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:stamp album — a page from a country that no longer is — Linda Papanicolaou haikuKatha issue #16, February 2023
Introducing this poem, Harrison writes:
Arresting. Time travel. This senryu takes a simple observation that is easily understood, and transforms it into a prompt for many layers of reflection whether geopolitical, philosophical or personal. Tangible proof of something that exists only in history, or in memory.
This neat verse immediately spoke to me of many things. I like its sparse, plain words. The phrase element reads well. The choice of “is” rather than “exists” may have been suggested by attention to syllables but is very strong, and also open in that a reader might choose to add a word or words in the mind. What weight the words carry!
As a boy in the age when there were fewer electronic entertainments I kept a stamp album for a few winters, but it was not really for me. No, this conjured up, first, my peripatetic life in diplomacy that ended twenty years ago, and how the countries I lived in or dealt with have changed, including one in which I had a hand in decolonisation and which now has a different name and a radically different set of stamps. Then thoughts of other countries that “no longer are” such as the Soviet Union, our nightmare in the sixties and seventies; and the countries that exist but are denied the trappings of statehood such as the Occupied Palestinian Territory (latest UN resolution 15 December 2022). And — of course — Ukraine, another country partly occupied, whose existence is explicitly threatened by Russia (and which has been issuing some memorable stamps). You may draw your own parallels.
Ambitious political leaders, especially the despotically-inclined, blow the bugle of national identity, but nationalism leads to fences, hostility and war. The bad old days to which, it often seems, we are reverting. Stamps, the function of which was the eminently practical one of delivering a letter, can become yet another symbol of nationhood, sovereignty and sometimes individual aggrandisement.
“The past is a foreign country” — L.P. Hartley’s celebrated opening line: and what is a diplomat if not a go-between? Alas more frequently between adversaries than between lovers. And if you go back, you find that things are no longer as they were. Memories are timestamped.
Instantly this haiku took me back to my childhood, the endless hours lying on the carpet with a pile of stamps my grandfather had saved from his solicitor’s office in front of me waiting to be carefully placed into their delicate, transparent corners and my beloved stamp album. That dear album I carry with all my notebooks of writing from house to house but so rarely gets opened… And of course the geopolitical relevance of these archives is summed up by the final last line, those shifting and changing territories, those long gone and almost gone colonial throw backs, fragments of another time and place marked out by vivid imagery, a Kenyan elephant with vibrant green background, the multiple regal images from Siam, a woman picking tea in Ceylon… I remember how these stamps took me from suburbia to a sense of a world I hoped to visit beyond the cul-de-sacs and twittens. With the demise of countries, the arrival of new ones, I wonder too how many children are still collecting stamps and spending hours marvelling over stamps, searching for new ones in second hand shops or is this now all online or itself a vanished land that has succumbed to desertification? Of course as an adult I look back and realise that I rarely delved into the darker side of the historical narratives these stamps often portrayed and wonder if now another person on finding my album might tear such pages out and cancel these countries before they were themselves changed formally. But I cling to the innocence and joy of those lost and wondrous hours ‘travelling’ a world I might never explore but hoped to, those small windows into other cultures that I so desperately wanted to escape to away from the familiar and hum drum. And so as I approach my late fifties I too find some meaning in these lines that suggest that we are all countries that at some point will no longer exist, pages, perhaps just marks on a page, that will soon be forgotten and lost.
How far one has traveled in time, that the weathering of things is often highlighted in their absence as juxtaposed with the two images in this fabulous haiku. It is poignant to note that both the hobby of collecting stamps has lost its form given very few people now correspond through letters, as has the country that has lost its boundaries on the map. The messaging is clear in its simplicity, but when as I delve deeper, I’m driven to think about erasure, weirdly the erasure of identity. In these two images the jux highlights erasure concretely creating a powerful metaphor documenting how erasure can be a consequence of changing values, systems, processes and meanings.
I loved this haiku by Linda Papanicolaou. While she likely had a much more serious intention in mind when writing it, I flashed on a funny memory. When I was in sixth grade, gosh nearly 50 years ago now, we had an “Oldies But Goodies” show with our music teacher. Reading this haiku, a line from a song we sang floated through my mind: “When you find date in Constantinople, they’ll be waiting in Istanbul.” Thanks for the memory.
Philately is the most common hobby that exists. The exchange of stamps with varied colours, plants, personalities, fruits, flowers, animal kingdom, etc. Yes, it depicts a nation in a very tiny miniscule to jumbo shape, and that makes a nation proud.
Coming to Lines 2 & 3, ‘a page from a country that no longer is’ – is so true. Historical, economic and political revolutions have created scenes when a nation is either merged or gets diminished in years to come. Sometimes climatic conditions and alarming untoward incidents are responsible for the disappearance of a nation and no wonder it becomes a story-telling page through the stamp album.
The poem is very simple but alarming too, by the many memories that go within it. The poet must have either witnessed or experienced. Perhaps the page has been taken away, or the album may be a parting gift from the person who owned it. Both ways, its a trauma and the words ‘no longer is’ says it all. Going back to the pages to recollect memories of the ‘Once upon a time’ conveys depth and loneliness.
