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re:Virals 416

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:

     
     the magnolia
     wasn’t ours, yet its absence
     is
     — Patricia J. Machmiller
     Kingfisher #6, October 2022  

Introducing this poem, Sébastien writes:

Keith’s shortlist proved to be helpful again when I was stuck for time to go and look for outstanding haiku. And this one is indeed outstanding. It clicked with me instantly and reverberated deeply. I hope you will find this haiku as mind-compelling as I did. It took me about two to three seconds to connect to this poem. It took just a few more seconds for it to resonate fully with me and to trigger what I am about to write.

This poem is a haiku. It has a kigo with the word magnolia which is implicitly in full bloom and suddenly it is not… anymore. This is the first twist in this haiku: the use of the past tense “wasn’t…” in the beginning of L2. That statement “the magnolia wasn’t ours” is laid out in a rather unusual way over two lines. Indeed L2 is split into two parts with the presence of the comma in the middle, a natural cut in the poem. Then, we have the pivotal word of the poem in “absence”, the concept of which the poem will ask us to wonder about. And yet, another implied pause rather than a cut happens at the end of L2 after “absence” which creates suspense in the verse. The final twist comes in L3 with the present tense, in effect juxtaposed in contrast with the past tense of the same verb at the beginning of L2. Kigo, cut, juxtaposition. This is a haiku; and yet it feels like a sentence with a comma. So what?

This haiku is a I thought I had for many months, looking at the agapanthus or the hydrangea in my garden. Not my agapanthus but the agapanthus, not my hydrangea but the hydrangea. And so, is my garden mine? What belongs to us? What do we own?

The flamboyance of the magnolia in bloom is like an ideal of beauty that we are naturally attracted to. When something close or dear to us is gone, what of it is left within us? I might extrapolate too much but this poem reminded me of the thought I had once about my son, aged 9. Is my son mine? I mean, does his life belong to me? Surely not! He is a being, an individual like any of us, part of Nature. I only was part of its origin. Only if he’d be gone before me, God forbid, he would become my pain, he would remain in my memory, the memory and pain of his mother too obviously… And of course he would live in me until I die.

This poem is a haiku I wish I had written. A haiku that was in me for months but didn’t come out. This is a haiku that we all have within us. It is universal. It is a gem, I dare to say, a beautifully and gracefully polished gem.

I am so grateful for Patricia Machmiller.

Opening comment:

When I first saw this verse in the Touchstone long list, I had that shiver that comes with an unexpected insight into truth.  At the risk of brickbats, I contend that this is the essence of the best, the least ephemeral, of the genre.  Part of the spirit of haiku. It stood apart from the rest, and went immediately into my small file of favourites.

Our world: our own small world or the whole world we share: whose is it?  A tree, on whoeversland, matures and becomes magnificent, enduring… and familiar.  Loved, even if we don’t know it until it is destroyed.  This remarkable haiku accentuates the feeling of love and loss by juxtaposing its presence, in the past, with its absence now — in the present.  Human feelings are projected way beyond, that seem to defy rationality.   When something that we loved disappears for ever, part of us dies too, and perhaps only then do we realise that love.   Now, this tree. What price this whole planet of living things?

Patricia J. Machmiller’s haiku, in its plain words, is easily distinguished from the everyday haiku that appear everywhere, just as its insight stands out from the host with re-hashed memes.   Its form and crafting are unusual and original, a sign, perhaps, of someone who has comfortably absorbed the conventions of haiku and now goes beyond them. The two parts are equal,  consonant with the theme. There is one image, and it is in the past, the cut and the contrast being with its absence, a conceptual thing. Possibly we picture the scene with and without the magnolia. We may take the magnolia as a spring reference (anyone who has seen a magnolia in full bloom will straight away go to that image). The last word, “is,” is powerful, assertive: the “isness” of things, even of an absence. Remarkable.  I gave thought to how the words might be rearranged the better to fit conventions: my efforts were inferior. The verse as written looks, sounds, and feels right.

