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 Joshua Gage, was:
of his cum
— Lori A Minor
Peach Fuzz 9:2 (2022)
Introducing this poem, Joshua writes:
I like this poem because it’s a clear haiku — kigo, kire, etc. But it’s also raw and sexy, and not a typical topic of haiku. Furthermore, Minor is one of the few haiku poets actually making an effort to get haiku into non-haiku genres, and this is important in spreading the possibilities and potential for haiku and expanding our community.
First, Lori A Minor is now: Lithica Ann (they/them/Mx.)(deadname: Lori A Minor). A couple of commentators were abreast of this announcement last week. I’ve changed the name in others’ commentaries for consistency.
Is there more of a “Ewww” moment than an “Aha” moment in this plain-wrapper bareku? Or is that the point? Or something more…
The sticky physical realities of human mating may fall short of lofty love, ecstasy and afterglow, but they are no less part of life. This side of sexual intercourse up close has been ably tackled by, for instance, Shakespeare:
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed
…honeying and making love
Nose hairs in the moon
– My ass
—Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation Haikus (1958)
For Basho, “there is no subject whatsoever that is not fit for haiku“, but that depended on aesthetic handling. He was critical of scenes created for shock (I’m not, provided there’s a valid purpose). Here, it’s interesting to see the effect that a single crude word has on the lines. Substituting with, for example, “ice cream” would immediately bowdlerise the verse and move it from seriousness to the level of cheap humour. Basho said that one use of haiku is to “correct” colloquialism. (Ueda citing Sanzōshi – Three Books, by Hattori Dohō p. 182). A crude word used correctly in a haiku becomes no longer crude: it is “corrected.” Shiki too concluded that “in this jumbled world of ten thousand things, there are things that are beautiful, things that are ugly, and things that combine beauty and ugliness. However, if we attend to beauty, we can find almost nothing that completely lacks it.” Here, the crafting is there; the touch is perhaps heavy-handed; something of an effort to find the beauty – but does it score on other criteria to elevate the lines to art? And if beauty was not the aim here, then something else was. I look forward to learning what’s in readers’ minds…
The thick humidity that precedes a storm in summer. It’s intense the way that sex is intense. The build-up to the release of thunder, lightening and a downpour. Then the emotional human storm of male orgasm with its cries, lightening flashes in the brain and the rain of body fluids. Macrocosm in nature, microcosm in this very human interaction. Summer sex, less encumbered by clothing, by having to keep warm. A pause. A moment of fascination with the male essence. It is not only that it’s physically sticky but also hints at the way sex can build a bond. I love the way this haiku seems to say everything in the most graphic detail and yet still manages to hint at so much more.
If you look closely, this poem has wonderful sound patterns in the vowels and consonants right up until the final word, where it all changes, delivering a kind of knock-out punch. This structure mutually complements the subject matter. It’s refreshing to read a haiku – or senryu – which has a subject matter, as nowadays many don’t. And it has a glorious sight-rhyme.
I have to say I thought twice about leaving a commentary on this haiku.
First things first, we can say there is a clear and straightforward juxtaposition of similarity between L1 and L2/L3 (thick/stickiness, humidity/cum), a summer kigo in L1 and a clear cut between L1 and L2/L3. So? It ticks those boxes.
I am not easily shocked, so I wasn’t on reading this verse. The main difficulty I had was to find an eventual depth to this, or several layers of meaning in it. I think that the purpose of the verse is not its eventual depth, but rather its social aim if I may say so.
I read the poet’s biography and interview in THF (Advice for beginners). For me, this haiku is a statement of freedom: “yes, women can and ought to write about things like this in this way.” As crude as it might appear, this verse is a honest depiction of reality.
The interesting fact is that after several readings I imagined myself in a rainforest, my partner contemplating the remains of our act of love out in the open… Yes, I say “contemplating”…. L2 and L3 juxtaposed with L1 bring a sort of erotic-shasei feel that made me picture a woman lost in her thoughts, contemplating in a way.
L3 is a clear “aha! moment”. Maybe there are two kinds of “aha! moment”:
– satori (it doesn’t happen often)
– orgasm (well… it happens more or less often…)
With this verse, Lithica Ann introduces us perhaps to a more accessible (“at our fingertips”) kind of awakening.
This is an excellent haiku. The humidity and stickiness are mutually reinforcing, adding to the impact. Every word contributes–no excess.
