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 Harrison Lightwater, was:beyond the poems beyond the battlefield mother’s vacant gaze — Arvinder Kaur Cold Moon Journal, 3 January 2023
Introducing this poem, Harrison writes:
Technically, I’m a bit ambivalent about this senryu that is pretty close to a statement, but my dominant mind likes it for the space offered by “vacant” for a reader to dwell in, and for the messages that can be drawn from it by any reader without much effort, that go way beyond the moment. How will other readers react?
An interesting verse that, on the face of it, takes a didactic approach by asserting that the poet’s mother’s vacant gaze is beyond poetry or war (had it been intended as a general statement, “a mother’s vacant gaze” might have been used — and also, with that, the present moment would have been eroded). However, I think the poem works as a senryu because there is plenty of scope for interpretation and reflection; because the subjects are dear to us; and because it juxtaposes the general with the personal.
The word “vacant” suggests loss, and as it comes after “battlefield”, the obvious inference is the loss of a child that has left an irreplaceable gap in the life of the mother. Moreover, that the loss of a child is more significant than poems or battles. That there is no poem adequate to describe it, no battle of sufficient consequence beside it. A reader inclined to reflection may see this as an invitation to examine these contentions. To its mother, the loss of a child — and daughters as well as sons are being killed on the battlefield — may rise above all else, but to a philosopher, would it be of more significance than, say, the defeat of Hitler or Ghengis Khan by opposing their armed forces? Or than the entire body of great poetic works? The verse in this reading prompted thought on the nature and merits of individual sacrifice and collective good.
Another reading might ascribe the poet’s mother’s “vacant” gaze to, say, dementia and loss of memory; battlefields and poems alike of ever less consequence now it has set in. Or indeed to any terminal condition where broader considerations fall away in that last struggle to stay alive.
On a personal note, the unspeakably brutish invasion of Ukraine turned my emotions upside-down. Many must have shared a feeling of powerlessness: however much poets like to believe in its power, what use is poetry against tanks rolling in? Beyond the poems, the battlefield… Basho, who wrote that warriors’ dreams were as the grass, knew that poetry was of little practical use: it is, he said “like a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter.” But it is a way in which we “detach ourselves from barbarians and beasts.” War, perhaps, is where nature’s barbarous beast in us reasserts itself. Poetry has been used both to extol the battlefield and to revile it; poets may advocate peace, but love to deploy the vocabulary of war when “campaigning” for or against something; and they have been known to fight bitterly over such trivia as the number of syllables in a haiku, albeit casualty figures are not recorded. I meet these things with a vacant gaze.
For all the above reasons, a penetrating verse.
I found this haiku of Kaur’s striking in both its content and construction. It reads to me as expansive initially (beyond, beyond), dragging the reader outwards expanding focus rather than narrowing it, until it brings us quite abruptly to the mother’s vacant gaze. Past the summer grasses and poet’s wistful navel gazing to the harsh reality of a mother with everything torn from her. Like the best of haiku, it tips its hat subtly to works that have gone before and leaves the reader with insight.
My heart aches to read Arvinder Kaur’s gripping haiku. Perhaps a parent’s worst fear is the death of our child. The pain of losing a child on the battlefield is incomprehensible.
Two weeks ago, my friend lost her son, at just 30 years old. Being at his funeral with hundreds of mourners was a deeply moving experience. This corporate grief is juxtaposed with the personal, private grief of the mother.
This feeling of being bereft is captured beautifully in the repetition of the word “beyond” and in describing the mother’s gaze as vacant.
Grief robs us of our ability to see anything in those first few moments, days, even months after a close loved one dies. Or a lifetime.
The hollowness she is left with, the emptiness, will linger with me.
It is also on the edge of personal made public. Which is inherent with grief itself. And certainly with poems about grief. Grief is a universal experience and yet entirely personal/ unique simultaneously. And although I know about grief, having walked my own journey on the path of grief, I don’t know this mother’s exact grief.
The author welcomes me into a path I’m not sure I want to venture on. It is beautiful and haunting. And close to home. Grief tugs on grief. I might want to safely stay on the grass and venture into the park today. Instead of walking the path of grief yet another day.
But that is also part of human nature to reject or deny death and grief. So instead, perhaps I’ll sit on the bench beside Avinder Kaur and gaze in the same direction for a while. Just so they know they are not alone.
An explorative, contemporary poem that examines events at the personal level, world level and interpersonal level. These three visions are observed here.
The camera zooms in to the poet who is busy writing poems on the personal front ~ then wide-angles and pans to the world stage and the devastation wrought on the battlefields of Ukraine or perhaps on the battlefields of the coronavirus during the last three years. Then it further zooms in ~ to the rather sad and poignant image of an interpersonal relationship between an aged mother and her grown daughter. A mother perhaps with a debilitating illness, (dementia or Alzheimer’s) as evoked in L3- “vacant gaze”.
So many things happen simultaneously in life.
L1 the personal stage – writing poems
L2 the world stage – of war, struggle and strife
L3 beyond all this, at home – a mother, an individual, who has lived her life, perhaps well, but does not register any of the above.
