Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
on wet sand the crab’s skeleton reaches out to sea — Ron C. Moss, from “Last Visit” (2002)
Marion Clarke wonders:
A watery version of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, perhaps?
Which Jo McInerney recognizes and illustrates in detail:
Ron Moss’s haiku appears to suggest a yearning for life, some dead thing reaching out toward life in abundance, toward the ocean, the origin of all life on this planet. On the face of it, the poem has the poignancy of futility. The crab’s exoskeleton seems unknowingly to enact the longing every human being aware of mortality feels at some time, the desire to live beyond our limits.
The haiku comes from an illustrated haibun, ‘The Last Visit’. The poet is living through the last days of a loved friend. This haiku comes at a point in the haibun where the friend is on the point of death and Moss visits his ‘favourite place’. The dying man’s presence is everywhere. The poet’s awareness of imminent loss colours everything he sees, turning the landscape into symbols of life and dying. Though there are ‘flowering gum trees’, the ‘cool sea breeze’ seems like his friend’s departing spirit, his final breath.
The walk along the beach reveals the shell of a crab. There is no imposed anthropomorphism. The curled claws are fixed in a begging gesture, a hooked reaching; the sand is wet and beyond is the sea. The effect is so different from the plea Eliot gives Prufrock: ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’. Prufrock’s crab is not even named as such. The disembodied, dismembered creature represents a longing for annihilation, for release from self-awareness. Moss’s crab skeleton becomes an embodiment of immortality.
Crabs shed their exoskeletons. This clawed carapace left on the sand is not the remains of a dead crustacean. In all probability, the crab still lives in the water toward which its shell appears to reach. As such it becomes a moving representation of humanity’s persistent if uncertain belief in life after death. The human body may be no more than a husk, the mortal remains that once held a spirit which lives on elsewhere. There is a strange comfort in the image.
As this week’s winner, Jo gets to choose 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. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
Harusame ya hachi no su tsutou yane no mori spring rain — dripping down the wasp’s nest from the leaking roof Basho (tr. David Landis Barnhill), Basho Haiku — Selected haiku of Matsuo Basho (2004)