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re:Virals 384

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 Sébastien Revon, was:

     belfast campus blast
     i sift through the remains
     of my neutrality
     — Marion Clarke
     Guest Judge Selection: “History, Story, Narrative”
     IAFOR Vladimir Devidé Haiku Award 2017 

Introducing this poem, Sébastien writes:

I felt directly close to this verse. I am neither Catholic nor Protestant so I am normally neutral in this divide. But I’m not Irish and I see it from afar. Even though it is short, the verse manages to convey the complexity of living with a neutral political stance. Can we really remain (the word “remains” is used appropriately in the verse) away from the conflict? How can we not take sides when catastrophe hits so close to us?  How do we deal with the natural anger and pain?  I think this verse is powerful because it goes way beyond the scope of its context.  Even in my job I am faced with situations in which people want me to be on their side. Trying to remain neutral comes at a cost too.

Opening comment:

How a bomb can put realities into focus where before there were only ideals. All the sophisticated arguments go out the window.

During the troubles there were two deadly blasts at campuses in Belfast attributed to the Provisional IRA. It is an established tactic to polarise a community by a terrorist act that results in further repressive action by the authorities. See for example Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping. Of course, there were similar atrocities carried out by Protestant paramilitaries. There’s a chronology of events courtesy of the University of Ulster. In such circumstances, people who before were on the sidelines may feel they have to take sides. It is very difficult to be neutral, still less a pacifist: how do you oppose a Russian armoured column? With paper arguments? If your country was ruled by a foreign power, would you engage in terrorist action? Does an end justify savage and brutal means? The verse raises questions in the mind and the answer you give now may be completely changed when it happens to you.

Technique is secondary to the punch this verse carries, but Marion is a natural artist in haiku and senryu and here we find plain, well-chosen graphic words in the pivot line, “sift” and “remains,” as the poet is forced to re-evaluate her neutrality after this atrocity so close to home. Whether she decided to support the action in the cause of politics, or oppose it in the cause of humanity and civilisation, is not revealed. But we can be sure that not long after, there would have been another deplorable bomb or murder by the other side. A way, of sorts, to maintain neutrality through the balance of horror. And the senryu takes us from the scope of the bombing to its indirect effect on an individual, and out again to the wider, far wider, implications it has for humanity and principle. Will you take sides?

Amanda White:

How do we NOT take sides when something so terrible happens to you, even your friends or family, and takes away lives? The Northern Ireland troubles were a time that scarred a community from predominantly the 60s to the late 90s but its repercussions resonate today. This haiku distils these complicated issues and highlights the personal and emotional response. It invites the reader to do the same. Where would you stand? Where do you stand? Is there room still for neutrality when a bomb destroys lives in the name of a cause? Marion puts herself and her history into this haiku. Sifting remains is a powerful and poignant image, it highlights the complexity of what will be found, or chosen to be found and what perhaps is lost or left behind. The Northern Irish troubles here relate to a very personal ‘trouble’ of a deeply held desire to stay neutral and yet here is the sense of a change, a tipping point perhaps, a red line crossed, a time to express an opinion for another way, an invitation to get more involved… Marion has perfectly shown how a haiku can distill a complex historical event and make it deeply relatable, personal and yet universal inviting the reader to consider their own position too. Arresting and compelling in all ways. Brava.

Harrison Lightwater:

The shock of reality hits the peaceful world of book-learning. I thought at once of students in a lecture on political theory. Was the poet previously a supporter of one side or the other? Or had she not really thought about it before? Perhaps she had shied away from any involvement. Either way, NOW she has to make sense of this indiscriminate savagery that has exploded into her world, and either come to terms with, or reject, the nature of the people — on both sides — who use it as a political tool. To “sift the remains” is a perfect way of conveying the wreckage of her perhaps cosy assumptions and her need, everybody’s need, to salvage the human from the inhuman.

Although located in Belfast, the scope is any conflict in which maiming and murder especially of civilians is part of strategy. I expect many readers have had such experiences, perhaps not personal ones, in their own country. A potent verse. Thanks Sebastien for choosing it.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

Belfast is the capital, largest city and the seat of government for Northern Ireland, after the partition and communal violence. The place experienced severe violence and numerous bombings during the Troubles, 1969-1998, and parts of the city remain segregated between Catholics and Protestants.

Ulster University is a multi-centre university with a campus in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast.

The poet was probably quite neutral in her approach to the happenings in the city without taking either sides irrespective of whether she herself is a Catholic or a Protestant. Now after the unempathetic bombings on an educational institution where young students and teachers must have been present, probably injured and may be even expired, she is unable to maintain the neutrality. She must have felt empathy, sympathy and concern for those injured or expired and at the same time, anger, frustration and helplessness towards the perpetrators of the crime.

