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 Colette Kern, was:no one to talk to about old times— oak galls falling — Deborah A. Bennett Poetry Pea Journal 3.22 (31 January 2023)
Introducing this poem, Colette writes:
This poem describes a universal human experience. Oaks grow on five continents and in North America they support more life forms than any other tree. And Deborah Bennett writes beautifully.
I’ve noticed several of Deborah A. Bennett’s haiku on the web lately and they are often strangely attractive and out of the ordinary, like this one. A poet I’ve begun to follow. The seasonal expression “oak galls falling,” with the cadence of its internal rhyme, is unusual, and puts us in autumn, matching the autumnal late-in-life mood of the preceding phrase.
As survivors, we lament friends or relatives absent, lost or dead, the only ones who “were there” in “the old times,” with more than a trace of slightly bitter sadness, which the oak and the galls and the falling pick up very smoothly. The little wasp inside the gall doesn’t have a sting; but this little poem does.
When my beloved grandpa died, nearly 20 years ago, a dear friend shared this perspective. When our loved ones die, they leave us bereft because they were the ones who held our stories. Now who is to hold our stories? In the past two years, on top of the pandemic, I have lost my mom and my grandma in short order. In the course of one year, I lost the roles of daughter to my mother and granddaughter to my grandmother. I used to call my mom, who lived out of state in a nursing home, every day. Sometimes it was while I walked to my sweet little lake. I would describe the scenery so it was as if she were on the walk with me. On weekends, I used to visit my grandma, who lived in a nursing home in the next town. Both women had become not only my mentors and elders, but my friends. “No one to talk to about old times” captures this sense of loss and longing. What I wouldn’t give for one more visit to my grandma and one more time to sit and hold her hand, tell stories, hear her memories and just breathe the same air. She lived to the wonderfully rich age of 104 and had so many stories of old times to tell. And what I wouldn’t give for one more time to tell my mom that I love her, to hear her laugh, to listen to her stories. The poignancy of Bennett’s poem speaks to me deeply. It resonates with my soul.
At first I had to learn what line 3 here contained in real life terms since oak galls are totally foreign to me, living in a country without them among our flora and fauna. Yes, I said fauna too because I found out from my web search that oak galls are those nests wherein wasps leave their larvae to grow. Now, that is zoology surrounded by botany if I got it basically right, the oak galls I mean. That done, now I can see the essence of this three line verse ( I don’t dare calling it haiku or senryu with too much confidence in either, simply because of the hybrid image it creates in my mind, not being too sure if the verse emanates from a human viewpoint or otherwise spontaneous from nature’s greenery).
From the opening line (fragmented image) the poet brings forth a sense of solitude we can grasp at once, solitude of herself or that of the nature around her where interaction between feelings or actions is inhibited due to absence of any recipient, animate or inanimate. Then we catch the rest of the imagery from the second line which elaborates this a little further with the added light of “about old times”, and things do fall into place. But that alone wouldn’t make it senryu or haiku as an inexplicable gap remains when the poet pens her third line which must bring up the “aha” moment with that seamless stitch we anticipate with curiosity, and then it comes!
With the aforesaid last line, “oak galls falling” the poet leaves us guessing, and still guessing, delaying the moment of truth before those who know about the oak galls (where a simple life-form is hidden within the falling and hence lifeless nest) capture the whole meaning the scene carries. As I could see it, the poem doesn’t leave any space for the times ahead but only the nostalgia for the times already dead and gone, as is the fate of the newly conceived lifeform plunging into its imminent demise, illustrated by the oak galls falling all around.
“Oak galls” are something new to me, so I googled. First up, my query, “What are oak galls?”, was answered with the question, ” What are oak gall wasps?”, so I went along with that and found that : ” Oaks, especially the native species Quercus robur and Q. petraea are the host plants for more than 70 species of cynipid gall wasp. It is the larval stage of these insects that induce the plant to produce abnormal growths, known as galls, that enclose the developing larvae. These galls are part of the biodiversity a healthy oak tree supports. ”
Further research reveals: ” The British Plant Gall Society encourages and co-ordinates the study of plant galls in the British Isles.” A world of fascination for amateur entomologists awaits! It includes the unusual sex lives of gall wasps.
“Oak gall wasps have complex life cycles, with alternating generations that are either sexual with males and females, or asexual with females only. The two generations often produce different types of gall on different parts of the tree, and in some species the generations alternate between native and non-native species of oak.”
The seasonal element in this haiku is autumn but “oak galls falling”, a far less common image in haiku than “autumn leaves falling”, has quite a different resonance. I recall my father’s soulful rendition of Nat King Cole’s song, ‘Autumn Leaves’, especially the line “I miss you most of all…when autumn leaves, start to fall”.
Deborah A. Bennet’s haiku seems at first to be on a similar track but the season is marked not by falling leaves but by falling oak galls, each one pregnant with next spring’s gall wasps. This image, then, points to the future and continuation, that which is anticipated rather than that which evokes regret. What makes this haiku different from the many is the contrast between the two parts, the regret felt for lost old times juxtaposed with an image which, for those familiar with the life cycles of certain species of wasp, turns out to be predictive of fascinating and fertile future.
L1 of this verse shows the loneliness and sad state of the speaker and L2 explains what the speaker feels like sharing. She’s feeling reminiscent and is unable to share this nostalgia with whom she has spent some time, may be good or bad, happy or sad. L3 metaphorically elaborates why the poet doesn’t have anyone to talk to.
