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re:Virals 380

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of your favorites among the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Mark Gilbert, was:

a haddock
poaching in warm milk
first light

— Alan Peat
Wales Haiku Journal, summer 2022

Introducing this poem, Mark writes:

This haiku chimed with a specific memory of mine; but then I wondered what others would make of its possibly strange image, and how they would respond to its rich detail.

Opening comment:

A gentle haiku in the traditional mode, redolent of winter (even though it appears in the WHJ’s Summer issue), and particularly of Scotland, which, among other gastronomic delights, gave the world for breakfast kippers (smoked herring), smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, and in this case, I deduce, the Arbroath Smokie.

My Perfect Dish: Arbroath smokies

A hearty dish especially for a cold morning, whether in a good country (or traditional London) hotel, or a chill peat-fired croft on the moors, the flaking flesh of a smoked haddock may be gently poached in milk to soften the tang of woodsmoke. Here we may picture the poet, or anyone up early hungry, in the moment and probably in a croft rather than the Connaught Hotel, which is little frequented by impecunious poets.

It’s a lovely, undemanding, detached haiku shared with us in plain words. It piques the appetite, full of flavours and scent, conjures up sensations of warmth in the chill of dawn; combines the weak gold colours of a smoked haddock and of the dawning sun; and, in the suffused white of the poaching milk, clouds and mist. No jangling disruption nor self-conscious poetic striving. Instead, harmony.

The choice of “first light” over the likes of “winter dawn” is for contemplation.  It’s possible that mention of “winter” was excluded because the journal to which it was submitted characteristically focuses on the season of publication.  The dish may be eaten at any time of year, and “warm” milk might suggest dawn in summer (although breakfast at four in the morning is early even for an English poet) but if you know about smoked haddock,  and read the verse irrespective of the season of publication, you have the hint of winter (the recent Poetry Pea presentation on food as kigo, by Allyson Whipple of the Culinary Saijiki, may be of interest).  Clarification of a season may be unnecessary.  For me, in the context of human and haddock there’s a hint in “first light” of the dawn of life from the ocean in our evolutionary history. “Oneness” as the haddock becomes man upon eating might be a shade too fanciful but pinks my sense of humour.

Lastly, on craft: to open with a haddock, not a word often encountered in poetry, gets the reader’s attention and possibly good humour straight away. Putting “first light” in L1 would not so arrest the attention, would upset the short-long-short balance of the three lines, would take away the focus on the foreground dish, and make the colour/warmth metaphors too obvious, in my view. The whole reads smoothly with the longish vowels in L2, and not unmusically. I like it.

Jennifer Gurney:

Alan Peat’s haiku fills me with wonderings.

Why is the haddock being cooked at first light? I don’t recall ever having had fish for breakfast. I’ve always thought of fish as more lunch or dinner fare. Although there was the time when my young son, in a burst of self-sufficiency on a cross-country Amtrak trip, opened a can of tuna from our picnic stash and ate it for breakfast. He proceeded to pretend he was a cat for the rest of the morning. And he had the fish-breath to make it convincing.

Is the fisherman simply cooking the fish at first light because early morning is the best time to fish and they want the freshest fish to eat? I am reminded of the time I got to go fishing with my dad – the one and only time I have ever fished. I thought it was crazy to get up in the dark to go fishing.

Or perhaps fish is eaten for breakfast in Wales, where the poem was published, so “at first light” simply signifies an early day meal.

And why would you poach fish in milk? I would think sautéing it in butter would sound more appealing. But I guess with fish, as with haiku, what speaks to you is all personal preference.

I love the seemingly simplicity of this haiku … that truly makes me wonder. Well done.

Matt Cariello:

Great use of synesthesia. The implied smell of cooking fish maps onto the emerging day, just as the color of the milk maps onto the daylight. The milk enhances the flavor of the haddock, so does the rising sun enhance the day. I’m not sure what haddock in milk smells like, but it evokes the calm domestic pleasure of breaking the fast. A beautiful haiku that reminds me of Blake’s line about “Eternity in an hour.”