The tone of voice is personal and friendly. The imagery is contemporary. Its structure is simple and straightforward. The repetition of “beyond” increases the impact of this poem. It enhances the meaning, offers music, and expands and contracts the focus simultaneously. Truly, despite all that we may think, do and achieve, the poem delineates the ephemeral and constantly changing nature of human existence.
This is a poem utilizing the technique of repetition/parallelism. I totally identify with this thought-provoking senryu, being a mother myself. I think any mother would relate to this ku, whatever age their children are.
Beyond all the poems we read and/or write and all the matter that we write about and share, however cathartic or however joyful and beyond all the wars and other evils prevalent in today’s world, a mother is always concerned about her child/children. She constantly worries about their present and future. The vacant stare could just be the product of her helplessness, anxiety, worry, frustration etc. I identify with this vacant stare because I myself go into that mode many-a-time.
A few years back when my daughter was still a toddler, as I was rocking her to sleep one afternoon I couldn’t help but just go into that vacant gaze with so much happening in and around our nation at that time (the surgical strikes in Uri had just taken place and there were rumours of an impending Indo-Pak war and this was during Dussehra, an Indian festival worshipping the universal Mother and celebrating the victory of good over evil. I did write a long poem too but it was just not enough.
An empty nest syndrome may also cause it. I can’t say that from my own experience but I can empathize with my mother’s experience. A home once filled with laughter and noise now only echoes back those memorable moments with both her children having moved out of the maternal home. This mother’s vacant gaze must hold a loneliness that noone can fill and it would be so irrespective of the presence or absence of art and literature, and war or peace.
However, it could also relate to a mother who has lost her son on the battlefield and what could be more painful than this. It could also be of a mother losing her child due to the war and it’s ill-effects.
This poem could be talking about the futility of war. (We’re all going to be dust one day irrespective of the power we gain over others). It reminds me of Basho’s poem:
Summer grasses —
traces of dreams
of ancient warriors
This could be seen as a three-part haiku/senryu, or two sub-clauses leading to final line climax. The repetition of the first two lines is challenging, because there is no obvious wordplay here, no resolution. The poem is pushing the reader to go beyond these ‘easy’ options of personal creativity or daily conflict.
Perhaps this is a ‘war’ poem, reminiscent of those which survived the First World War. But for me the third line takes it to another place. Already such a wide scope has been created that there are many potential interpretations. The poem explodes, it blows up its constituent parts, and the reader can piece together the echoes and shrapnel in a way that is effective for them.
The third line pulls us back to the personal, whatever that means for us. A complex and difficult haiku, which shows how structure and choice of words can work can produce something striking in nine words.
The first line is especially interesting. Many haiku are written to be read by fellow poets, although we rarely leave that on display like it is here. It asks us to go further than just reading or writing poems, but to look beyond this endless horizon, to another area of creative thought.
Amanda White – bleakly beautiful:
These spare and poignant words manage so powerfully to evoke the unfathomable loss felt by a mother for the death of a child in war, probably a young soldier. The poem starts from the universal and widescreen view of all those poems written about war to a single battlefield and then most singularly one mother left with nothing but a vacant gaze. The repetition of beyond highlights the inability of any battle or poem to express anything to a mother who has lost everything, all the words, ideologies and sacrifices reduce to a mother who has lost a child. The mother’s gaze is vacant, such a harsh choice of word, suggestive of an empty house as well as an empty body, she is an empty vessel and perhaps in such deep grief she has no emotion left but resignation, a gaze that looks upon a world without meaning. And yet it is with words in this short poem that a sense of the mother’s loss is so perfectly expressed and the futility of war and the well meaning but perhaps generic poems about war dissolve towards the very real loss felt by one single mother who in turn represents all mothers. Bleakly beautiful embracing both philosophical and deeply personal themes about war and loss.
Author Arvinder Kaur:
This poem came from deep within and it came spontaneously. Perhaps this emotion had been simmering inside me since childhood when my young brother was out there at the war. While I watched the recent devastation in Ukraine it took me back in years and the poem wrote itself. It was time for it to come out of my inner self and materialise in black and white. I was able to detach myself from a personal childhood fear and feel the pain of the present moment. I still don’t know if I have been able to do justice to what I wanted to convey i.e. a mother’s longing, her anxiety and the fear of losing her son.
Poems have been written and more of them will come. Battles have been fought and perhaps will be fought as long as humanity survives on this earth. But the bond between a mother and a child is way beyond political motives, it is also beyond what poets may put into words.
As fas as the haiku techniques are concerned, I write the poem first and look at the technique later if at all. Perhaps readers may find assonance in this or the way focus is narrowed in haiku. I would say that it has been so cathartic for me to have written this poem. Thanks for liking and choosing it for commentary, Harrison.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. Amanda is awarded the choice of 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!
old coat closer and closer to my dad — Sébastien Revon Seashores, Volume 6, April 2021
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Arvinder Kaur is widely published, and recently was joint guest editor of Failed Haiku. Her bio and several haiku may be found at the World Haiku Series, and earlier examples as the poet featured in the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku for the month of April 2015.
Dan Campbell comments: “I used Kaur’s stop-you-in-your-tracks haiku to generate an AI artwork which turned out to be rather haunting:”