The em dash in L 1 builds a hundred stories and each of them straight from the heart. Loved the way L 3 lands perfectly with the words, ‘no longer is’!
How much does a poem convey? This senryu evokes and suggests so much. This pull between the past and the present is haunting. L1 – states the hobby of philately and a subsequent journey exploring history, geography, art and politics, connecting people to traditions and the older generation. L2 & L3 – immediately bring to mind the turbulence of partitioned nations. For example, in 1947 and the partition of India into two nations. Preceding this, the splitting of Bengal (a culturally and intellectually rich, strong and vibrant state) led to a vivisection of the motherland later. Similarly, the breaking up of Yugoslavia, the partition of Cypress, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia and Sudan, the Middle East, and most recently the travails in Ukraine. The accompanying violence, large-scale loss of life and livelihood, migration, devastation, confusion and mental upheaval can only be perhaps grasped fully if experienced personally.
I was an avid stamp collector in my youth. And an image that is so vivid is of colourful lemons on a postage stamp of Lebanon. Compare this to the war-torn country of today. A poem that brings back memories of times that once were; languages that once were spoken; friends that once laughed together. Perhaps, at a deeper level, the poem evokes transience and fluidity that is part of the natural order of the world as well as in the order of human interaction.
Philately is a widely practiced hobby and loved pastime. Children and adults alike engage in exchanging stamps of value. The love and passion within the stamp album is considerable.
L1 evokes nostalgia for most of us who have so much as even observed the many stamps. L2 takes us into a specific page, may be our own country or some other where all the different stamps from all the years of occasions and commemorations are placed. It’s almost like the history of a country in that one page. L3 takes a twist and says that that nation is no more, its existence is itself wiped out. The a’s and o’s of this senryu give a melancholic lyrical feel.
The poet doesn’t reveal what she feels about it but leaves it to the reader. This situation can bring about a multitude of reactions – a child may be bewildered listening to the story behind this and understanding the past of (to them) an unknown place, an aged person who lived through a war and/or a war veteran may have many horrific and tragic stories to recount. An ordinary citizen of a country which has lost its identity is the most affected – their lives change in multiple ways, they become foreign in their own land. They lose their belongings and even their near and dear ones in a war-ravaged acquisition.
When I first read this in haikuKATHA or on the Triveni website, I wondered which country had lost itself and when. So now that I got the opportunity to contemplate on the poem, I also looked up for more information.
Colette Kern: fixing the changing times:
This haiku led me to contemplate the passage of time, both in the lives of humans and also in countries and geographic places. The first image – of a stamp album, presents a series of very formal, fixed temporal images – a picture of a country in a set time. The author deftly pairs this image with a phrase that suggests that our geographies and our lives are actually more fluid and changeable through time. I imagined a person, now older, looking back on a collection, perhaps of places they hoped to visit, or revisiting memories of places they have been. The word country can be understood as a specific geographic area with a government that is no more – such as Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Persia (now Iran). This could be tragic, as in the loss of a beloved country. Or it could be transformative- the creation of a new and idealistic nation. As I read the poem, an old Rolling Stones song, “Time Waits for No-one” played on the radio, as if to punctuate the fluidity of our inner and outer geography. Indeed, “a country” can be broadened to represent the inner terrain of a person’s stored sensory memories of a place and time. For example, in Wendell Berry’s poem “The Country of Marriage,” the writer dreams of his wife walking through the “country of my birth”, which, to me, suggests memories of childhood, sights, sounds, foliage, rivers, seasons and psyche. This eleven-word poem has a great deal of space for the reader to insert their own interpretation of ” countries” now gone. The poem has a poignancy and a sense of sadness that is expressed through its clear images. To me, the stamp represents a fixed image in time, whereas the changing terrains and geopolitical territories bring to mind an eternal process.
Author Linda Papanicolaou:
This haiku was in response to the July 2022 “stamp” prompt on NaHaiWriMo’s Facebook page. I had originally written “father’s old stamp album” but edited this out when I later posted it to Triveni’s HAIKUsutradhar. For me, though, this is the unwritten heart of the poem.
I first discovered the stamp album among Dad’s books in the house where we were living in the 1950s: a black leather binder with neatly sorted pages of postage stamps all sorts of exotic places in the world. When I asked mother about it, she simply said that he had collected stamps when he was young.
In the almost hundred years since, many countries, nations, and empires we learned in school no longer exist. In this sense, the haiku is what it says. For me personally, though, the haiku glimpses my father as he was before the Great Depression, WWII, marriage, parenthood, and a job in industry foreclosed what expansive dreams he may have had. I never asked him about the stamps, so that is another kind of “no longer is.” I do not know what my own children will do with the album, but what if anything I’ve learned from haiku is that we live in a world of impermanence.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Colette 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.
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no one to talk to about old times- oak galls falling — Deborah A. Bennett Poetry Pea Journal 3.22 (31 January 2023)
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Linda Papanicolaou’s bio and some of her haiku may be viewed in the Haiku Registry.
This week’s verse is one example of how a haikuist can put something that is essentially in the past, into a form which many maintain must be in the present tense.