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 Rupa Anand, was:
in my own skin
— Annette Makino
Frogpond 40:2, 2017
Introducing this poem, Rupa writes:
In this poignant ku, there is a connection between “heirloom tomatoes” and the poet’s own identity. L1 puts you bang in the middle of the tomato patch. Of course, one can go into the joys, wonder and health benefits of this (tomatoes are fruit, but considered vegetables by nutritionists). An heirloom variety is grown by generations of gardeners. The verse appears uncomplicated but is layered. L2 depicts a period of time in the word finally’. L3 links with L1 – the tomato skin and the poet’s skin. I notice a calm, earthy flavour in Annette’s poetry, playful and humorous, with subjective reflection on what she views outside.
Coming to terms with who you are, rather than wishing you weren’t you and blaming your parents. Savouring it in your ripe maturity, taking pride in pedigree. Scope also to think about skin colour. All in three simple lines of image plus thought. There’s little mystery in this easily accessible verse. Economically written: ‘heirloom’ with its associations of valued inheritance and quality, ‘skin’ the outer layer presented to the world, the limit within which you exist, and ‘finally’, being evocative words.
One can draw one’s own conclusions about conformity. For horticulturalists, heirloom or heritage cultivars are valued for their diversity in the gene pool and for their enduring characteristics. In the case of tomatoes, pressures from commercial buyers led to selective breeding for consistent appearance and robustness, transport and display, at the expense of flavour. A situation which happily has been remedied in the last couple of decades, partly with the help of heritage varieties.
This tomato ku of Makino is instantly relatable for me. It immediately brought me back to my earliest public school days, remembering how we would be lined up in the hallway, in size order. I was always placed in the front of the line because I was the shortest in the class. This experience made me aware of height…something I never focused on before going to school. It created self-consciousness and set up a comparison to my classmates, and made me feel discomfort. I inherited the ‘short-gene’… somehow, mom picked up on my feelings and within a few days presented me with a tiny box … inside was a tiny heart-shaped locket that hung from the most delicate chain. I loved it so much….but most of all, the note she wrote to me, that accompanied the package….which read, ” precious things come in small packages.” Now, being able to associate my ‘shortness’ with ‘preciousness’ erased and turned around all those negative body feelings that had previously attacked my self-esteem.
My experience with heirloom tomatoes from planting seeds and incorporating them into visually, exciting dishes….they look different from non-heirloom tomatoes. often the skins have multi-colours on them, or come in unexpected, different colours that deviate from the typical straight, red-orange tomatoes. The taste is deeper, richer and earthier. Heirloom means handed down, from one generation to the next. but it also conjures up that it is special, and valued, treasured and love-worthy.
As I see it: the author, upon seeing the heirloom tomatoes, and perhaps also tasting the wise, old-world, multi-cultivation and richness in its flavour….is spontaneously transformed, now, identifying herself with the pride of her perhaps mixed heritage. accepting and feeling comfortable in her own skin…as is this heirloom tomato…representing a family. The message I receive: names, titles, and stereotypes give shape to attitudes, and nature sets unlimited examples for personal growth and understanding through connection.
An important lesson for us all in this ku:
Heirloom tomato caught my fancy. However, I didn’t know what it meant. I only knew the meaning of heirloom. Who doesn’t know the meaning of heirloom and who wouldn’t want a share in it!!!
Jokes apart, here, in this context, to me, heirloom tomato means, the best of the best. If a person may have been the golden child to their parents and a pet of their teachers, they may have had to always live up to others’ expectations and that’s how they felt pressurized and felt that they were not themselves. However, now, in the present they may be feeling comfortable with how they are. The freedom to be oneself is above all.
We dress in a formal way to our workplace. However, most of us feel most comfortable wearing our home clothes be it a pajama or shorts, even if they may be in tatters. Likewise, women wear make-up and jewellery on occasions but the first thing they do on coming home is getting rid of it all and washing off to come back to their own skin, so to say. Hobbies, too, I feel, show the original personality of the person. Many a time, a profession is chosen to confirm to community standards. However, while spending time at our hobbies is when we are our true selves.
As I was looking up about the poet, I happened to find on her Instagram page that this haiku is actually a haiga and also a part of a haibun in her book, Water and Stones: Ten Years of Art and Haiku. She says she refers to the poem in the context of ageing but she’s careful not to reveal more than that. May be she feels good being herself whatever her age is, even though ageing brings about many bodily changes, both pleasant and unpleasant. This acceptance of oneself is very important on all levels, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It’s hard to accept oneself at one’s physical age because most of us feel young at heart, however much our body ages, and this aged body is unable to be its younger self. The acceptance and comfort in one’s own skin irrespective of the colour/tone of the skin, its texture, the physical characteristics of the body etc. is a very important concept which needs to be taught to all children at a young age to instill a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in them. Thank you, Rupa for your clever selection of haiku and thank you Keith for allowing us to contribute freely here.
