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 Matt Cariello, was:
if Robert were here
he’d know this mushroom
growing on his grave
— Bruce Sengan Kennedy
An Upside Down Bucket, Hermit’s Eye Press, 2000
Introducing this poem, Matt writes:
This strikes me as an effortless poem. It’s an ordinary sentence that you’d speak to another in passing, without pretense and without expecting a response.
“If Robert were here, he’d know this mushroom growing on his grave.”
It begins with the conditional “if,” which sets up a particular semantic expectation: if this, then that. “Robert” is unidentified but missing; the poem begins with an absence. Notice the subtle music of the /r/ in three of the first four words. Instead of the comma after the introductory clause, we have a line break that acts as a kind of soft cut in haiku.
In the second line we get an image. “This mushroom” is at the same time precise yet elusive. “This,” not another, but unnamed. We can see it, or at least imagine the mushroom archetype. We’re reminded that Robert isn’t here – but if he were, he’d supply the missing information. Again, the plain, spoken language, with no effort at all to be poetic. The line ends with a masterful enjambment that acts as the hard cut of the haiku.
The final line risks melodrama, and just barely avoids it with simplicity. Consider how differently we’d read it with, for instance, the addition of one word, “grassy,” before grave. As is, the alliteration is hardly noted. Suddenly everything comes together: since the pronoun “his” refers to Robert, we know why he’s missing; we know where the speaker is and we know what the speaker is thinking because we have also had these thoughts at some time, in some way. The absence of the other is magnified by what they could bring to bear on the scene itself. It gives us a reason to miss Robert, too.
There’s also an artful humor in this poem, which is revealed in a subtle metaphoric map that compares Robert to the mushroom by showing it growing from his grave. We see his continued presence in the mushroom itself. Robert is “here,” with the speaker at the grave, both physically and spiritually, present but now unnamable. And if Robert were here, ironically, there’d be no poem.
Matt’s introduction is comprehensive.
I like this haiku very much. It records a universal experience for those who miss the departed for whom they had affection, and think of them with love by things they used to do or say. It is natural and unaffected; touching in plain words, without laying on any lyrical or emotional sauce or striving for poetic effect, or contrived yugen or mystery; it avoids the mawkish. There is no strong ‘cut’ but there are unobtrusive pauses that the reader can introduce at linefeeds. There is contrast in it, indeed a good deal: we have the living writer and the dead friend, the present and the past (giving a fourth dimension), knowledge and ignorance, the organic and the inorganic… Although the rest of the haiku is all-season, there is a season signalled here, with “mushroom” placing it in autumn. And, contrasted with other possible kigo in different seasons, just the right one for both mould and the unknown: while few know their mushrooms apart, more would know a given flower, for example, and everybody would know snow, leaving less room to recall and express Robert’s characteristic expertise. A run-on, one-breath sentence with a single image and subtle toriawase rather than a strong juxtaposition — I think this is ichibutsujitate(?), and a fine haiku.
The absence of Robert speaks a lot. If he were alive now, Robert would be shrewd and observant enough to see “ this mushroom / growing on his grave.” So much interpretation can be given to “mushroom.” Creativity, growth, enlargement, origin, connectivity, even haiku all growing out of Robert. Age, ailment, suffering and struggle , pain and pathos: all remedied in careful writing here.
Sushama Kapur — a poignant “if…”:
A example of a conditional and what a poignant one at that. The last line disclosing the whereabouts expresses a restrained sense of deep loss. Looking at something happening in the natural world through the lens of a nature lover (or perhaps even a zoologist), the narrator seems to be missing “Robert”. Who is Robert, (named as if everyone knows him), and what had been his relationship with the narrator? Was he a friend and mentor? Or something closer than that? The profile of the absent man is built word by word in this loaded verse: that he was knowledgeable (“he’d know” for sure), probably a naturalist, curious and passionate about his surroundings, so much so that he may be giving back to the world with a rare mushroom growing on his grave. Although he is no longer present physically, he lives on in the shared time with his friends when he was alive.
The underlying emotion in the verse is something that would resonate with many. Grieving, one remembers those who have passed with never-ending “ifs”. Only Robert could have named the mushroom IF he were here. (Is this a comparison between two extraordinary entities?) Left alone inside a special relationship, with this huge gap no one else can fill, what can one feel but desolate … But then there is the light of moments spent together which may, curiously so, help deal with the pain of loss. And hopefully then one could sometimes take shelter under the undeniable existence of a growing mushroom?