A very delicate topic, comprising a vital occurrence/subtle organ, created by the Almighty; part and parcel of human nature, much used, abused, debated and discarded by some. The seminal fluid is instrumental in orgasm or sexual pleasure and further for multiplication of progeny and creation on earth. Candid observation, anatomy, biological necessity all condensed into “his cum.” Possibly a female observes her experience/outcome of her intercourse or sexual feel etc. — perhaps she is not able to wash her garment the next day due to the thick stickiness, anger now replacing her happy moments; or what was smooth and easy during her moments of conjugal intimacy, now is replaced by a repulsion or abhorrence. The phrase “thick humidity” may not have anything to do with weather, perhaps more with body weather; the state of cum from the male organ is sticky, choices are for the open discussion of readers. It might sound vulgar/common, but it’s part and parcel of biology. Just as “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” so also, more things are got by this cum than this world dreams of.
Humidity is a kigo, i.e., season word, for summer, setting poet and lover in the context of nature as a whole — human nature as part of nature. Summer is the high point of the year for living creatures, and poet and lover have just reached a high point of their own. Summer is hot; poet and lover have been generating some heat themselves. The kigo becomes an implicit metaphor for orgasm. For all of these reasons, the poem could be considered a haiku, despite its focus on people. The poem could also be considered a senryu for obvious reasons. The imagery engages the reader in a multi-sensory way, both visual and tactile. A range of emotions is evoked without being mentioned explicitly–probably a different range for every reader. The poem is actualized with the utmost economy of syllables. Mazal tov!
Shiki says in his essay Haiku On Shit that it is possible to find beauty in something as ugly as shit if it is combined with something else, and then it “becomes possible to sustain a slight hint of beauty.” For example in Buson’s
Fallen red plum blossoms appear to be ablaze on clumps of horse shit
I am not saying that semen is ugly, though for me the word “cum” is. And I may be blind but I can see no such combination in the verse we are considering that redeems it – that makes it beautiful or gives it a light touch of humour, or counterposes the ugly with the beautiful to accentuate both by contrast.
The juxtaposition from the weather/heat/climate to spermatozoa does nothing for me. I see no beauty, no eroticism, no lightness, no insight – nothing appeals. In an article by Purvaja Sawant in the India Times, she explores what differentiates the sensual from the obscene:
“… social commentator Santosh Desai believes the difference between the two lies in the intention. “Vulgarity leaves nothing to chance. It excludes every possibility, ……….. It just doesn’t let you have any other point of view. Eroticism, on the other hand, is all about interpretations. It doesn’t impose itself on you. It lets you be human, and not an obligatory consumer, like vulgarity”
There is no space in this verse for me. No ma. It doesn’t let me have any other point of view. It is simply an explicit description that leaves me cold (despite the thick humidity).
I read a recent exchange between Joshua and Lithica Ann – they had apparently been trying to outdo each other in embarrassment, and I wonder whether these lines are a product of that? For me it is a bareku.
In this poem Lithica Ann has used words and images that perhaps we are not used to seeing in contemporary journals. I ask myself why not? Well there is a practical perspective, when marketing these journals they have to acknowledge adult themes, which may reduce the readership. “Adult themed” is open to all sorts of interpretation, isn’t it? Not every journal has a readership that will enjoy this haiku.
I also worry that editors may censor work, possibly for the reasons outlined above, possibly because they might get slated in social media, never pleasant as I found out myself, possibly because they themselves find it distasteful. If you believe in free speech then none of the above should be relevant. What should be relevant is, is this a well crafted piece of work? So I’ll look at it dispassionately (I hope).
Does it work as a haiku?
You can clearly see a season, for me it speaks of summer. It’s in simple language. The juxtaposition has two understandable parts, with just enough space between the fragment and the phrase for us to use our imagination and interpret it as we want to. It’s succinct, every word has its place. I particularly like the fact it has no verbs. It shows, doesn’t tell. We can make our own mind up about the background of this situation. It’s dispassionate.
I’d love to know what Lithica Ann meant by putting these two images together. What is her deeper meaning? For me it speaks of the base instincts of humanity. We are, most of us, programmed to have sex. Here we have two people, who, even when the weather is too hot and humid to do anything else, just copulate. You feel the languor of the situation, you see the debris of a hot and sweaty union, and for me, there’s humour, but it might be different for you. That’s the joy of a good haiku, isn’t it? You, the reader have the space to decide what is going on, what the haiku is about.
So what’s my conclusion? Well Sister Mary, my old headmistress will be turning in her grave when I write that Lithica Ann has created a haiku I envy. Not just because it works so well, is well thought through, beautifully put together, but because as usual this poet has been brave with their language choices. We should all be brave. Bravo!