The message I get through this award winning poem is that we should not follow someone blindly. We need to have humanity, empathy and love for all living beings, we can then understand each other and foster harmony and universal brotherhood.

Jennifer Gurney — a lot to unpack:

Wow. Such a lot to unpack in Marion Clarke’s poem, “Belfast campus blast.”

The initial image that comes to my mind is a very concrete image of a college student or professor kneeling in the rubble of the campus center, sifting through what might remain of their personal belongings from the buildings that were blown up. Perhaps a backpack, notebook or coat left behind in the student’s or professor’s rush to leave the building. Or, unfortunately, most likely the belongings of someone who died in the explosion … But that gives way to the metaphoric meaning of a community, country, world blown apart by the blast. Blasts. How tremendously, hauntingly sad.

And then I am immediately captured by the pivotal middle line, which attaches meaning to both the first and third lines. It is the poem’s fulcrum, or toggle switch. This event was clearly a call to action. Or rather a call out of inaction or passivity to take a stance about the situation in Belfast. The author writes it in the first person, though, owning that their own neutrality is what’s in question. I like this in that it invites the reader to examine our own neutrality without it being an ultimatum.

I am reminded of three things in my life that connect with this poem. One, I am half Irish and this calls to me because I have heritage in Ireland, although I’ve never been there. Yet. The Celtic in me feels this poem on a non-verbal, non-cerebral level. Almost at a cellular level through my shared DNA. Hard to put into words. But it’s the same feeling I get when I hear bagpipes. Or hear an Irish accent. Something in me sits up and takes notice. Differently.

I am also reminded of those in my community who lost their homes in the Marshall Fire just a year ago this December. More than 1,000 homes were lost in one day. My elementary school was hardest hit, with 50 families becoming homeless overnight. I drive past the two largest burn zones each day on my way to and from school. A year later, it is still gripping. I have sat beside friends, students, colleagues, strangers-who-would-become friends, as they told their stories of sifting through the rubble of their homes … of their lives … to see what remained behind. One man shared his story of finding his grandmother’s cherished silver collection melted together on what was the driveway in what appeared to be a modern art project. He had it framed and it hangs on his temporary house wall as a reminder of what was lost but also what was found. The resiliency of these families is remarkable. The love and empathy of the community is staggering.

Finally, as a teacher, I connect with this poem on that level. Every time I read of another mass shooting, bombing, tragedy at a school it raises the hair on the back of my neck. And gives poignancy to our monthly drills. I lived just miles from Columbine and have felt that body blow for decades now. Just like Belfast surely still reels from these bombings in the 80s.

This poem is a gentle reminder that in the really difficult times in life, whether it be in war, in trauma, in crisis, we are called upon to re-evaluate our neutrality. And perhaps take a stance. At the very least, we should consider re-evaluating our neutrality.

Author Marion CLarke:

This haiku was written in 2017 in response to a call out for submissions on the theme of “History, Story, Narrative” for the IAFOR Vladimir Devidé Haiku Award. Guest judge Susan Burch had provided three prompts as inspiration. I selected the first, which solicited haiku written about a memorable moment in the poet’s personal history. Susan explained, “I am looking for haiku that evoke strong emotions and that will make me think about them days after reading.”

The incident that inspired the haiku occurred in my first year as a student at the Ulster Polytechnic, just outside Belfast. Growing up during The Troubles, the mantra in those days was never to talk religion or politics. So, naively perhaps, I wasn’t aware for some time that the first friend I made at university was Protestant (I’m a Catholic) but I didn’t think it would make any difference to our friendship anyway.

On the morning in question, our tutorial was interrupted by a loud bang. Almost immediately, alarms began sounding and the tutor instructed us to leave quickly and quietly. I glanced through the window before leaving the room, and thought how weird that it had started snowing on such a lovely day. However, once we had evacuated the building, I discovered that the falling flakes were in fact insulation material, blown from the wall of a classroom on the first floor. Now there was just a gaping hole, from which window blinds fluttered silently above piles of masonry and glass. Soon, the injured were helped out to arriving ambulances. Someone standing close to us suggested that it might have been an IRA attack. My friend uttered just two words, almost imperceptibly…”those bastards.” At that point, I felt the weight of the conflict on my shoulders. Soon, I would leave these shores and not return until seventeen years later.


Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Jennifer 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!

     used-book store
     its dusty true-crime section
     covered with fingerprints
     — John J. Dunphy
     Cold Moon Journal, November 4, 2020

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Forum administrator at The Haiku Foundation, poetry facilitator and visual artist, Marion Clarke is from Warrenpoint, on the east coast of Northern Ireland. In ‘life before haiku’ she wrote technical articles and features for the UK trade press while living in England. She began studying and writing haiku, senryu, tanka, and haibun in 2012, after returning to her hometown. A selection of Marion’s work is featured in the first two collections of haiku from the island of Ireland and is widely published in international haiku journals and anthologies. She combines her visual art and photography with haiku in haiga and shahai, and Japan’s NHK Haiku Masters program featured her photo haiku several times. Last year, she was awarded Grand Prize in the Setouchi Matsuyama International Photo Haiku contest. In 2021 she was invited to share her poetry at Mann Library’s ‘Daily Haiku’ for the month of December. A sample of her work is featured in the Living Haiku Anthology. For more than a decade Marion has provided short form poetry workshops for schools via Poetry in Motion, an annual project organized by Community Arts Partnership in Belfast. This culminates in the Seamus Heaney Awards for Achievement, a celebration of the young poets’ work.

She was recently invited to judge the annual haiku contest of the Haiku Poets of Northern California.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Mark, thanks for explaining what you meant. I didn’t understand your original comment.

    By this: “. . . haiku don’t necessarily need to be so small or non-specific that any reader can use them to trigger their own pre-existing feelings or experiences. ” I gather that what you’re referring to is related to what I ( sometimes rudely) refer to as ‘Rorschach test ‘ ku.

    Dennis Garrison, quite some time ago now. came up with the expression ‘ dreaming room’ (meaning a space, a room, a gap for ‘dreaming’, when referring to the cut in haiku. These days everyone is familiar with Japanese aesthetics and we find so many prancing around calling out ‘ma! ma!’ that it sounds like a mob of sheep being herded in for shearing. I digress. )

    But Garrison did not mean his ‘dreaming room’ expression to be interpreted as ‘ anything the reader can dream up in this space is fine’. Imagination is great but we still need readers with imagination, those with the ability to infer the writer’s intention, not just fill in the blanks.

    I really appreciate your “. . . haiku don’t necessarily need to be so small or non-specific that any reader can use them to trigger their own pre-existing feelings or experiences. ”

    “This is fine, . . . ” (hmmm, I don’t think it is – L) “But to me this means we can end up writing just triggers for reader responses, rather than actually communicating anything to the reader. ” I agree with you on this, Mark.

  2. Thank you Marion for sharing your haiku and commentary. As relatable now as when the event occurred even for those of us who are once removed from the realities of conflict through news on our computer screens and physical distance.

    Stay inspired!

  3. ” It is very difficult to be neutral, still less a pacifist: how do you oppose a Russian armoured column? With paper arguments? If your country was ruled by a foreign power, would you engage in terrorist action? Does an end justify savage and brutal means? The verse raises questions in the mind and the answer you give now may be completely changed when it happens to you.” – Keith

    Yes, that’s the truth.

    I’ve not personally experienced any of these bombings or shootings (this one in Ireland, others in the USA, England and most recently, New Zealand.) whether planned & carried out by political groups or by individuals and can only put myself imaginatively in Marion’s place. What strikes me about Marion’s haiku is its focus on self-searching and her honesty — ” sifting through the remains of my neutrality” .

  4. Well done to Marion and the commenters. It’s great to see that a haiku can be about something. I particularly like the way ‘blast’ is a kind of contraction of ‘belfast’.

    1. Mark,
      I really like Marion’s haiku but I don’t understand what you mean by saying “a haiku about something”.

      1. I just meant haiku don’t necessarily need to be so small or non-specific that any reader can use them to trigger their own pre-existing feelings or experiences. This is fine, and many readers and writers get much satisfaction from this (well not many – a very small amount in the big scheme of things). But to me this means we can end up writing just triggers for reader responses, rather than actually communicating anything to the reader. I think writing, and haiku, can do much more than this, and for instance I don’t see the problem with presenting something specific or challenging the reader to think about something outside of their comfort zone. I think different types of haiku can coexist. I’m talking about haiku in the wide sense to include senryu, rather than treating the two forms as separate.

        1. Excellent comment, Mark: thank you. It brings back some discussions we had last year about communication (and failures to communicate) — to what extent is a poet responsible for communication to the reader; I think that was comment by Peter Yovu if I recall correctly.

          Knowing how reader responses might be triggered is part of the craft we learn, it seems to me. I learn a lot about readers through re:Virals.

          What we do with the craft is the part beyond…

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