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 Sébastien Revon, was:
All Souls’ day
my cake never as good
— Eleonore Nickolay
Failed Haiku vol. 7, issue 78, June 2022
Introducing this poem, Sébastien writes:
I love this haiku because of its gentle dramatic power. It is simple and yet sophisticated because it implies a range of senses, smell, taste probably the look of the cake too, and the comparison we might do of our own being in relation to a deceased loved one, a mother in this case. It is sad and yet it celebrates the soul of the deceased. There is a sense of legacy which I appreciate.
The piece is neatly-written, rolls off the tongue with a pleasing rhythm and emphasis on the “never”, and probably justifies the line-break before “as hers” rather than being presented in just two lines, I think. Line 1 immediately establishes the season and the context: the act of remembering dead relatives and (usually) visiting their graves. It is the phrase in lines two and three that brings out several nuances, and leaves a little space for a reader’s imagination. A phrase by one woman about another that has the ring of authenticity.
At first sight, this is a celebration of a loved mother or grandmother with the recollection of her wonderful cake; but the author’s way of putting this negatively in the first person, and making a comparison, may also hint at personal insecurity and self doubt as well as a certain competitive edge and jealousy.
Then, I meditated on outcomes that might be imagined if the deceased is her mother, or her mother-in-law… which leaves scope for either affectionate warmth or resentful wryness, helping this particular cake to rise. Quintessentially feminine — but universal to all who ask how they might be judged by, or who judge themselves against, their others – especially, perhaps, their parents. Don’t we ever?!
Very sharp, acerbic, these lines…. or are they filled with pain? Remembering a loved one, on All Souls’ Day…a day to be expansive, uplifted and grateful….there seems to appear a sense of envy or inadequacy that the narrator’s cake will never be good enough for those left behind. This makes these lines doubly tragic – with the weight of some lack, imagined or real.
With the reference to All Souls, or Halloween, when it is said that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, I assumed that this haiku referred to a person comparing their cake-making skills to those of a loved one who has passed. Could it be someone trying to recreate their mother or grandmother’s cake recipe, perhaps?
But then I remembered reading about ‘Soul Cakes.’ These little cakes were traditionally made to commemorate the dead in many Christian traditions and were homemade cakes that were handed out to the poor, who would go round the neighbourhood, begging on the feast of All Souls or All Saints. A version of this practice continues to this day in several countries, including parts of England, Portugal and The Philippines. With this in mind, perhaps the speaker in the haiku simply noticed that her cakes don’t go down as well as her sister’s, so perhaps it’s a simply a case of sour grapes between siblings!
I love this senryu and learned a lot about sinning while doing my research for it.
All Souls’ Day (the kigo) places us in November, the 2nd of November to be precise, when Roman Catholics commemorate the souls of those who are believed to be suffering in Purgatory. These souls are unable to go straight to heaven because they died with the guilt of lesser (i.e. not mortal) sins for which they had not done any penance when alive, therefore they have to be punished in Purgatory.
The Roman Catholic belief is that the prayers of the living help to cleanse these souls so they are fit for heaven. All Souls’ Day is dedicated to these prayers and to remembrance and to making soul cakes. On this day children and the poor would go “souling” knocking on doors asking for alms and they would be given a soul cake by the occupants. Every cake eaten would represent a soul freed from Purgatory.
In this senryu the poet is bemoaning the fact that her rival always bakes a better cake than she does (I suppose that always being outdone must be a kind of purgatory). But the irony of this is that in so doing the author is committing the sin of envy which is a mortal sin, so she’d better repent. Maybe the author thinks her soul was never as good as her rival’s soul either and she is imagining she is writing from purgatory itself where the penance for her envy is to be permanently humiliated by her rival’s better performance – a sort of not so heavenly “Bake off.”
The tense of this senryu is an enigma – “never as good”. We don’t know if this all happened in the past or is still (repeatedly) happening. We don’t know know if the “her” is still alive or being remembered by the poet on All Souls’ day (or already in purgatory or somewhere better … or worse)
I love the last two words, (never as good ……”as hers”) the tone of which, for me, implies that the person who is judging which cake is better (the Paul Hollywood of this senryu) is actually the poet’s rival herself- it’s her own opinion that her own cake is better – and this is the sin of pride and pride is the worst sin, and the first sin as it is held to displace God: “Where there is pride, there is no room for God” as seen in Psalm 10:4.
So if “her” is no longer living, we might imagine where she is now – and if she is still living – where the poet might like her to go! But this is probably just my uncharitable brain.
A day of remembrance in homage to the near and dear departed. Eleonore Nickolay’s senryu in the first person, in the context of All Soul’s day, makes a painful reference to the cake, a detail leaving space for asking why. In western tradition, All Soul’s day being celebrated on November 2nd, a way of commemorating the dead is offering cakes to the poor. The poet/speaker makes a comparison of her cake with that of another, maybe her friend. A possible inference is that all is not salutary. Or it may be a word of praise, or a gift or celebration or laudatory remarks all clothed in the word “my cake” in comparison with that of another. Or even, that the speaker being poor cannot equal the charitable cake of someone wealthier.
Amoolya Kamalnath – a soulful senryu:
To take it literally, probably the poet thinks that the cake she bakes, to commemorate All Soul’s Day for a particular person, is not as good as the one the person she is making it for, used to make. It could also mean a second person such as the poet’s sister or mother or friend bakes better than her and hence has baked the cake and other items for the occasion. The cake here may refer to the food items prepared on that day and not any actual cake.
The poet probably spent some time of her life in Germany where there is a custom of preparing and consuming a pastry, in the shape of a twist, called Hefezopf which is not sweet and is more bread than pastry. It is also interesting to note that on the eve of Le Jour des Morts, the French conduct parties involving singing and telling stories about the dead and at midnight they eat a special supper for the dead which traditionally includes milk, black grain, bacon, pancakes and cider. So the poet may be feeling inferior compared to, for example, her neighbour, in not being such a good cook.
She is actually comparing herself and feeling sad. She wants to be better. Her grief is double here, it’s about the departed and about her perceived incompetence. A very soulfully written haiku.
Author Eleonore Nickolay:
This haiku is self-explanatory, no mystery about it. I think that readers will get the meaning immediately.
I believe that haiku resound in us when we share essential human experiences. Sharing these experiences – and more particularly through haiku – makes us happy and even, sometimes, has a comforting effect.
Once, whilst I was arranging my French parents-in-law’s grave for All Souls’ Day, I thought about all the Sunday family reunions spent together around the table. My mother-in-law was an excellent cook and she always ended the meal with a delicious cake. I still have some of her recipes, but it isn’t just my cakes which aren’t the same as hers; all the cosy atmosphere has passed with her – as has mine and my husband’s youth and even our children’s youth! Life doesn’t have the same flavour anymore.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Amoolya 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. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick 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!
river fog –
a nameless ache
fills the page
— Hansha Teki
Frogpond 35.3 Autumn 2012
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Listed among Europe’s top 100 creative haikuists, Eleonore Nickolay was born in Koblenz, Germany, in 1957 and lives in Vaires sur Marne, France, east of Paris. She has written haiku (in English, French and German) since 2013 and is a board member of the Deutsche Haiku Gesellschaft and the Association francophone de haiku. Eleonore’s an editor of the French haiku magazine GONG and the German one SOMMERGRAS.
You’ll find some of Eleonore’s haiku and senryu on the web; for example:
in their wine bottle
a little left over
THF Haiku of the Day
an ad announces the end
International Women’s Haiku Festival: Two Haiku by Eleonore Nickolay