Momentarily setting aside the, let’s say, “startle” effect of L3 there’s not a lot here, in my opinion, to commend this as a haiku. (For one thing, the “internal comparison” strikes this reader as fairly facile, although the repeated “ick” sounds do seem suggestive). But supposing that such an effect is what this poem is really about, I’m reminded of these words from nearly forty years ago by advertising legend David Ogilvy: “If all you want to do is attract attention, then you put a gorilla in a jockstrap.”
The work of Lithica Ann has often caused a strong gut reaction. This young poet and editor’s unique voice and raw honesty can elicit a sense of shock or horror at the revelation of some dark, traumatic life experience:
summer the heat of his punch
— Haiku Dialogue, August 2019. Shortlist, 2019 Touchstone Award.
Sometimes it is an astute observation or novel juxtaposition in their haiku or senryu that causes surprise, or their command of language and ability to suggest so much in a few words:
— MahMight haiku journal, 5 June 2021
However, I must admit that I found the poem in question slightly disappointing. Although it caused a definite reaction due to its blatant ‘ickiness and stickiness’, I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t tell the reader anything new or provide much material for thought. Yes, the alliteration in the K and S sounds might effectively suggest moisture and stickiness, but the two parts feel slightly too close. Consider it against the following piece, which suggests a similar theme but with a much lighter touch, and leaving out any gory details.
the dig of his nails
into my waist
— Synchronized Chaos, June, 2022
Then again, my reaction could just be the result of many years of convent school education here in Ireland! Seriously, I think Joshua could have selected a stronger poem as I don’t think this one did Lithica Ann’s voice justice. But I will be most interested to read the reactions of others.
Lithica Ann’s writing has been on my radar since 2017 and this short poem is in the same vein as much of the poet’s self-named “misfit art.” Lithica has chosen to endeavour to make art from the decidedly less-rosy experiences of life, such as suicide, abuse, rape, humiliation, crippling disabilities, neurodivergent perceptual and cognitive functionality, oppression etc. Their art seeks to express/confess openly the darkness, pain, anger, depression, and all one’s most taboo thoughts, feelings and life choices with the hope that, by sharing them with an understanding and compassionate readership, the poems may help exorcise the demons that would destroy them.
In 1974 my partner, our autistic daughter, and I moved south away from Auckland to escape the thick humidity as it oppressively weighed down on the isthmus and the human spirit during its sub-tropical summers. As one with respiratory problems, “thick humidity” is also an image of the somewhat cloying atmosphere that begins with intimate sexual foreplay, into hot and heavy sexual congress, followed by orgasm and the experience of ‘la petite mort.’ The hot and heavy humid process has been well expressed by one of the French novelists. I cannot recall now whether it was Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, or one of the writers of erotica in the late 19th century? The disordering of the senses is, however, all-encompassing.
The juxtaposition of fragment and phrase carries an air of inevitability. I don’t know which label to apply to this poem but regard it as being more on the bareku end of the spectrum. In his Penguin Book of Haiku, Adam L. Kern defines bareku as “dirty sexy haiku — literally ‘breaking-propriety verse’ or ‘laying-bare verse’ or even ‘voluptuous verse’.” I also cannot say with any assurance whether the poet is expressing a tender post-coital reverie or is hinting at revulsion at its sticky denouement. It surely fits the ELH “show not tell” criteria.
The cloying atmosphere of this haiku evokes an overtly sexual moment. Is this deeply personal, an alone instance that as a reader we are given a peek into but also an invitation to acknowledge our own private pleasure? Or is this a moment of conception – the ‘stickiness’ that will seed some new life with a partner? Or is this something more sinister that does not leave us, the ‘stickiness’ of an unwanted moment from a non-consensual sexual encounter? This haiku is visceral, both beautiful and surprisingly alarming. Is it simply the continuing taboo of still finding sexual words like ‘cum’ upsetting or unwanted or does it prompt us to look within to explore our own sexual histories and preferences and perhaps trauma? I suspect this haiku covers all of the above, its ‘humidity’ pervades our memories and hidden desires, our secrets and pains. It sticks with us and percolates – stays both on and in our skin.
M. R. Defibaugh:
Erotic haiku is an important addition to the genre, especially as censorship has become more widespread in the literary world. Although not appropriate for all publications, it is good to see haiku taken seriously as a form for adult readers. What may seem only a poem of shock value seems so because our minds tend to dismiss what has already been registered as inappropriate. Humidity is something we can easily relate to, as is the final word, so why does something so familiar seem so taboo? Yes, it is shocking, but haiku is meant to surprise and challenge us, as this poem does. Suggestiveness is often most effective, but this poem still shows us something without telling us what it means. Maybe the humidity is so bad that this comparison is the only one the poet can make to emphasize their discomfort. That the poet can discern the humidity in this way speaks to their comfort with the subject matter. I applaud Lithica Ann’s bravery in sharing this poem and others as adventurous.
