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 Melanie Alberts, was:
how else to procreate
— Akua Lezli Hope
ubu. small absurdist poems, June 2022
Introducing this poem, Melanie writes:
I’m curious to see how others view this speculative verse. My first instinct was to see it through the lens of a horticulturist grafting trees, but likely there will be more creative interpretations. I imagine there’s a flash sci-fi story within these three lines!
That this appears in journal of absurdist poems, and that by the poet’s biography she is an enthusiast of speculative poetry, sci-fi and fantasy, might lead some readers to think that this is a consciously surrealist verse (see footnote) that fits the paradigm of a haiku.
However, I don’t think we have a surrealist poem here, but a complex one that hangs together, rational, rooted in Nature and rich in allusion to the human condition. Letting it soak in, I considered the crisp-sounding “branched children” as the key phrase to unlock the verse. Given a different first line, it might have been about the principle of inheritance in object-oriented programming, or about ancestry. But I am an enthusiastic gardener, and think that Melanie’s introduction is on the mark. “Branched children” suggest young woody plants or trees. Then the elements of the poem fall into place: “thinning” is the removal of branches or side-stems; “hurt” is cutting. Taking cuttings, often from thinned stems or twigs whether green or woody, is a principal means by which gardeners propagate trees and other plants. And “how else….”? Well, there are several alternative means of vegetative propagation that do not involve cutting, such as offsets, rhizomes, suckers, layering… as well as the primary means of sexual procreation in plants by pollination and dissemination of seeds.
Having established a plausible primary meaning of the poem, there are other layers. Trees and children, branching, hurt and procreation are highly evocative concepts. A meditative reader might find multiple associations in “thinning” — of reduction, dilution, ageing and selection, and of pain or damage in “hurt.” They might indicate a poet subliminally communicating that, despite sad difficulties that there may be for some in procreation, there may be other means of leaving an inheritance if one only thinks of them. Alternatively, focusing on the word “children”, one might ponder whether there are other ways of bringing them up than pruning them. Or cogitate on the fate of the branches left out of selection.
Altogether an intriguing poem, out of the haiku mainstream, that blends nature and humanity in an unexpected way. It repays thought. Getting the reader’s attention is always a good start — as long as they’re ready to invest some time and effort. The poem is open to the reader to interpret in ways that are not prescribed nor circumscribed by the poet. In interview February 2017, Akua Lezli Hope says: “I am most satisfied when a poem works on several levels, when it sings, rings, plays the changes, and invokes the transcendent.” By those benchmarks I think this verse succeeds. Thanks to Melanie for proposing it, and I look forward to other commentators’ reactions and to the poet’s illumination of her poem.
Peggy Hale Bilbro:
Just after we have seen the straightforward poem of last week and discussed the pros and cons of esoteric haiku, we are faced with this poem, appropriately published in a journal for absurdist poems. These lines are hard ones to pull together. Is it a senryu? Is it a haiku? Is it neither? Rather than trying to classify it, I am going with my very first emotional reaction to the poem, which is in relation to childbirth. ‘Thinning hurt’, as any woman who has given birth knows, is a real thing and is ultimately the only way to procreate, even when the birth is a surgical one. Yes, we procreate — we produce – children through pain, through the thinning of our bodies, but branched children? How is that so? From there I am led to the natural element of this poem. As fall approaches when leaves and nuts fall from the tree, there is a thinning of their attachment as they pull away from the mother tree. At risk of personifying a tree, I still wonder if there is pain as the tree gives up the fruit she has succored and nurtured for a year, or sometimes longer. The fruit, the nuts, the seeds, eventually branch out into their own lives procreating once again in a cycle of life. Even the leaves nurture life as they carpet the ground adding their nutrients to the mix that supports life. Am I reading too much into this poem? Perhaps, but it is a poem that asks the reader to dig deeper, to do the work of a diligent reading.
I’d like to read Akua Lezli Hope’s Haiku on thinning hurt as an 8-word pastoral conversation on socio-political hurts: colonialism, slavery, social injustice… wherein the mother is a metaphor for the disadvantaged, always seeking futuristic hope for a better tomorrow—herein the living and diversity of our children, where the children are also an allegory for reinventing the self and other. Anything to be, to exist.
Since the struggle of childbirth is called “labor,” this Scifaiku freights the challenge even further by raising the bar ― as if a new ideal of “branched children” must be created.
Since “thinning hurt” struck me as the “volta,” I could see this haiku revised with that as its final line.
Delighted to see an absurdist poem, a shift from the conventional philosophy and traditions, and something different from the Romantic apotheosis of Nature. This fine example by Akua Lezli Hope for me highlights physiology and its impact on psychology. How often people stand in front of the mirror, for self admiration, wondering how long and how best to carry forward and preserve the same.
