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 Amoolya Kamalnath, was:
tiger bones steeped in rice wine my sanity
— Corine Timmer
Haiku Society of America 2022 Senryu award (Honourable mention)
Introducing this poem, Amoolya writes:
“Tiger bones steeped in rice wine” piqued my interest. A 2018 study from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that low levels of alcohol consumption, like wine, can lower inflammation in the brain and help it clear away toxins, including those linked to serious diseases of the brain. So what’s the real relationship between us and our sanity? I’m inquisitive to learn from all the different interpretations that I’ll get to read.
It doesn’t need a visit to Wikipedia to conclude that the first phrase of this monoku, in this Year of the Tiger, concerns a recipe for tiger body parts in a preparation used in Chinese alternative medicine. Readers’ views of alternative medicine, except where rigorous science proves there’s something in it, may vary. But I’ll wager there is universal sympathy for endangered tigers, although tigers would not think twice about eating you. Tigers get more sympathy than, say, crocodiles.
The fragment part, “my sanity,” is, I think, what makes this senryu work and elevates it from the ordinary. Although there’s a serious subject here, there’s a slight element of ironic play in its juxtaposition with “my sanity.” It could be straightforwardly counterposing the practice of drinking tiger bone wine with the poet’s own sanity, thereby suggesting by contrast that it is an insane practice. Or it could be a hint that the author thinks the very idea of killing tigers to imbibe their bone extract for supposed properties is enough to drive her (or anyone) mad. But the way it’s put is fairly open, not didactic; the reader’s left to work it out. And to reflect upon who and what is sane or insane: a question, as so often, of beliefs. My feelings are with the tigers, but Corine’s monoku prompts me to reason out why. It’s good to have one that addresses an issue such as this.
A curious mixture of hard (tiger bones) with a liquid (rice wine) and the first person drives home what and why, one wonders. One needs to know the meaning of tiger bones, deeper study reveals quite a lot of factors: a medicinal effect, a perfect cure for many diseases , like arthritis and ulcers, malaria etc.;these tiger bones are believed to have herbs which induce also the sexual urge. The writer in elated mood believes, records, that tiger bones steeped in rice wine passes the day in soothing comfort — alcoholic rice wine gives a kick to the consumer; but tiger bones mixed in produces sanity; it seems that is how her mood and being feels after the drink: perhaps humorizing the situation.
Imagine this beautiful wild animal, roaming the jungles of this planet (“tiger, tiger, burning bright/ in the forest of the night”), living a life in its own home, being hunted illegally, to be tortured and killed, so that a race of human beings could enjoy the “nutrients” in its body parts and imbibe their “might”! How could this idea, perpetrated through the ages, even be possible? It is reminiscent of that valuable lesson in the children’s folktale, of killing the goose that laid a golden egg once a day, so that its greedy owners could enjoy enormous wealth all at once!
This hard hitting monoku balances the image of this act of atrocity in the first six words, with the image in the last two words of a reaction representing a band of the sensible and the humane! Six words (with the recurring “e”) against two words. The crime against a reaction to this crime. Zooming in from out. Eight words to disturb any sane person’s peace of mind!
How inconceivably arrogant to sweepingly overlook the rights of a species, to live safe and protected in this world, without being deliberately killed for gain? Whether it is an apex predator like the tiger or its prey. Such a mindset is the product of misconstrued power, something that is unfortunately rampant in today’s world.
It completely ignores the strength and logic in the idea of a web of life – the interconnectedness of everything on our planet, from the smallest micro-organisms to its massive life forms. To kill a species indiscriminately is to endanger its existence, and the very balance of life on Earth. But do the wine-makers care? Or, for that matter, the ones that support this mindless act by drinking such liquids to emperor themselves?
Will the world ever learn to coexist in peace?
“Tiger bones steeped in rice wine” or “soaked in rice wine” is a line from recipes that can be read on the web. “Steeped” is more accurate and more pleasing to sound than “soaked.” With a clear cut the poet has juxtaposed this with “my sanity”. The reader is led to think of these as contrasting opposites. It does not seem poetic but the matter is not poetic either, so the words match the subject. I guess most readers will be carried along by the emotion. Killing tigers to make a magic potion seems crazy. The illegality, rarity, and years taken mean that the price of this concoction is high. The high prices probably convince drinkers that it is effective. That’s how the human mind often works.
Alan Summers — a single line delivers its own pace and tension…:
Tiger bone wine ages from 3-10 years, and bottled with herbs and snake extract. Often used as an aphrodisiac, it’s said to also treat ulcers, typhoid, malaria, dysentery, burns and rheumatism. The tiger’s whiskers are ornaments as talismans or charms against toothache, and the rice wine itself might be 38% proof liquor and taste like cough medicine and brandy combined.
A single line delivery has its own pace and tension, but would it work well over three lines?
steeped in rice wine
Yes, it would, but I’d argue not as effectively as a single line of haiku, and I felt that the enjambment was cunningly absorbed/integrated with variations depending on how you like to read your one line haiku; e.g. simply:
tiger bones steeped in rice wine // my sanity
and also following the enjambment of a three-line haiku:
tiger bones [pause] steeped in rice wine [pause] my sanity
And perhaps as a performance piece rather than in a reading mode:
tiger bones [pause] steeped [pause] in rice wine [pause] my sanity
Of course many of us would metaphorically want tiger bones to be stronger than we are, in this volatile and much more edgier world.
Lastly, there were various considerations when I chose to write about this haiku. I write a lot about one-line haiku, so I was tempted by that alone. There is an ongoing fascination with using tiger parts for belief systems and self-medicating. There is the dynamic between literal and metaphorical meaning. Sometimes literal and metaphorical meaning can ride side by side, and you can take your chances and choices on how to read this poem, that may have both, or just take the literal route that this product was ingested at a time of need.
Author Corine Timmer:
I am the editor of the Chinese zodiac series, a yearly anthology themed around the zodiac animals. This year is the Year of the Tiger. Being acutely aware of and saddened by the illegal trade in wildlife, the senryu just popped to mind. Tiger bone wine is an alcoholic beverage produced mainly in China using the bones of tigers as a necessary ingredient. Some of you may picture the subject in my poem drinking tiger bone wine but I didn’t write it with that image in mind. My idea was more that the subject intoxicates him/her/their self with normal rice wine as a result of grief-induced anxiety. The thought of tiger bones and carcasses being dumped in vats of rice wine for up the nine years to produce a drink believed to contain special powers is reason enough to get drunk to escape, right.
Thanks to those who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Alan 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.
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!
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 search for “tiger bone wine” on the internet will pull up a variety of articles from which you will learn that despite illegality, trade goes on; that tigers have been farmed for the purpose in China; and that a fully herbal substitute is also marketed.
This senryu might be considered and compared alongside Japanese sarasen, which “playfully expose inconsistencies in common sense or the façade of sociopolitical reality, if not excavate hidden truths about existence itself, sometimes transcending the particulars of time and place, thereby achieving a kind of universality. …myriad topical issues have come and gone. Some of them, regrettably, deep traumas.” This definition is taken from an excellent and informative essay on the subject in Juxta Seven by Adam L. Kern: “A Certain Tightness in the Chest: Sarasen (salaryman Senryū) on 3-11, Covid-19, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, And Other Such Catastrophes”