Congratulations to Patricia, and to Tanya McDonald, the editor of Kingfisher.

Jennifer Gurney:

Such a subtle, yet poignant haiku.

What came to my mind when reading this poem is the impact trees have on multiple lives in a neighborhood. Often, a tree lives on one side of a property line, but impacts those living on both sides. While the impact can be positive or negative, in this case it feels wistful. Pining, even. The person living next door is missing the presence of the fragrant, beautiful tree that is no longer there.

Like Robert Frost’s iconic line “good fences make good neighbors,” this poem speaks to the impact trees have on neighbors.

I also like how the magnolia tree takes on an almost human presence in this poem. Trees can very much be our best friends, our companions, our confidants. We watch them grow, we enjoy them while they are here and we miss them when they are gone. Much like the people and animals in our lives. And sometimes, they become part of our daily landscape and their presence is missed when that is altered.

I truly love how Machmiller cuts and ends the poem on line three with the solo word: is. Powerfully done.

Olinda Nikolakis:

The brevity of the last line is eye-catching and thought provoking. I resonate with the idea of the absence of the magnolia in a city street where one has grown accustomed to its presence, for example, walking to work or school. I can think of such a tree I would greatly miss if it suddenly disappeared. On another level, perhaps it is the end of spring and only the magnificent blossoms have disappeared, rather than the whole tree, from view. The reader is invited to question to whom a tree belongs: those who enjoy its beauty, those who planted it or those who destroyed it? Or many more interpretations. Perhaps the tree has been over-cropped by a gardener ? There is a very pleasing notion of impermanence in this haiku. The idea that we must seize the day, seize the magnolia tree in our appreciation of its beauty, because it won’t last forever.

Lakshmi Iyer:

A very funny feeling altogether that a person who stays close to us for a very long time leaves us, that’s the time when we think of them the most. It can be anything. A flower, a pet, a tree, the well, your favourite handkerchief, favourite mug, etc. This is the essence behind the poem by Patricia.

It could have been our neighbour’s magnolia for which we would have had teeny-weeny fights, arguments, etc. Nevertheless now when it’s gone, we start to own it, even to the extend that we postulate that it was seeded by us, watered by us, taken care of at every level. What’s the happiness behind showing off something contrasted with actually working on it? Our level of understanding, thinking, discrimination and perspectives shouldn’t depend on the necessity. It should be a self-taught regard of equality. Whether present or not, it should be one and the same.

A well balanced poem and simple! Thank you.

Nairithi Konduru (aged eight):

This is sort of like a sentence with a punctuation mark in between in L2.

This verse could mean that we are jealous. The reason is, a Magnolia is very beautiful and we feel a little jealous of our neighbours who have it but when we go to visit our grandparents and we look at our grandparents’ neighbour’s house and see no Magnolia tree, we like to own its absence.

A Magnolia tree is like one’s favourite stuffed toy which one loves very much but when one doesn’t take care of it one loses it. It’s the same way with a Magnolia tree.

From the poem, it also looks like someone who is loved very much is missing.

Jonathan Epstein:

I see an older couple living in a small home. Hanging half over a wood fence in their grassy backyard is the neighbor’s magnolia, the scent of its lotus blooms welcomed by the couple each spring. One day the tree is gone and the couple is bereft.

The telling word in this haiku is the minuscule “is.” A plebeian word, a functional and mostly unnoticed word, a word some languages do without; yet set alone, it quietly proclaims the psychic presence of the tree — “its absence is.”’

The sole image is “the magnolia,” a particular one that is loved, but if ‘magnolia’ doesn’t work for you, touch the emotion by substituting the name of something that wasn’t “yours“ — yet once gone, was cause for grief.