Author Bruce Kennedy:
The poem is about Robert Savage, who died of AIDS in 1993. He was more than an acquaintance, though, regrettably, less than a full friend. He was a composer, zen student and highly-knowledgeable naturalist. I remember one story about him wading in the Everglades to identify flowers and him knowing more about the flora than local botanists. Near the end of his life, when his immune system had completely broken down, he wrote a short essay on the various fungi growing on his arms and the cognitive challenge of saying whether they constituted part of himself or was something separate (that is, the Zen questions of What is the Self). We all have a complex microbiome not just in our guts but on our skins as well.
This is one of those haiku that came out whole and complete (and spontaneously), which is good because I would like have over-thought it if I had tried to revise or, for that matter, “tried” to write it. For example, it is uncommon to have a haiku read as a single sentence as opposed to two separate parts. However I think the colloquialism and naturalism of the speech enhances the feeling. It was a genuine moment of grief. (I’d argue that despite the sentence structure, the haiku does have two parts: what’s not here (Robert) and what is here (mushrooms).). It was write some years later in situ upon a visit to his grave, which was marked by a simple wooden plank, and located in the woods on the grounds of Zen Mountain Monastery (NYS). I can no longer trust my memory that says there was actually a mushroom there when I visited though there were certainly mushrooms in the vicinity. I think there was, however that could be a testimony of the strength of the image that I believe there was. In any event, the haiku does convey one of the essences of Robert, namely that he knew his flora and fauna. At the same time it raises feelings of loss, points out how our atoms get recycled by nature (i.e. Robert’s may have turned into the mushroom I saw), and questions what it is that comes and goes – or doesn’t come and go – in Life & Death.
A few years further on, I wrote another haiku about Robert during his final hospitalization:he panics when I let go of his hand visiting hours over
At that point he could no longer see or speak, though he could still hear and comprehend fully. He died a couple of days later.
I hope your readers enjoy the haiku and their discussion about it.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Sushama has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary on it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. All with respect for the poet. 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!
off the edge of the sofa
— Elancharan Gunasekaran
Prune Juice #36, March 2022
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Received after the deadline, but meriting inclusion:
“Personal resonance – Whilst reading a poem for the first time, I wait and see if the poem has a voice that speaks to me. This one has that voice.
Tone or Voice – The voice of the poem is informal, personal, and friendly. Addressing someone as “Robert” is personal from the standpoint of the poet and the reader. It’s obvious that the poet knew Robert well, a friend, a colleague perhaps, a relative, someone close, now deceased. The tone is reminiscent of good times shared, affection, and camaraderie. The poet is visiting the grave of Robert.
Imagery – Contemporary image + thought. The poet has used earthy images, the soul, Nature, life and death. Perhaps, I sense knowledge of Eastern traditions here, maybe Buddhist. Robert was fond of gardening, he had a close affinity with nature, this mushroom upon his grave may be a reference to reincarnation.
Structure – It’s simple, and straightforward, written in the present tense, with a reference to the past, that is so seamlessly done. Two simple subjects: Robert and the mushroom on his grave. And it provides an interesting and unexpected perspective.
A seasonal reference or kigo is important in haiku. It’s all right to be direct, for example, to use “spring” or “autumn” to specify the season. Or it can indirectly be specified in a way to indicate the changing seasons. In this poem, ‘mushroom’ could well be that kigo. Mushrooms need a lot of rain and dampness. In temperate climates, they typically fruit in fall and spring.
Poignancy, another component of haiku is present in the words – ‘if Robert were here’. There is a sense of ‘Wonder’, that I feel when I repeat this poem.
Subject matter – An objective experience – the observed mushroom on the grave conveying the moment’s existence – is linked to a subjective musing and interpretation that Robert would know this mushroom well.
Hmm – I end with the hope, that when I’m dead and gone, someone, I knew well in this lifetime, would write something like this about me.”
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Thanks to Bruce Kennedy for his deeply personal comments on the poem. There is a note on Bruce, a former editor of Frogpond, and the book An Upside Down Bucket in which this haiku appears, free to read in the Haiku Foundation Library here. A little book of plain words deployed well, that I enjoyed reading.