I looked up Google for the meaning of heirloom tomato as soon as I read this haiku. As per Wikipedia, an heirloom tomato (also called heritage tomato in the UK) is an open-pollinated, non-hybrid heirloom cultivar of tomato. They are classified as: family heirlooms, commercial heirlooms, mystery heirlooms, or created heirlooms. They usually have a shorter shelf life and are less disease resistant than hybrids. They are grown for a variety of reasons: for food, historical interest, access to wider varieties, and by people who wish to save seeds from year to year, as well as for their taste.[ Ravensthorpe, Michael (2012-07-19). “Heirloom Tomatoes”. Spiritfoods. Archived from the original on 22 February 2013. Retrieved 24 August 2012.] Heirloom tomato cultivars can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes. Some heirloom cultivars can be prone to cracking or lack disease resistance. As with most garden plants, cultivars can be acclimated over several gardening seasons to thrive in a geographical location through careful selection and seed saving.
Heirloom seeds “breed true,” unlike the seeds of hybridized plants. Both sides of the DNA in an heirloom variety come from a common stable cultivar.
aka nasu 赤茄子（あかなす）tomato
lit. “red eggplant”
TOMATO トマト (とまと） !
Tomato is a Kigo for late summer as per World Kigo Database. Now I find another meaning. In late summer, there is the last burst of growth before harvest time. Here, probably the poet is saying that the heirloom tomato has grown to its full potential and now in whatever the condition it is in, it is comfortable and is in the best state. If we compare ourselves to the tomato, once we have grown up and matured over the years, we finally learn to understand and accept ourselves and grow comfortable in the way we are, just as we are, and I think this is a very important lesson that the poet is trying to drive home for us.
Madeleine Basa Vinluan:
Grown and developed by generations of families, the Heirloom Tomato presents a big challenge because it involves three serious responsibilities: making sure that the rare variety doesn’t die out; that it is developed into a better tomato; and that the family name continues to be known for it.
Comparing the passed-on tomato with becoming comfortable in one’s own skin implies that one has attained success in this effort, becoming natural to the task. If dad passed on my grandpa’s tomato to me saying that it’s my turn to take care of it, I’d be restless on my bed every night and grandpa would be turning in his grave until taking care of the heirloom has become “second skin” to me also.
Come to think of it, the heirloom tomato may well represent something given to us as heritage which involves family honor and pride.
Happy growing to all!
A lovely senryu, with a cryptic fragment at the beginning. Is “heirloom tomato” a description of the present, or is a reference to a past state? The word “heirloom” brings to the fore a whole lot of connections: tradition, lineage, expectations, perhaps competition… It also brings in a sense of permanence. An heirloom, generally an object of value as perceived by its owner/s, is preserved and handed down in the family for generations.
On the other hand there is “tomato”, the reference to which, in this specific combination of words, almost humourous. It is an incongruous collocation, almost metaphysical: “two heterogeneous ideas yoked together with a violence”? A tomato is perishable and has a very short life, unlike the heirloom. A beautiful vegetable when just ripe, with a smooth, silky skin and is almost always red, at the end. But what does “heirloom tomato” mean? Is it an actual prized tomato plant, the produce from which has won accolades for its owner? Or is it a tongue-in-cheek reference to a human being ?
One thing is certain though, the present state is a good one for the narrator, the emphasis being on the word “finally”: “finally comfortable / in my own skin”. The implication is that there was a phase in the past, time unspecified, when she was at odds with her surroundings, perhaps battling an identity crisis or not finding that niche in the world she could call her own. Perhaps it has something to do with her skin, as being her roots? Does she belong here, does she belong there? The internal turmoil can be at best, awkward, at worst, traumatic. All that is in the past, now. Today, she seems to have found that sense of belonging with herself.
Sometimes the value of what you finally get becomes all the more precious because you almost didn’t get it, or had to struggle to get it?