Losing weight, getting thinner for the sake of better appearance may also imply a self, haggard and devoid of potential strength, producing likewise (branched) children.
Dwelling in an absurdist world, maintaining that we exist in a world of satire, an absurd, valueless existence, man loses himself in being.
I am not a critic, but a poet and a reader, and render for others here my personal experience in reading this 8-word poem.
That first line hit me in two directions:
“Thinning hurt”… What is meant by “thinning”? Thinning what? What is doing the thinning? Who/what does it hurt? How does it hurt? And then the pleasure of the sound: thinning hurt. When I go back and analyze why it pleases me, I come down to: “thinning,” so thin and skipping a sound — those innocent short “i”s amidst the slight negative feel of the nose-wrinkling “n”s, starting with the gentle whisper of “Th” and then the followed by the exasperated sigh of “H,” all brought to an abrupt halt with the guttural “ur” and full stop of “t.” And why not “thinning hurts” ? That question came to me on a second reading. No… “hurt” is better for the sentence’s declarative finality, the acceptance implied in the past tense. Again I return to who was hurt — the thinned, or the thinner?
The second line starts with another pushed H — grievance masked in justification — “how else?” What else can I do? The word “procreate” stood out for me. We propagate plants…they reproduce themselves by various means…”procreate” is a word generally limited to humans reproducing sexually… So, the thinner thins the plant(s) while at the same time the thinner is identified with the plant(s), and creation goes forward (pro=Latin for ‘forward’). And the poem is in favor of that creation (pro=English for ‘in support of’). I have a small difficulty as a reader in calling up the image: is this the thinning where some seedlings are removed to allow others to thrive, or the thinning of branches from a single plant to allow it to thrive and produce fewer but heartier fruit? I tend to see this second meaning. In either case, thinning hurts (me more than it hurts you?). And it creates “branched children” — a feat of alliteration and consonant clustering.
Finally, because my mind always leaps to metaphor, this slim poem makes me think on how it was thinned to this efficiency, from which meaning can branch prodigiously, and what else in this poet’s life, and mine — and yours? — benefits from thinning, despite the pain?
Melora Johnson :
I flinched a little when I read this poem. Did the author mean we thin the hurt, or hurt by thinning? Pain can be productive, though not pleasant. At first I pictured pruning instead of thinning, cutting away the hurts in order to give the children room to branch out and grow toward the sun. Pruning hurts the tree in order to give it more opportunity to grow in a specified way and set fruit. But then I thought more about thinning – thinning the seedlings in the radishes, to give the main plants room to grow and branch out, to become sturdy and healthy, with less competition of resources. Then there is the thinning of material through loving it over a period of time, removing some of the fibers little by little, through successive washings. I definitely prefer the thought of removing some of the hurts through love.
Oh gosh! This one was difficult for me coming from a conservative South Indian family and speaking of intimate stuff openly being a taboo. What’s “thinning hurt”? Is it the lovemaking or the mating in series, of two people? Thinning hurt could be related to the rupture of the hymen that occurs during an intercourse or it could be the subtle pain and/or discomfort occuring during the process. Or it could mean that the two adults have now become one single entity. At first sight, the poem seemed to me that Akua was hinting at the process of reproduction itself as the word procreate is in the second line. Can it really be anything else? This little ‘hurt’ is essential for the production of progeny. Branched children here may refer to the couple having more than one child similar to the many branches of the one parent tree.
However, on a second glance, I thought it could resonate with something completely different from what our mind thinks of at first. Thinning hurt could actually mean to thin and erase the lines of ego and hurt between siblings and their small nuclear families. How else can procreation of ‘branched’ children occur? Branched children might well refer to the many generations branching. This is the way the family tree can have progressive and proliferative branching and the canopy can grow dense with all the cousins and near and far relatives being united and together. Isn’t this what we envision when we say we want healing and peace in the world?
T. D. Walker states in interview with Akua: “One theme your poems come back to again and again is the idea of birth and, poignantly, rebirth.” Akua responds, “Rebirth is an ongoing concern of mine as a human entity in the anthropocene. We must change. Everything must change. We must mother change and give birth to new selves and new ways of being.” Akua also says that her “’Otherwheres’ (ArtFarm Press, October 2020) features poems that explore the themes of change, rebirth, and the power of speculative poetry to create new narratives that give readers a deeper and more complex view into lives that popular culture often portrays in damaging tropes.”
She’s a pioneer of speculative poetry. Her favourite kind of speculative poetry is the kind that “does more than one thing at once…..Poems that instruct and seduce, poems that depict something unknown or mythological beings who comment on the here and now, poems that are ostensibly about one thing, but then are all about love.” And again in the first-mentioned interview: “Speculative poetry can re-engage wonder and commitment, it can illuminate and enchant; it can transport within while it journeys to an elsewhere. Speculative poetry may defend and serve. I am stunned by wonder and extol its myriad manifestations. I am stung by denials and dismissals, and I chafe against them; I protest, rebuke and rebel. Speculative poetry may serve fierce counter-narratives with joy, aplomb, stealth and humorous transgression.”