Amoolya Kamalnath:

The ku starts with the name of a fish and so one would think it is set in some water body but the second line takes one elsewhere. So from the vast sea one now sees it in a small pan swimming in a little milk and this technique of simmering  helps retain its moisture and adds a sweetness to the flavour of the fish.

Now this has been juxtaposed with first light which indicates the time of the day when this scene is set. The juxtaposition of warm milk with first light gives a beautiful visual appeal and whets one’s appetite. One can already feel the smell and taste of the dish to be cooked just by reading this ku.

The ku certainly gives me something more than what I’ve written here but I’m unable to put it in words at the moment. However, it caught my attention the moment I read it.

Nathan Sidney:

I’ve fallen down a rabbi hole investigating the intricacies of the Jewish ban on mixing meat and milk, after focussing my attention in this ku on the last line. What at first might seem a cosy morning moment, preparing (a somewhat unusual to my tastes) breakfast, is in another reading actually a commentary on the relation between creation and religious law, first light of course bringing up for most readers the genesis of the cosmos. While it turns out that poaching fish in milk is considered kosher (correct me if I’m wrong), the obvious allusion to the prohibition on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, sets up a witty reading of this poem. At the break of dawn, preparing the day’s first meal, looking out the window at the rising sun, one’s thoughts turn to the mystery of it all, the question of how to use our day for good, a simple gratitude for natural beauty and food’s abundance. But there’s also that tension between the wonder of creation and the dogma of the religions that have it as their source (sauce). Faced with eternity, infinity, beauty, suffering, right and wrong, how do we turn our awe at existence into a set of rules to live by as specific as what foods we should and shouldn’t eat. Of course for most of history it was an academic question as we simply ate what was in season, signalling our group membership through taboos and customs, but with the rise of an affluent class, global supply chains, environmental degradation etc, once again we must ask what does creation demand of our diets and how does the sunrise ask us to move through the world so as to bring glory to it.

Harrison Lightwater — a palette of pale golden dawn:

A warm, sweet shasei-style haiku for a cold morning, its palette is of a clouded pale golden dawn.

Lightly poaching preferably smoked haddock in milk keeps the fish moist and sweetens the smoky flavour. A breakfast dish in northern European latitudes where I live. Salted herring in the summer.

A haiku for the connoisseur… I was reminded of:

    A bowl of sushi
    served under the trees
    on a wooden bench
    — Buson
    under the tree
    soup, also pickles
    also cherry blossom!
    — Basho
    sowing herbs
    the smell of fish cooking
    a little past noon
    — Issa
    the hotness, sweetness
    of potato gruel
    autumn has come
    — Santoka
    as the sun goes down
    a green melon splits open
    and juice trickles out
    — Richard Wright


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!

beyond the poems
beyond the battlefield
mother’s vacant gaze

— Arvinder Kaur
Cold Moon Journal 3 January 2023

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.


Thanks to Harrison for the work of furnishing some classic haiku in this vein. Basho seems the clear winner… And to Nathan for a completely unexpected and fascinating cultural angle on this week’s haiku.

Al Peat is a widely-published author of haiku and related forms and of longer poetry, whose details and some works may be viewed in the THF Haiku Registry. His haiku and bio were featured in the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku during the month of October 2022. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and of the Historical Association, he was recently elected President of the British Haiku Society. Another food poem I particularly like:

mountain cafe
miso clouds
the broth
— Al Peat
hedgerow: a journal of small poems #134, summer 2021

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Happy to report that my smoked haddock fillets, poached six or seven minutes in almost-simmering milk with bay leaves, coarse black pepper and a handful of fresh thyme, served with tenderstem broccoli and baked potatoes, with a sauce from the poaching liquid plus a little parmesan, was adjudged a success over dinner tonight by the three exacting ladies in this household.