So much to unpack in this haiku! Heirloom tomatoes are the ones with the richest flavor that we all remember from our childhood when we ate tomatoes right off the vine, letting the sun-warmed juice drip down our chins and off our elbows. But they also are the ones that aren’t perfect. They bulge in strange places. Their color is odd, sometimes even almost purple, or perhaps striped. Compared to the perfectly round, but tasteless tomatoes of the produce aisles, they might be called ugly. However, the wise shopper always keeps an eye out for those less than perfect tomatoes. That’s the essence of the heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom vegetables are the ones that have been almost lost in our modern search for beautiful, perfectly formed ones. Now let’s examine the words that Annette Makino has used to build her poem. The next two lines bring us back to our own human condition. The author finds herself finally comfortable in her own skin. Perhaps she has a physical defect or sees herself as less desirable for some reason — her color, her body shape, her hair. Perhaps she has spent so long comparing herself to the images of perfection that inundate us every day that she had almost lost her true essence. Whatever, she has finally come to value herself, as she is, not as some outside image is projected onto her. She has found her heirloom self and the richness within her own being. She has created a wonderful juxtaposition, moving the reader from the tomato to our human connection.
As I read this senryu, I start ruminating about “heirloom tomato”; from the farmers’ diary, one can understand, heirloom tomatoes grow fertile out of seeds picked and carefully cultivated; no artificiality included. The following two lines, compel multiple readings:
“finally comfortable in my own skin.”
Going through various seasons, processes, heirloom tomatoes are about to settle down in all their varieties of colors, mothers’ and grandma’s pride and pleasure; their skin shines. Each unique. It is like rains ultimately running on streets, or a little container holding it. There is inimitable pride parading on the mention of an heirloom tomato.
Gloria Whitney — the freedom to value ourselves and others:
As a gardener, I am quite familiar with heirloom tomatoes. The first time I planted heirloom tomato plants, I really didn’t know quite what to expect. It was a bit of an experiment so that I could see for myself what all the fuss was about. I usually plant three or four different types as each type has its attributes. I really, I guess, was in search of the tomato my parents had in their vegetable garden when I was growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania. I just remembered tomatoes being juicy, sweet and a bit pungent with a more tomato-like taste! Of course, you always wonder if you truly do remember a better taste or are you making that memory more than it actually was. To get to my point, the crop of tomatoes was abundant, but every time I looked at these growing orbs, they looked more hideous than the last time. They grew lumpy and bumpy, in amazing shapes, with wrinkles and crevices. They did not look like the uniform perfectly shaped, almost perfect unblemished tomatoes you buy at the supermarket. But, I held onto the words that my grandpa had always said, ” The proof will be in the pudding.” When that first “uglier than sin” tomato was ripe, I picked it, rubbed it on my shirt and bit into it. Juice ran down my chin as I took that first bite. I stood right there in my garden and ate every bit of this sweet, but acidy fruit! It WAS just what I remembered and I picked another, warm from the sun and ate it too.
You would never guess that these rather somewhat ugly tomatoes could be so full of such beautiful flavor!
Today when I look at them, I see beautiful tomatoes that I know will not disappoint on flavor!
Annette Makino’s poem is so wonderful in depicting how we sometimes look at others in our world. Whether we like it or not, we sometimes make judgments based solely on how someone looks. We don’t give someone precious time to prove their worth. We see this all too often in our world when prejudice blinds us to someone’s true worth. The hate in our world is at an all-time high, sadly. Going back to Annette Makino’s poem, we see that there is so much more here to praise. Even more important than what people think is what we think of ourselves! It may take years and boatloads of experiences before we finally are accepting of ourselves and truly are comfortable in our own skins. In many ways, we are all heirloom tomatoes waiting for someone to take a chance on us, to discover our true talents. Once that happens, whether right or wrong, we feel that freedom to accept ourselves and live our best lives freely and unapologetically.
Author Annette Makino:
We poets usually write in isolation, and even if our work is published, we rarely get to hear directly from readers how our haiku strikes them. I once had another poem featured on re:Virals and it was so interesting to read others’ interpretations and associations. There were perspectives I hadn’t even considered.
This poem came out of years of struggling with the process of aging and all the losses that entails. I have gradually come to terms with it, and even arrived at a place where I accept and appreciate the gifts that come with age — including no longer caring what others think of me. I like the playful contrast of “heirloom” and “tomato” to describe women of a certain age — we are valuable, rich in experience, and juicy!
I wrote a haibun and created a haiga that go with this poem. These appear in my book, Water and Stone: Ten Years of Art and Haiku.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the heart-warming commentary reckoned best this week, Gloria 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. 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.
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the world having become
what it is
I plant a few bulbs
— Marian Olson
Desert Hours, Lily Pool Press 2007 ISBN 978-0-934714-35-8.
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