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re:Virals 371

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.

Opening comment:

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.

Rupa Anand:

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.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

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

Or

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?:

Piercing chill—
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.

Radhamani Sarma:

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.


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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!

Today
our story starts
with cherry blossoms.

— Chloe Chan
Honourable Mention, Sakura Awards, Youth section, Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival 2022

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.


Footnote:

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.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. In my first reading, I thought there was a kire after chrysanthemums but as I read the monoku a few times, I wondered whether it could be read in a single breath and was it that the chrysanthemums were trying on the kimono….
    However, later I wondered whether the narrator was trying on his wife’s kimono in remembrance of her, in deep grief, since chrysanthemums are generally used at gravesites and for funerals in Japan too.

    1. “… chrysanthemums are generally used at gravesites and for funerals in Japan too.” – Amoolya

      To my knowledge, only white chrysanthemums are used for gravesites and funerals in Japan. If the author of this haiku had specified ‘white chrysanthemums’, you (and Keith) would have a good point.

  2. I hadn’t read author Jacob Blumner’s comments before when I posted, nor Keith’s footnote, and I’ve still only skim- read the other comments.

    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

    I think it’s an excellent one-line haiku. It’s hard for me to consider it a senryu because chrysanthemum is such a well-known & prominent Japanese season word/ kigo. As I’ve said above, the misreading (chrysanthemums are trying on the kimono: an absurd proposition) allows me as reader to infer where the cut is: “chrysanthemums / trying on… “)
    As someone has already observed, “trying on” implies “I am trying on”.

    Having established the cut ( kire ) , we have the importance of chrysanthemums as a national symbol for Japanese people as well as chrysanthemums as a kigo for the whole of the autumn season. A husband is trying on his wife’s kimono might have something to do with identity for, but to me it’s not gender identity that first springs to mind.

    Perhaps it’s cultural identity? What if the wife was Japanese and the husband Australian, English or whatever? Trying on her kimono might be a way of trying on Japanese identity and cultural heritage. What would it be like to experience Japanese culture as a native Japanese person does, as his wife does, rather than as a foreigner? Trying on her kimono could be likened to “walking a mile in someone’s shoes”.

    ps to Keith: re “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. .

    Interesting, because in Australia white chrysanthemums are the traditional flower we give to our mothers on Mother’s Day (which is in May, which happens to be the last autumn month “down” here, south of the equator.)

    1. Lorin: Garden chrysanthemums (of any colour) typically bloom at the end of October in Europe, and are very often the pot flowers placed on graves at All Hallows eve, a custom originating with Catholics but now more widespread; hence the association in parts of the Western world with death and remembrance.

      On the senryu/haiku question, I care more for the pigeon than the pigeonhole, but here the verse is predominantly about the human condition, and the chrysanthemums not the actual flower in nature but their symbolic representation on the kimono (as I read it). I don’t think the inclusion of a word that happens to be a season word, in a context that has little to do with the season, is of itself sufficient to make a definitive “haiku.” But in any case, with our environment predominantly urban there’s a growing grey area in which the distinction between haiku and senryu becomes difficult and, I suggest, with little point to it. I see humans as a part of the natural world anyway; and the apartment block is as natural an artefact as an anthill, a cottage as a bowerbird’s nest, &c.

      However, it’s often fun to be contrarian!

      1. “… the chrysanthemums not the actual flower in nature but their symbolic representation on the kimono (as I read it). I don’t think the inclusion of a word that happens to be a season word, in a context that has little to do with the season, is of itself sufficient to make a definitive “haiku.” ”
        .
        True, Keith, if the chrysanthemums are pictured on the kimono only, then it’s the symbolic chrysanthemum only and there is no seasonal reference. But here, the chrysanthemums , coming before the cut, are (it seems to me, anyway) the live flowers and they set the season: ‘all autumn’. Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t illustrations of chrysanthemums on the kimono as well. That’s a high possibility, in my view.