One morning a year ago, the 40-year-old giant Burmese honeysuckle vine by our condominium pool was gone, uprooted and carted away overnight. It was not “ours“ but maintained by monthly homeowners fees. I mourned its loss, not realizing how entwined it was with memories of a related vine that climbed the back of my childhood home. Surprisingly, it was the fragrance of the flowers that was central to my sense of loss.

A poignant haiku that reminds us that nothing loved is truly lost. Legal ownership is one thing; emotional connections are the ties that bind. What we once held close to our hearts, when gone from the physical plane, finds new life inside us.

Dan Campbell — missing the magnificent magnolia:

Thank you Patricia for honoring magnolia trees in your poem. As a forestry student many years ago, the magnolia tree was one of my favorite trees and remains so today. There are many reasons to miss a magnificent magnolia tree that vanishes.

Magnolia trees, with their striking flowers and unique history, hold a special place in the world of horticulture and human culture. These exquisite trees are renowned for their ancient lineage, breathtaking blooms, and diverse species.

Magnolia trees, belonging to the Magnoliaceae family, are among the most ancient flowering plants on Earth. Fossil records indicate that magnolias have been around for over 95 million years, dating back to the time of dinosaurs. This long evolutionary history contributes to their unique botanical features and resilience in various ecosystems.

One of the most captivating aspects of magnolia trees is their magnificent blossoms. These large, fragrant flowers, which can vary in color from pure white to vibrant shades of pink, purple, and even yellow, are a visual treat for nature enthusiasts and gardeners alike. The unique cup-shaped petals, often accompanied by cone-like structures called carpels, make magnolia blooms easily recognizable. The blossoms are not only visually appealing but also emit a delightful fragrance, attracting pollinators like beetles and butterflies.

Magnolia trees play a significant role in various ecosystems. They provide food and habitat for a range of wildlife, including birds, insects, and small mammals. Some magnolia species produce cone-like structures filled with bright red seeds that serve as a food source for birds like turkeys and quails during the winter months. Additionally, magnolias contribute to soil health by shedding leaves and creating nutrient-rich litter, enriching the soil and supporting the growth of other plants.

Beyond their ecological importance, magnolia trees hold cultural significance in many parts of the world. In the United States, the southern magnolia is an iconic symbol of the American South, often associated with grace and hospitality. Its glossy evergreen leaves and large, fragrant blossoms have made it a favorite ornamental tree in the region. In Asia, magnolias have been revered for centuries, symbolizing purity and nobility in Chinese and Japanese cultures.

With their ancient lineage, captivating blooms, ecological roles, and cultural significance, magnolias continue to enchant and inspire people around the world. It would be impossible not to miss or be saddened by the disappearance of such a majestic tree.

Author Patricia J. Machmiller:

Thank you, Sébastien, for picking my haiku for discussion this week. I look forward to hearing the feedback of re:Virals readers.

This poem is rooted in the history of the neighborhood where I live. Fifty-six years ago our young family moved into a new house in a new neighborhood. The development was on farmland at what was then the outskirts of San Jose. There were no trees except the ones we planted—the new homeowners and the city. The city planted slow-growing coastal oaks along the curbs and the new owners planted trees in the front yards and backyards. We have a big elm in our front yard. Another neighbor planted a magnolia. The trees grew up along with our kids; over the years some people left, and new owners moved in. As I have grown older and walk the neighborhood, I am grateful for the many shade trees we have now, especially in the summertime. One day a year or so ago, I discovered a new neighbor had cut down the beautiful spreading magnolia. I was shocked that it could happen—that someone didn’t appreciate the tree and the shade it gave. It hurt my heart. This haiku is a paean to that tree, and a kind of plea for the protection of all trees. I also hope the poem prompts some thought about ownership—what’s the boundary between private and public ownership?

A word about the form: I do appreciate the three-line haiku form in English; I find the construct of two parts flowing over three lines to be a tantalizing challenge; I find it offers the poet opportunities to create soundscapes that are both lyrical and surprising. I was aware that putting “is” on a line by itself, especially the last line was a bit risky. I wasn’t sure that it would be up to the job of landing the poem. I am looking forward to hearing what the commenters on re:Virals think.


virus2

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, albeit it focused on the tree perhaps more than the haiku per se, but with such infectious enthusiasm, Dan 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!

