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 Sushama Kapur, was:
chrysanthemums trying on my wife’s kimono
— Jacob Blumner
Whiptail Journal issue 3, May 2022
and Hon Mention 7th Annual H. Gene Murtha Memorial Senryu Contest 2022
Introducing this poem, Sushama writes:
I was struck by the apparent playfulness of this intriguing monoku, leading to subtler, deeper layers with the choice of chrysanthemums and their symbolism as the opening word.
A neat senryu, the cut after “chrysanthemums,” juxtaposed with a speculative act. Yin and yang? The choice of “kimono” cues Japan, so we go to the symbolism for the Japanese in the chrysanthemum pattern frequently used as decoration for that garment. Aside from its adoption as the imperial seal, the chrysanthemum can represent regeneration, well-being and, especially on a kimono, long life.
“trying on my wife’s kimono” carries a load of information in a short phrase. The poet is married (the name indicates he is male), and “trying” rather than “putting” suggests to me that this is an experiment, a test. It seems, from the emphasis on chrysanthemums, that he feels good about it, renewed. The inference could be that this is a late realisation that the poet is gay; but not necessarily. It might be more subtle than that. The understanding that a man has a feminine side, too; perhaps “trying on” his wife’s view of the world without abandoning that of the male (kimonos are not exclusively female attire – samurai wore them…).
Our preoccupation with sex, and lately with orientation and gender, might obscure other possible readings. I thought, for instance, how girlfriends like to borrow one’s sweater the morning after…but wives never seem to. On the other hand her dressing-gown and mine are interchangeable.
After an enjoyable spell of meditation I was left with my interest engaged but no conclusion.
A brief, six-word, twelve-syllable monoku has used personification as a literary device to whip up such a charming senryu. It is a one-breath poem with no cut or grammatical break. It gets my attention with its utter simplicity.
Sensory feeling – Growing chrysanthemums of varied varieties and hues is a family tradition. The sensory vividness in ‘their’ trying on the kimono is as dramatic as it is unique. The images of millions of different chrysanthemums on this free-flowing traditional Japanese garment pop into my mind.
Like the cherry blossom, the chrysanthemum is an important symbol of Japan and is also used as the family crest of the Imperial family. The chrysanthemum pattern has been used in costumes as a symbol of long life to ward off evil spirits. There is a wide variety of patterns, designed rather than photorealistic, for the kimono. Chrysanthemums on kimonos are characteristic of the Taishō period. The gorgeous pattern of the Kiku and Spider chrysanthemum with its wild tendril petal is an auspicious symbol of regal beauty, rejuvenation and longevity. The chrysanthemum is especially important in Japanese culture as it is frequently used to indicate royalty.
Akashimi or humour is present in this delightful one-liner, as is karumi or light-hearted playfulness in the observation of the poet-husband who sees his wife wearing a kimono with chrysanthemums on it but reverses the context – the mums are trying on the kimono! The human context or inter-relationship comes alive in a contemporary-traditional image.
With six words and twelve syllables, this monoku can be read in a single breath. However, a kire can be considered after chrysanthemums:
chrysanthemums / trying on my wife’s kimono
As a haiku:
chrysanthemums / trying on / my wife’s kimono
…but it doesn’t come across as well in three lines as it does as a monoku.
Consonance of ‘s’ and a combination of th and t sounds gives a lyrical rhythm to the one-liner.
Chrysanthemum (Kiku) is a kigo for all autumn as it is one of the most popular fall flowers. White chrysanthemums are usually used for funerals and for decorating gravesites and symbolise death in many parts of Europe and Asia including Japan. Here, the poet or someone known to the poet may be grieving their wife’s passing away. ‘Trying on my wife’s kimono’ could be a metaphor to reveal the extent of grief of the person. (The theme of issue 3 of Whiptail is ‘into oneness’ and Jacob’s poem is placed under the section ‘slipping through’ which speaks more or less about death)
Is there an allusion to Buson’s?:
stepping on my dead wife’s comb
in the bedroom
(tr. Hiruo Shirane)
The subject is not dealt with directly, but the reader is left to feel the emotion as they read and assimilate the poems.
Nice to read this one line poem stirring our individual creative aura. Natural flowers symbolize beauty, sacredness, auspicious occasions, symbols of hope and prosperity in most cases. Nonetheless flowers symbolize negative factors too. The first take requires a better study of the flowers; why chrysanthemums? What do they stand for? A kimono with chrysanthemums, Japanese, believed to be signs of good luck/prosperity, good aura and longevity. A possible inference is that it’s a moment of their union/wedding, hence a sign for living as husband and wife. Also as a flower symbolizing Fall , it denotes death in some European countries; seasons and cultures and countries vary.
Harrison Lightwater: flowers come out?:
Putting “chrysanthemums” at the beginning of this monostitch, where it is the fragment in a two-part poem, brings this reader’s full attention to the symbolism. There is no color that might narrow it down. The chrysanthemum pattern is a classic popular design for fabric in Japan — https://int.kateigaho.com/articles/tradition/patterns-30/
— and its primary symbol in that context is for long life.
Apart from providing a season word and some “depth” it was not clear why chrysanthemums or chrysanthemum patterns are given such prominence in the ku, when I went on to read “trying on my wife’s kimono.” At face value that phrase seems to suggest that the prevailing social concern with gender and sexuality is behind this line. Chrysanthemums then are not only the pattern on the kimono but an expression of beauty. A good feeling possibly renewal. Maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to equate blooming with coming out.
I don’t know whether in the poet’s country, the USA, a kimono is seen only as women’s clothing, but the mention of “my wife” seems to settle that. The use of the present participle (-ing), increasingly common in English haiku where the writer wants to avoid “I,” and/or a more direct verb, seems unnecessary here if the standpoint is the “I” of the writer, as he goes on to specify “my” wife’s kimono. Unless “trying” is chosen deliberately to avoid that specificity, and to leave open a suggestion that someone else, a third person, is trying it on. In which case the impact the line has would be reduced to vagueness. Wouldn’t “chrysanthemums — I try on my wife’s kimono” be a better alternative, I wondered?
Author Jacob Blumner comments:
In some ways, as a novice haiku writer, I stumbled onto this senryu. For me, it comes from a place of intimacy, deep loss (though not what I think might be an obvious interpretation), and an attempt to maintain a fleeting connection. For some, there is a power in objects, the reason we keep mementos or heirlooms. I smile every time I use my grandfather’s safety razor. For this senryu, I think about a moment in which the narrator secretly tries on the kimono. The act feels intimate, possibly bittersweet.
Of course there are other ways to read this poem. Another interpretation may be more playful and intimate. Maybe wistful. In any interpretation, I like that it involves tactile, visual, and olfactory senses.
Thank you for taking the time to read this poem.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Harrison 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!
our story starts
with cherry blossoms.
— Chloe Chan
Honourable Mention, Sakura Awards, Youth section, Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival 2022
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Many thanks to Jacob for his comments on the genesis of this poem, which were received at the end of the process. Having been one of those misconstruing the meaning of his verse, I think the week’s commentaries illustrate, not for the first time, how a line as open as this can lead to readers’ experiences and interpretations that diverge quite widely from the poet’s intentions. And in particular, how cultural cues may influence them. Had the garment been, say, a dressing-gown, we would perhaps have been in a Western context — where the chrysanthemum is associated with death and remembrance. However, “kimono” puts us into a Japanese frame of reference: possibly the addition of the word “white” (white chrysanthemums symbolising death in the genre) would have prompted a reading closer to the thought of remembrance?white chrysanthemums trying on my wife's kimono or: white chrysanthemums I try on my wife's kimono
Just a thought.