  2. a haddock
    poaching in warm milk
    first light

    — Alan Peat
    Wales Haiku Journal, summer 2022

    The subject of Alan Peat’s haiku seemed quite familiar to me. Despite the unfamiliar word ‘haddock’, I assumed it was a fish much like smoked cod, being poached in milk the same way I do, and my mother and grandmother did before me. Then I looked up ‘haddock’ and sure enough, it’s of the cod family.

    No mystery here. My grandmothers (both) cooked smoked cod , my mother did and I did (and still do sometimes) but not for breakfast. We soak the fish (which is bought smoked and very salty, and is a burnt orange colour) in milk to remove some of the salt then, after 15 to 20 minutes of soaking, poach it in milk (fresh milk, not the milk it was soaked in, which has been poured down the sink)

    I don’t think it’s a seasonal fish here ( Victoria, Australia) It’s probably imported. Its main attraction is that it’s cheap. I’ve never had it for breakfast, though. Mashed potatoes were always served up with it.

    Interestingly, ‘first light’ might be applied to a memory of early childhood as well (hey, Matt?) as well as the first light of a day.

    1. Another thought : looking east in the pale morning light just before sunrise:, from somewhere in the British Isles :
      What’s that orange-ish – yellow streak of colour? Could it look like a haddock poaching in milk, especially to someone familiar with poaching haddocks?

      If it’s the person poaching a haddock who notes that streak in the sky, then this ku would be ‘shasei / not shasei’ . . . as above, so below. And “first light” becomes much more than a ‘time stamp’.

      1. Just so, Lorin!

        Bradley, who brings fish fresh from the market at Grimsby to landlocked Thames Ditton every Tuesday in a white van full of ice, usually has smoked haddock among his offerings. Tuesday is my shift to cook dinner. You know what I’m thinking…. possibly with creamed mashed potatoes, broccoli and walnuts, and an Antipodean Sauvignon blanc. In golden candlelight.

        1. ah, well, I googled and up came the Autumn 2010 issue of ‘Thames Ditton Today’, edited by someone with a name familiar to me and including an advertisement featuring a couple of happily smiling fishmongers.
          Cheers! I think the Kiwis are doing well with their Sav. Blancs currently.

          1. The Kiwis are doing well indeed.
            I hope you enjoyed my article on Victorian plant ecologist Hewett Watson in that issue, Lorin. pp27-29. I’d forgotten about that…

          2. Whoops, yes, it’s in there:

            ” . . . At 29, he ( Watson) bought a cottage in Thames Ditton – a hothouse of intellect and taste, as we know – . . . ” – Keith Evetts

          3. That’s the one 😀 The cover photo is mine, post-processed a little. Remembrance Sunday at the village war memorial

        1. “As above, so below” is the essence of metaphor. – Matt

          . . . and in this case (assuming the sky-gazing haddock chef) Jung’s ‘synchronicity’ gets a look-in , too. 🙂

        2. ” “As above, so below” is the essence of metaphor.”

          Yes, Matt, I suppose it is…. and yet 🙂 I do so enjoy the very literal view of the fish poaching on the stove being echoed by a reflection (of a sort) in the sky.

          (The cook should be watching his poaching haddock, though, not looking at the sky, because milk has a tendency to boil over. )

    2. Light (and its opposite) is one of the great metaphors of our lives:

      Please shed some light on this subject.
      New information has been brought to light.
      He is the light of the world.
      She is a beacon of light.
      The light at the end of the tunnel.
      The light of my life.
      A shining example of good behavior.
      I was kept in the dark.
      Nostradamus made many dark predictions.
      The dark ages were a dark period of human history, about which I have often had dark thoughts.

      I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Light is seeing, understanding, revelation. “First light” in this poem is a specific example of a generic concept: this is the first time I saw this, or what you might call the First Things metaphor. However, as humans we know that “first light” is also a daily occurrence (the sun rises every day). Additionally, “first light” could refer to a first memory, as Lorin suggests – the first time I realized this important thing.