Poem for commentary:

     on the tip
     of the bird's beak
     a drop of rainbow
     — Earl Livings 
     Shamrock, issue 47, 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.


Footnote:

A short bio, photograph and list of publications of distinguished past Touchstone award winner Patricia J. Machmiller may be found at the American Haiku Archives (of which she is an advisory Board Member) here. There is an article by Patricia giving some of her favourite haiku in the pages of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

—-

Lest some may cavil – perish the thought! – at haiku that sound in part like a statement, sentence-like aphorism or proverb, yet  offer deep and original insight, let me offer:

the dew of the rouge flower
when it is spilled
is simply water
— Chiyo-ni
(…magic!)

the child’s imitation
is more wonderful
than the real cormorant
Issa

Surely we would not turn down those submissions.

—-

I’m fortunate to live in a designated conservation area that has a number of fine trees, where it is not allowed to cut any trunk or branch over three inches in diameter without first seeking formal permission from the local planning authority. In addition, more widely in the borough, anyone can apply to have a Tree Preservation Order placed on any tree, if the inspector agrees, so that it may not be cut down or heavily pruned without prior permission. The inspectors take a sensible view, accounting for the health of the tree, as well as the public amenity it offers including its visual aspects, when considering the wishes of the landowner.  A commendable practice.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Once again, the second time three weeks, I’m stumped by a poem here at re:Virals. Why is this a haiku, or even a poem? It’s a simple declarative sentence, modified by a conditional clause: “The magnolia wasn’t ours, yet its absence is [ours].” It’s a clever thought, and certainly a true thing, but it’s not a haiku. I see nothing: there’s no image or sense impression of any kind. There’s no cut at all. A haiku depends on synergy between visual elements. The only synergy here is between the stated “absence” and the implied “presence” of the tree, which is a common phenomenon in our lives: you only miss something once it’s gone.

    For me, the big problem in this haiku (and in the flowering plum poem two weeks back) is the use of “is,” which I’m reading as a substitute for the cut. “Is” is the present tense of “be.” To say that something “is” asserts it’s immediate presence, but also allows no conditionals: it tells, not shows. The language is simply denotative: this is what I experience.

    Keith seems to have anticipated the “is” objection by including a poem from Issa in his commentary:

    the child’s imitation
    is more wonderful
    than the real cormorant

    I don’t know a thing about translation from the Japanese, but the use of “is” here strikes me as odd since it eliminates the cut between “imitation” and “more.” This version of the poem is telling me about the relation between the child’s imitation and the real cormorant: “the imitation is better than the original.” I suspect that Issa wouldn’t be so adamant, but would leave room for interpretation. I’ll leave it to other people more versed in translation than me to debate the use of the verb here, but

    the child’s imitation –
    more wonderful
    than the real cormorant

    seems more in keeping with the spirit of a haiku.

    1. Matt, I don’t claim to know what the spirit of haiku is, but I’d like to know who the translator of the quoted Issa haiku is. This is because I find the word “wonderful” so overused in haiku commentary over the past few years that every time I see it I feel, “O, no, not xxxxxxx ‘wonderful’ again!” To see it in an Issa haiku annoys me. ‘Wonderful’ has come to mean worse than nothing to me, as a word spoken (or written) as some sort of gap filler, or even a kind of ‘club card’. I wonder who the interpreter is? I could wring his/her neck! Grumpy old woman I may be, but an honest one.

      But this, by Patricia J. Machmiller, works for me immediately because it brings forth an evocative truth:

      the magnolia
      wasn’t ours, yet its absence
      is
      — Patricia J. Machmiller (Kingfisher #6, October 2022 )
      .
      ‘absence’ is a word that immediately evokes our memory of the presence of something. An absent something is not a nothing: it is still present in the mind. We see it is not there. We recall, quite vividly, that it was there. We remember. That we don’t need to have literally owned something to own our memory of it is a truism.

