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
thíos anseo canaid don doircheacht na míolta móra down below singing to the darkness, great whales — Buachallán Buí (Ireland; translated from the Irish by the author and Anatoly Kudryavitsky), Shamrock 25 (2013)
Buachallán Buí’s haiku reveals its mysteries slowly. It opens with the enigmatic ‘down below’, indicating depth without nominating location. There is, however, a suggestion of the bowels of a ship with an echo of the pumping shanty ‘fire down below’. Shanties were working songs, sung to help relieve the tedium of long, constant toil and to keep the sailors working in unison. They were typically sung when the anchor was being laboriously raised or the bilge pumped.
These suggestions are heightened by line two, with its specific references to ‘singing’ and ‘darkness’. The haiku is deliberately staged. All lines are end-stopped, though line two functions as a pivot. This suggests either momentary pauses in the work, or a graduated descent to the bottom. On the face of it, the second option seems unlikely; it is difficult to imagine sailors singing as their vessel sinks. The choice of preposition is highly suggestive. Whatever creature or being is singing is doing so ‘to’ rather than ‘in’ the darkness. This implies an intimate connection between the singers and the dark medium within which they are located.
Line three reveals their identity — ‘great whales’. The poem shifts completely, from the human dimension to that of permanent denizens of the deep. There is a contrast between the previous potential references to sailors, possibly even whalers, and these creatures occupying a territory which is solely their own. We are left with a shifting image of the largest mammals on earth (moving in the deepest waters, beyond reach of light) and the plangent sounds they make in a language only other whales properly comprehend. Their singing seems to accentuate the darkness and
the silence that settles as the haiku ends. It treats a world framed by mankind, and here re-created by a human imagination, yet one which exists beyond our reach.
Looking at the Irish seems to add to the interpretative possibilities. I do not speak Irish, but online translators suggest some other options which I offer with all appropriate trepidation. ‘Thíos anseo’ can be read as ‘below here’. Gone is the immediate suggestion of something nautical and in its place is a phrase that implies a comparison, or two points of reference. We are placed ‘here’ and then there is a location somewhere below us, either in the earth beneath us, in the waters of ocean, river or lake or, depending on where we are located, in the air. The imaginative possibilities seem wider in the original Irish and there is a stronger initial sense of the speaker.
Line two offers the beautiful, alliterative ‘don doircheach’ as an evocation of darkness. The last line, ‘na míolta móra’, has a lovely imaginative openness. ‘Miolta’ can be a word applied to any creature. Coupling it with ‘móra’ creates the Irish word for whale. Thus, in Irish, all whales are great. The use of the generic ‘miolta’ suggests the struggle early observers had to come to terms with the creature, to give it a specific name that brought it within the comfortable bounds of human nomenclature. This echoes the Biblical description of a ‘great fish’ for the creature which swallowed Noah. However, it implies an even larger beggaring of description as the more specific ‘fish’ is not applied. The Irish inversion of the English adjective/noun order leaves the line ending with the resonant ‘móra’ with its concluding open vowel sound reaching out beyond the line like an echo sounding of the whale’s huge bulk.
Finally, the Irish has the quality of beautiful noise that attaches to some unfamiliar languages. The alliteration, the diphthongs and long vowel sounds contribute to this effect. It seems to echo the song of the whales themselves — a haunting sound with a meaning human speakers can only wistfully intuit.
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!
a ladder leans into the loft winter light — Susan Constable, The Heron’s Nest XVII:3 (2015)