dolphin
     beyond the river mouth . . .
     friends a youth ago
          — Rodney Williams, Stylus Poetry Journal 28 (2008)
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