      It actually happened to me: there was a big old magnolia tree (the usual decorative sort with the big pink flowers that a galah could roost by and blend in with) by the track to railway station, not far from where I live. It was really on “no man’s land’, or the council land. It was always there, for decades, across the railway tracks from the Railway Hotel. Then it wasn’t there. Yet every time I pass by there now I recall its presence, “see” it. Especially in Spring, when it bloomed. There are younger people and not-so-young new residents around here now, people who never saw that tree. Its absence isn’t theirs.
      .
      Is this a haiku? I’m not sure anymore what is a haiku and what isn’t. There is certainly juxtaposition: what was & has now gone/ what is & is present and what is literally gone but is (hauntingly) present in memory. There is certainly seasonal reference (spring, when the pink magnolias bloom). It happens to be spring now, where I am.

      1. Matt and Lorin:
        On the Issa:

        .鵜の真似を鵜より巧者な子供哉
        u no mane wo u yori kôsha-na kodomo kana

        The child’s imitation
        Is more wonderful
        Than the real cormorant
        -Issa tr Blyth, Haiku p 149

        Blyth: “This can hardly be called a poem, but it contains a real intuition of great interest and value. It is not in itself poetical, because it stands quite apart from child and bird, and compares the two dispassionately. That is to say, it is simply the statement of the result of the comparison of the intuitions, one of the bird itself and one of the child’s imitation of it. Either would be or might be poetry when expressed, but Issa has simply declared that, to his surprise, the imitation had a deeper meaning for him than the real thing.”

        Jisho dictionary:
        鵜 cormorant
        possessive
        真 truth, reality, genuineness
        似 looking like (imitation)
        を particle
        鵜 cormorant
        より than
        巧 skillfullness
        者 person (used with qualifier)
        な particle
        子 (used as suffix) child
        供 (companion; follower ..?)
        哉 sentence-ending particle, exclamation mark (kana – kireji)

        A child is better at imitating cormorants than cormorants.
        tr Google

        outdoing the cormorant
        in skillful imitation…
        a child
        tr Lanoue

        It seems that Blyth’s ‘wonderful’ is a translator’s overlay. If the Lanoue version appeals because it fits current conventions in English haiku, I suggest that the ellipsis as ‘cut’ is introduced by the translator, and doesn’t accord with the kireji of Issa, kana, which as in several others is at the end.

        How about Chiyo-ni’s rouge flower?…(text in footnote)

        Also to ponder:
        tobibeta no nomi no kawaisa masarikeri
        The flea
        That is poor at jumping,
        All the more charming.
        -Issa tr Blyth (kireji, keri, at the end)

        and:

        Sennin wa hito kankodori wa tori nari keri
        Hermits are human beings;
        The kankodori
        Is a bird.
        Buson tr Blyth
        …although Blyth has inserted a semicolon, Buson put his cutting word, keri, at the end.

        sennin hermit
        hito person, human
        kankadori cuckoo
        tori bird
        nari while still
        keri kireji, indicates end (also auxiliary verb indicates recollection)

        Perhaps: “a hermit’s a human while a cuckoo’s (just) a bird.”

        and:

        nani kite mo utsukushiku naru tsukimi kana

        whatever we wear
        we look beautiful
        when moon-viewing
        —Chiyo-ni tr Blyth
        (kireji again at the end of the sentence).

        Note: I am relying on Shirane’s list of kireji.

        The above are under the subhead “authorial didactic” in a file I keep for collecting haiku mischief of various sorts.

        1. Oh, and

          katatsu buri soro-soro nobore fuji no yama
          snail-little slowly-slowly climb fuji mountain of

          little snail
          slowly-slowly
          climbs Mount Fuji
          —Issa
          no cut or cutting word at all, as far as I can see: yet how famous is this ku.