Matt Cariello — deducing a negative charge against a man’s behaviour:
Let’s explore how this poem navigates through metaphoric maps, which are based on how we understand the world around us.
“Thick humidity” at first appears to be redundant because humidity is a default “thick” state of atmosphere. (How many times have I walked out into a hot summer day and said “It’s like soup out here!”) And yet “thick” adds considerable assonance and consonance to what follows: the first short /i/ sound in “thick” is repeated twice in “humidity” and once in “stickiness”; /k/ is repeated in “thick,” “stickiness” and, finally, “cum.” These sounds create a series of internal rhymes, which aurally reinforce the comparison of thick humidity to stickiness of cum.
When we say that one thing is like another thing, we’re introducing the idea of metaphoric associations. The hope in writing a poem is that what we say about one thing expands what we say about the other thing. This poem uses the metaphoric map of thick humidity and places it over the map of stickiness of cum. The use of the pronoun “his” points to a person other than the speaker in the poem, which further emphasizes the relational aspect of the two maps: this large thing (“thick humidity”) is like “his” smaller thing (“cum”).
Yet this poem leaves me wondering. How am I supposed to read these two maps in relation to each other? How has the idea of “thick humidity” expanded my understanding of “the stickiness of cum” – and vice versa? To understand this, we need to place some kind of value on the comparisons being made. For me, “thick humidity” has a negative charge to it: it’s not a pleasant state. That negative charge carries over to “the stickiness of his cum.” Like the humidity, the cum clings to one uncomfortably. Therefore, the cum has a clear negative connotation, and the poem begins to express an imbalance between the two participants in a sex act. In short, the man has imposed himself, in more ways than one, on the speaker of the poem, and we’re being asked to read this situation as an indictment of his behavior.
Author Lithica Ann comments:
“Did this actually happen to you?” It’s the question I’m asked most about my writing. I’ve never cared to write for the “shock factor” in my Modern English Haiku— I think that’s what fiction and speculative poetry are for. I speak my truth, so for me this is no more than a common, mundane moment.
I think it’s safe to say that all folx, even those who fall on the Ace spectrum, have had some type of experience where they’ve felt the stickiness of cum, whether theirs or someone else’s, or at least the stickiness of their own bodily fluids of some sort. It’s nothing more than raw human nature. Thus being said, I’d argue the “shock” is solely through the link and shift technique and more specifically the shift between lines two and three. “thick humidity” is not only a fairly universal image, it’s also kigo, solidifying the fact that my poem is haiku, not senryu, in the first line. Then, I link to line two with “the stickiness” because we know that humidity and stickiness go hand-in-hand, but shift away from the expected in line three with “of his cum,” thus creating the “aha moment.” There’s also the juxtaposition between the stickiness of the humidity and the stickiness of cum. Again, nothing more than a universal, mundane moment solidified with techniques from my haiku toolbox.
This might be “vulgar” to some, but I think only because Western cuture and society have tossed the TABOO stamp on sex. Haiku aside, sexual vulgarity has been in literature since 8th Century BC Greece, so as far as the topic is concerned, I think we’re good here. Oh… and when reading my work, the answer will always be “Yes. It actually did happen to me.”
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best (of several extremely good ones) this week, for its convincing detective work to decipher the inner meaning of this poem using metaphor maps, Matt 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!
thistledown children drifting away
— Lorin Ford
Frogpond 37.3, 2014
The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.
A blockbuster week. As so often, well done, commentators, and the poet. A provocative verse. An excellent range of educative responses. If we all had identical views on everything, how dull life would be.
Lithica Ann is a forthright breakout poet and editor riding several waves. Their interview with Julie Bloss Kelsey, including some biographic details, is in the Haiku Foundation’s “Advice for Beginners” feature here. Lithica Ann’s Moth Orchid Press is issuing an anthology of erotic haiku, Shaping Water, which should be an exciting read.
Following up a recent workshop on the seamy side of haiku, its history and some conclusions, I look forward immensely to being one of the community judges — hopefully with Lithica Ann — of the verses submitted to Poetry Pea’s call in July. And to readers’ submissions.
Finally: the original meaning of “vulgar” is “common, of the common people.” If there’s a better word for the kind of language the Queen would never use on television, I’d like to know what it is.
PS: Dear Shakespeare: those 17 syllables are pretty hard to beat…