The alliteration and some repetition and rhyme in the poem lends a lyrical and melancholic feel to the verse.
Oak apple or oak gall is the common name for a large, round, vaguely apple-like gall commonly found on many species of oak. Oak apples range in size from 2 to 4 centimetres in diameter and are caused by chemicals injected by the larva of certain kinds of gall wasp in the family Cynipidae, in spring. They develop into a thin, fuzzy sphere on the undersides of leaves. The insects live and feed inside the galls during the summer. Live oaks tend to drop leaves with galls in the fall.
The poet is talking about the autumn of our lives. It seems that age is catching up and many friends and relatives who are probably of the same generation or age as the speaker are no more. As children we have our grandparents, parents, relatives and friends amongst our well-wishers. As we grow up to become adults, we lose a few of our friends and relatives, especially the aged ones, to death. As we age more, more of them are lost and hence we are left with very few or none with whom we can travel back in time. This ku invokes poignancy and is very relatable.
Haikuists are a seasoned breed of poet who applaud many of nature’s least celebrated creations — mayflies, sand fleas, cicada husks,, tumbleweed, dry leaves.. In Deborah A. Bennett’s affecting poem of longing and loss, we encounter another of a nature’s overlooked offspring, the oak gall. We’ve seen them, but not paid much attention to this plant structure that houses a tiny wasp and attaches itself to a part of the oak tree (leaf, twig, acorn).
L1-2 : “no one to talk to/ about old times” — familiar, wistful words that convey a great sense of being alone in the world. L3 : oak trees are mostly deciduous and with “oak galls falling” we have a late autumn seasonal expression. The loss of leaves (with attendant galls) can euqated to a flurry of deaths in the poet’s life. What a powerful image. It evokes feelings of melancholy and bitterness (“the bitter taste of gall”). The word “falling,” effectively placed at the end, speaks of death (“soldiers fallen in battle,” “fallen leaves”).
To fully appreciate the beauty and power of this poem we must explore oak galls (aka “oak apples,” a sunnier image) as metaphor for the poet’s fallen friends and family. While oak galls come in many sizes, shapes, and colors, depending on the type of resident wasp (one per gall), I see this image as golfball-sized habitats formed, as all oak galls, by the tree’s chemical response to the secretions of wasp larvae. The galls provide safety and nourishment for each larva until it becomes an adult (visualize an ant with wings) that bores a hole in its home to make its escape — with a week or two to mate, deposit eggs in an oak tree and die.
Humans too, like gall wasps, live singly in their individual (psychological) worlds, are one of myriad creatures vastly important when studied up close, yet from a distance are one of millions if not trillions of interconnected beings, each with a role to play in the web of life. Like gall wasps, the poet’s vanishing cohort belongs to a complex ecosystem whose existence and contribution to the biosphere passes with little notice outside their limited worlds. The prevalent view of humankind’s parasitic-symbiotic relationship to nature (as gall wasps to oak trees) gives food for thought.
There is poetry in this striking phrase that startles the mind and stirs it to reflect. This haiku led me on a fruitful and captivating exploration of “a World in a grain of sand.”
Harrison Lightwater—a haiku of considerable witchcraft:
An interesting haiku — anyone bitterly sad about losing old friends can relate to it. The phrase in natural speech, and the fragment a little more poetic with which it is juxtaposed, both read well and complement each other. I did chew on whether the first two lines amount to a self-explanatory statement, but they are wistfully charming, present quite a universal experience to ageing readers, and are so much better than a haiku cliché. I like them.
The “oak galls falling” is, I think, an original seasonal reference. Oak galls fall in autumn, in general. This complements the air of melancholy transience in the opening two lines, as I imagine the poet to be in the autumn of her life. Oak galls may be caused by a wasp reproducing or by a fungus; and they were used for a concoction of ink (appropriately for a writer). But I had to look that up. The suggestiveness of the words for me was of endurance in the oak; disfigurement in the oak gall; and the bitterness of both oak tannins and the other “gall,” bile. The combination is arresting.
The haiku also has a faint air of mystery, secrecy (the hidden wasp in the gall) and magic about it. What were those old times that the speaker wants to talk about? Is she inhibited from talking about them to new friends who did not share them? Is it just that they would not understand, or something more, something that can be shared only by a few? What happened to those friends or family?
All of which leads to the conclusion that this not only a good read but also a haiku of considerable witchcraft.
Author Deborah A. Bennet:
I wrote the haiku one morning during the pandemic lockdown after a walk in the forest near my home. As for the poem, I hope three lines are enough to transport the reader to an old oak forest at dawn in autumn, hearing something in the wind; something ancient and lonely, wandering in the scent of yellow leaves, oak galls falling all around.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Harrison has chosen next week’s poem, or pair of poems, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to either, or to both comparing them. 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!
power lines in a long row the road to Rome — Jerome Berglund Asahi Shimbun Asahi Haikuist Network, 6th January 2023 and/or: casting a long shadow over the crowd below church spire — Michael Buckingham Gray tsuri-doro issue 12 November-December 2022
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.
According to a very brief bio on the web, Deborah A. Bennett began writing haiku as a mindfulness exercise at the beginning of the pandemic; now she writes them as a form of self expression. There is a hint of the spiritual and mystic in several of her verses, and they often hint at fundamental things. A distinctive voice emerging.