So can this week’s haiku be called speculative? “Thinning hurt” could be construed as thinning the veil. By thinning the veil, we can visualise other worldy beings whose progeny can appear different from human offspring. Branched children could be children of beings having a different physical form, much like the many limbed monsters (Raakshasas in Indian mythology) we’ve all seen conjured on our screens or even in our imaginations…
Mariel Herbert — a poem immense in scope:
From “thinning” on, Akua Lezli Hope’s poem is lovingly crafted — and immense in scope. In the first line, without a familiar landmark of a season or concrete image from the natural world, the reader has no choice but to speculate on the complexities of life, the universe and everything (à la Douglas Adams). “How else” suggests that, perhaps, we should already know the answers to such mysteries.
In my first read, I was immediately taken by the biological. “Thinning,” “procreate,” and “children” brought me to the first stage of labor and childbirth (specifically effacement). “Branched” brought to mind genetics and evolution. I visualized a phylogenetic tree and a common ancestor. Yūgen was part of this experience for me.
If my first read was nature, then my second was nurture. Everything hurt. “Thinning” hurt, the forced choice (“how else”) of procreation hurt, and the branched children hurt, too. Family trees and real-world events intruded, and I sat in the past, present, and future with the felt experience of intergenerational trauma.
In my third read I moved beyond awe and pain into the realm of imagination. Are the “branched children” of the poem still human? Were they ever? They could be budding yeasts, alien deer, or the sentient trees left behind once all humans are gone. Perhaps there is hope for the enigmatic “branched children.”
“Thinning” does so much work here. This carefully selected word hints at more hurt before, but now something is changing. It also primes the reader for new beginnings. The poems’ sounds generate a pulsing rhythm: the pressure of each ‘h,’ the cutting stop of each ‘t,’ the deliberate pause of each ‘ch.’ The reader is ferried along to somewhere else and left there to wonder — to try to make sense of this new place.
Author Akua Lezli Hope comments:
Thank you very much for inviting me to discuss this and for including this poem in re:Virals.
Before I became paralyzed, I was an avid gardener. I am grateful for my Catalpa tree, a glorious native whose fragrant, flowering spires and heart-shaped leaves signal summer and joy. I had planted several baby trees that were attacked and uprooted. The Catalpa is the only one that survived.
Thoughts about the green world have led me to initiate an anthology of speculative poetry on Trees as thoughts of them, or from them, recur. The persistence of the mistaken belief that these beings were ever needed for paper infuriates me, as I’ve been a hand papermaker for 27 years, and have explored the possibilities and generosity of many non-tree plants. I tasked myself to think about the pastoral and the speculative this year. Thinning is an agricultural term about the removal of some plants or parts of plants, to make room for growth &/or the growth of others. I think of it as a spring activity.
Now we know that trees communicate through the wood-wide web, a root and mycelial network through which they report /warn each other of loss, attack, they help the ailing and mourn their losses. There are other ways to propagate or beget plant life, as there are better ways for us to serve and support our young other than the thinning of gun violence, hunger, poverty and neglect. I considered using the present active tense – hurts — making it more immediate and less contemplative, though to do so weighs against the “how else”. The reflection or reverie is about what has already happened, that space has been made, that light will reach, there will be more resources, more space, but a painful price is paid. Something done to one, not chosen. “Children” anthropomorphizes. “Branched” worked as both a visual connection to plants and a comment on children. They are segmented, they are little trees, who may be thinned.
Joy in the making.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Mariel has chosen a pair of monoku for next week’s poems, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to either, or both and compare them. 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!
scissoring dusk moths locate this body
— Cherie Hunter Day
Whiptail, issue 4, Personal Transitions, 2022
inside the tremors a bellbird
— Tim Roberts
Whiptail, issue 4, Personal Transitions, 2022
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A fair amount has been written about absurdism / surrealism and even its parallels in haiku. For example, readers might like to look at the comments following this 2013 post archived in the Haiku Foundation: https://thehaikufoundation.org/what-do-surrealism-and-haiku-have-in-common/ Basically, in surrealism, images, thoughts or words that have little or no rational link are placed together for a reader or viewer to make unexpected connections. This is not too dissimilar from the techniques of juxtaposition or disjunction in haiku. Richard Gilbert’s “The Disjunctive Dragonfly” explored the range of disjunction from subtle to severe, and there have been several haiku poets who have taken disjunction to extremes that might at times violate, even repel, the natural mind.
Metaphor in haiku: there’s a good deal of discussion of this topic, along with those of simile, anthropomorphism, and personification, in the THF forum if you search it for each of those terms.