      I’d say that what makes this poem exceptional is the way is uses a commonplace like “first light” and modifies it by juxtaposition with “haddock / poaching in warm milk.” The scenario of fish cooking in milk – with its multiple sensations of smell, taste and sight – is mapped over the concept of First Things. It distills a larger concept of time into one moment. As I mentioned above, it asks us “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.”

      1. Light and life, dark and death, knowledge and ignorance…

        First light – the poet lives, the haddock is dead…but now lives in the poet.

        Let there be light. While the candle, while the sun.

  3. I was a bit at a loss at first regarding this haiku which I identified as a shasei-like haiku in the traditional vein as Keith mentions in his commentary. All I could see were the metaphorical contrasts and similarities (I don’t know if Matt Cariello will approve of this term…):
    warm milk versus dead fish (contrast in temperatures), milk versus first light (similarity then…) warm versus first light (another similarity) and of course, the coldness of the dead haddock versus first light which represents regeneration…

    All of that was clear to me at the first readings. But then, shasei is for me, harder to approach as I am seeking emotional charge in haiku most of the time. As a reader, I can differerentiate two kinds of shasei haiku, and that is very subjective:
    1. emotionally charged shasei
    2. neutral/ non emotionally charged shasei

    Whether and why a haiku goes into one or the other category is still very unclear to me… If somebody has some hints on this matter I’d be very grateful.

    Another thing I wanted to say about this haiku is that I was wondering a bit further on “first light” which was to me an obvious reference to dawn. After taking more time with the haiku I wondered why Alan had felt the need of mentioning this moment as it was very unusual to me to eat fish for breakfast. (I thought yeuk!) And then, I asked my partner, who knows haiku only through what I am telling her, (the poor thing…).
    She is from Poland and she reminded me that they traditionally eat fish (mostly carp in the old tradition) for Christmas eve dinner. The tradition was to start to eat the fish when the first star starts to shine in the night sky, so quite early anyway. One might think that Venus is the first light that goes in the sky at night. So, going by her story she thought the first light was actually occuring during the night by association with the fish element. I found that reading quite interesting to the point of sharing it with you.

    Anyway, for a haiku that didn’t really “hit” me, I have to say that the commentaries above from other members and my partner’s input were quite useful in unfolding the merits of this verse.

    1. Sébastien: I must say that I like many kinds of haiku/senryu: including those that tug at an emotion, those that prompt meditation or philosophical thought (Basho’s cicada and rock for example), those that evoke reminiscence, and those that are more detached. Here, the poem under consideration, as Harrison has deftly shown by setting it in the context of other haiku, stimulates the senses of taste, scent, and sight and in an harmonious way. They make me feel hungry! And in the case of Basho’s in particular, joy at the small, satisfying comforts of life – soup, pickles (this one is often translated as ‘pickled fish’ btw)…. and…. cherry blossom! It doesn’t all have to be love and death, drama, melancholy or exuberance…

      1. Oh, ask your partner about szczupak. Poached or baked pike from a clear lake, hot with dill or served cold with a mayo based sauce. Delicious! (At least, in Poland. When I tried to cook it once with pike caught in a pond in UK, it tasted of mud and was full of bones)

    2. I would agree that this is a shasei, a snapshot of a particular image, allowing the reader to respond in both literal and non-literal ways without pointing them in any particular direction or telling them what to feel. I also picked up the sound of the milk bubbling. The only time I remember having such exotic breakfasts as this was on holidays in the UK. I specifically remember having a dish called kedgeree – a blend of rice, hard-boiled eggs and the warm smoked haddock from this haiku, mashed up together. A bit strange that early in the morning, but delicious!

  4. I regret to say that poet Al Peat has fallen ill this week and is unable to give his background on the poem. I’m sure you will wish to add your good wishes for a speedy recovery to mine.

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