          There was a late interchange of comments with Lorin and Matt at the end of re:Virals 414 on sentence-like haiku, if interested.

        2. ” Issa has simply declared that, to his surprise, the imitation had a deeper meaning for him than the real thing.” – Keith
          That makes sense to me. (L)

          “It seems that Blyth’s ‘wonderful’ is a translator’s overlay.” – Keith

          Thank goodness for that. But it’s not the word ‘wonderful’ in itself I don’t like, it’s just the overuse or misuse of the word in contemporary haiku commentary.

    2. In reply to Matt’s comment:

      A little variety, a little pushing the boundaries, coloring outside the lines . . . is a good thing.
      At a certain point in one’s writing life, a *necessary* thing.

      Best wishes–

      PY

  2. the magnolia
    wasn’t ours, yet its absence
    is
    — Patricia J. Machmiller

    A rather masterly poem. (If I saw it in a journal that does not feature haiku, I would not necessarily assume it was written as one, which to me, is a good thing. For me, to experience something as a *poem* is primary. If, following that, it is useful to see that it is or has the qualities of a haiku, then I am happy to go in that direction.)

    I don’t find myself focussing on the *magnolia*, at least not at first. I am drawn into the psychological weight of the poem, what it says about experience and perception, doing so in ways that Wallace Stevens might appreciate: via a sensual image.

    Presence and absence have different weights, each alive in own way. And yet inseparable. I don’t think I go too far afield in saying that absence may be more vivid than presence. Is it true to say that the vivid absence of something lives in the one experiencing it in a very personal and individual way? Perhaps because each of us is inhabited, so to speak, by absence in an almost archetypal way— *we live with, and in, our absence*.

    The absence of a loved object or person lives in our own absence. It is continuous with it. It is ours.

    *Magnolia*, yes. A vivid, blossoming presence. And something else. Though most people may not pay much attention to the old 5/7/5 stricture, it lingers, ghostly, inside English (and other) language haiku. (Though perhaps not so much for younger writers). At any rate, what I notice is that first line of Machmiller’s is 5 syllables in length, the second is 7.

    Does this set up, unconsciously, an expecation for another 5 syllable line? It turns out to be 1 syllable. Does the absence of 4 syllables play into the overall sense of *absence*— its psychological/spiritual weight— the poem intends?

    That of course, depends whether or not one sees the poem as a haiku.

    So— two people are looking at what Machmiller has written. One comes with the foreknowledge/belief that it is a haiku. The other doesn’t, and may have no experience of haiku. It is rather like two people looking at a magnolia tree. One who “owns” it. The other who doesn’t.

    1. Peter, to me, you’re the master of “is”. Never mind Issa. Everything is right (including gender) in the one “is” haiku I find unforgettable:

      mosquito she too
      insisting she
      is is is is is

      – Peter Yovu

  3. L1 mentions a beautiful flower (love/hope?). L2 starts in past tense while L3 ends in the present tense. The verse grows on the reader.

    The magnolia tree was probably growing in the neighbourhood and the poet may have been cherishing it’s beauty on her drive to work or her walk everyday. When one day, she didn’t see it, she sorely missed the beauty (fragrance, colour etc) of the flower.

    Here, it could be a flower which has completed its life cycle. It could also be that magnolia refers to the tree itself and that the tree has been cut down. The cutting down of trees definitely affects everyone through climate change etc. I want to take it a step further and assume a magnolia could refer to a child, a neighbour’s child may be. The young child may have succumbed to some illness or a grown-up child may have gone out of country for higher education or work. If the child had been close to the neighbours, the absence is definitely felt.

    Does it speak about the extinction of some species of animals/birds/plants due to human actions of poaching or through climate change? Don’t the absence of the now extinct animals and birds bring to mind that “though their presence was not ours, their absence is”?

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