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re:Virals 37

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     dark afternoon
     hydrangeas drying
     upside down

          — Peggy Willis Lyles, The Heron’s Nest V:9 (2003)
          Memorial poem for Kylan Jones-Huffman

Angelee Deodhar responds directly to the circumstances of the poem:

This is a fine example of Peggy’s understated elegance contrasting the dark of the afternoon, is it late summer or early autumn, milieu exterior with the poet’s pensive mood, her own topsy-turvy milieu interior is lightened by the upside down hydrangeas, which are also past their prime yet will preserve their beauty through approaching winter.

While Garry Eaton attends to its details:

So many d’s.
It sounds like boots or heavy shoes across board floors in a quiet house.
It sounds hollow, knock on wood!
It sounds like the big ‘D,’ the more emphatically when you know this is a memorial haiku.

First of all, why hydrangeas? I think because they look lifelike dried, but with the definite appearance of being dead. So they soften death by showing that for awhile at least beauty survives the change. With their airy spreads of small blooms, they are perfect surrogates for the recently deceased whom one wishes to praise.

There are various ways to dry hydrangeas. In the water method, they stand in a container and look like other flower arrangements, gradually losing their colour over a year or so, the way memories fade. For this haiku, the method of tying them to string by the stem and hanging them upside down in a shady place was chosen. I think it was because it powerfully suggests the fragile tenuousness of life and the harshness of the shears we all face, dangling upside down above the abyss. These are flowers that have been sacrificed before their time and delicately posed in preparation for resurrection in a wreath or other floral memorial that will give such solace and consolation as it can.

And Jo McInerney puts the work into context:

I had never read any of the work of Kylan Jones-Huffman until I came on a small collection of his poems and a number of memorial haiku written to mark his death in a back issue of The Heron’s Nest.

Peggy Willis Lyles’s was the lead memorial poem (at least the first published on the page) and I was arrested by it. Memorial haiku pose a particular challenge. They are poems of context, a little like haiku within a haibun. They have to be able to stand alone and yet also say something that relates meaningfully to the person whose death they acknowledge. Lyles’s poem works on both levels.

‘dark afternoon’ sets the tone. It is sombre, but there is also a note of foreboding. The darkness is premature. It is not yet evening, so the reader presumes either a storm is coming or days are shortening with the approach of winter. There is a loss of light; a truncation of the day. In the context of a memorial poem this is poignantly apt; in the context of Jones-Huffman’s life it is particularly so as he was 31 when he died and was killed while on military service in Iraq.

Given the circumstances of Jones-Huffman’s life and death, Lyles has chosen an unexpected focus. Hers is a poem of domesticity. She writes of flowers — ‘hydrangeas drying’. They are losing moisture, drying in the heat or perhaps being deliberately dried to preserve them. Line three confirms this second option. The images come together to form a distressingly coherent whole. The flowers are fading, their blue-purple heads dulling, darkening, like gathering storm clouds.

Line three is remarkable. On the one hand it is no more than a simple description of a common practice — flowers are hung upside down to dry. On another level it is a complete inversion of the natural order. A small world has been turned upside down. Any death marks such devastation for those who have lost someone they loved. The haiku acknowledges this grief.

It is also a poem of remembrance. Drying is an act of preservation. There is no pretense here that remembrance is resurrection; however, it is a form of extended existence in the minds of those who retain memories of the man who is no longer among them.

The restraint of this haiku sets it apart. There is nothing vainglorious or over-reaching about it. It does not involve itself with questions of politics or patriotism. It simply acknowledges the impact of love and loss.

Finally, Cherie Hunter Day responds from an intimate awareness of the circumstance:

This haiku is immediately accessible for me. Drying flowers and herbs was something that my mom and I did when I was a teenager. We gathered wild seaside lavender and its garden cousin statice along with homegrown comfrey and peppermint. Handfuls were bundled and hung upside down near the wood stove to dry quickly and preserve the herb’s medicinal qualities and beauty of the flowers. Hydrangea is dried in much the same way. Their showy, papery translucent petals dry easily and can last many years. I imagine Peggy’s hydrangea to be a medium shade of blue with a few pale blue and green blossoms around the edges.

What darkens Peggy’s afternoon? Is it the hot Georgia air heavy with moisture, as dark anvil clouds threaten rain? If so, then it doubles the urgency of gathering those hydrangea before they are soaked and ruined. But the task is completed and the flowers are slowly drying—suspended between life and death. Here is where the haiku pivots from the private moment to public expression. There is something else that darkens the afternoon, something more devastating than rain. War news.

Kylan Jones-Huffman was a U.S. Navy Lieutenant serving in Operation: Iraqi Freedom. A soldier and a haiku poet, he was killed in action on August 21, 2003 in Al Hillah, Iraq, when he was only 31 years old. He sent the following haiku to The Heron’s Nest three days prior to his death.

     uncomfortable —
     body armor shifting
     on the car seat
          — Kylan Jones-Huffman

I don’t know exactly how Peggy got the news but her shock is palpable. Her tribute haiku captures so much of the ominous nature of that dark afternoon, the immediate discomfort and the need to preserve beauty in this topsy-turvy life.

Peggy was particularly sensitive to the ephemeral nature of things telegraphed though everyday circumstances. Her work is accessible and inclusive, universal and timeless. We thank her for capturing this vulnerable moment.

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As this week’s winner, Cherie gets to choose 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. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.

Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!

re:Virals 37:

     evening loon call —
     nothing makes it
     call again

          — Gary Hotham, Mainichi Daily News Contest (2002)
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