        As to “what season”, although there are still a few flat-earthers around, the Easter Bunny leaves chocolate eggs for children in autumn here (so much for the calendar) and, more suitably, spring where you are, and no-one blinks an eye because it’s in the same month and on the same date for both hemispheres. The Christian calendar is the same across the globe. Where I am, if we want our sweet peas to bloom (in Spring) we need to sow the seeds before St. Patrick’s Day. Chrysanthemums bloom in autumn, wherever in the world it’s autumn.

        ps There’s nothing wrong with ‘urban haiku’ and they have seasonal references, too. The Japanese have no problems with urban living and haiku: certain dishes, certain seasonal fish are kigo, for whatever region. The Melbourne Cup is a seasonal reference, here. Even snapper (a fish) has its local season here. ‘Ice-cream’, though we might like to eat it year round, is a certified kigo in Japan.

        (It’s true that distinguishing haiku and senryu can be hard, going by the poems. We know that senryu writers in Japan can and do use what would be considered to be kigo by haiku writers. It comes down to the “4th line” there: if someone is known as a senryu writer, then there are no kigo in his/her poems. It’s more difficult with EL haiku/ senryu, though, because we use our same names in the 4th line whether we write haiku or senryu.

  3. Writing haiku is not easy, and one liners can be treacherous. By their very nature they seem to require that the reader try out all possible readings. The best haiku will be enhanced by this; others might only be deconstructed down to confusion and conflictual meanings, as has been noted before I believe, requiring the reader to do some weeding out of what might not fit. (Though there will likely be disagreement with what some consider weeds.)

    One reading of Jacob’s haiku– in plain sight really– is this: chrysanthemums are trying on a kimono. There is a kind of drunken charm to that, but If he does not wish it to be part of the mix, it is easily fixed, perhaps following Harrison’s suggestion: chrysanthemum’s– I try on my wife’s kimono.

    1. “One reading of Jacob’s haiku– in plain sight really– is this: chrysanthemums are trying on a kimono…” – P.Y.

      In fact this was my initial reading, and my favorite of all of the readings presented by the commentators, suggesting, at least to this hopeless romantic, a spontaneous and joyous afternoon fling.

    2. “One reading of Jacob’s haiku– in plain sight really– is this: chrysanthemums are trying on a kimono. ” P.Y.

      Yes, and this kind of misreading is a necessary first step when we read a one-liner/ monoku (any ) one-liner/monoku). The clear absurdity here serves to show the reader precisely where the cut is intended.

      In my view, this haiku . . . it is clearly a haiku, not a senryu . . . because ‘chrysanthemum’, as well as being perhaps the most important a symbol in Japan …think of all those passports stamped with the chrysanthemum image… is found in all the saijiki and kiyose as a season word/ kireji for autumn.
      Check out the easily accessible kiyose ‘The 500 Essential Season Words’ (Selected by Kenkichi Yamamoto. Translated by Kris Young Kondo and William J. Higginson)
      https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/files/original/d22bc15ada2b14fa309f849c3fddab5f.pdf

      1. Speaking for myself, I would say that if it was evident to me that a misreading of something I had written was inevitable, and would likely take someone in a direction I didn’t want, I would make changes. As court dramas illustrate, once something has been spoken into the room, it hangs on even though the judge strikes it from the record. I am aware, of course, that a writer cannot (should not) entirely determine how a poem is read, but I am speaking here of *unwanted* misreadings that occur– to repeat myself– in plain sight.

  4. Dear Sushma,
    Appreciate your analysis and the insightful comments;
    Something novel in the following
    “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.”

  5. Dear Harrison Lightwater,
    Congratulations for being this week’s winner. in your comments, the following quite catchy.

    “A good feeling possibly renewal. Maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to equate blooming with coming out.”

    1. Thank you. And thanks to Harrison for picking out Chloe Chan’s lovely haiku! Immediately copied to my small file of favourites.

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