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re:Virals 42

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

     home alone
     I enter the crawl space
     of a younger self
          Robert Epstein, The Heron’s Nest XVII:2 (2015)

Marion Clarke lays out the terms of engagement:

The first line places the narrator in his domestic environment. There is no reason to consider that there is a problem, but for a certain generation — myself included — it is difficult not to recall the movie of this title and imagine a little boy who has been left behind accidently in the family home.

The second line introduces a sense of menace. Why is the child going to hide in the crawl space? Is he in imminent danger? The use of the verb ‘enter’ reinforces the small stature of the narrator, as it makes the crawl space feel positively cavernous.

When the reader arrives at line three and discovers it is a figurative crawl space rather than a physical location, for a second there is relief that this not actually happening. But then comes the creeping realisation that this is a memory, so the narrator must have experienced such fear on at least one occasion. Perhaps it was his parents’ raised voices during an argument that caused him to run and hide . . . or perhaps he was in real physical danger. The haiku is sufficiently open, thereby inviting the reader to draw upon their own childhood fears to complete the poem. Very effective.

And Jo McInerney consider this self-imposed confinement a bit further:

Possible allusions are sometimes a burden, sometimes a boon. Epstein’s ‘home alone’ demonstrates both these potentials.

Line one is initially weakened by the almost inevitable echo of the 1990 movie juggernaut and its sequels bearing these two words as their title. The films’ enormous popularity has made the phrase a modern cliché. However, if the reader can move beyond these associations, the opening line has much to offer. It takes us in a number of directions. There is a partial paradox as home is usually associated with family and friends. It is not simply a place where one feels comfortable, but a social setting shared with intimate others. Line one implies isolation. If it read ‘at home alone’, there would be a clearer suggestion of deliberate, perhaps enjoyed, seclusion. As written, the implications are less definite. This aloneness may be a matter of choice; however, it seems more likely it is not.

Line two is startling, both literally and metaphorically. Within a house, a crawl space is generally a shallow basement, a cavity so low that it is impossible to stand up within it. Crawl spaces are often found in dwellings built in areas with very cold winters as they are dug so that the foundations are below the frost line and there is less structural strain from seasonal contraction and expansion. Those living in warm regions are less likely to be familiar with crawl spaces. For some, the term may provoke memories of Sylvia Plath’s A Bell Jar. Plath’s
protagonist hides in a basement crawl space during a suicide attempt (as had Plath herself). There are suggestions here of a spiritual hard winter, of a soul seeking to last out a time of dearth; perhaps, as Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus”, ‘not come back at all’.

The mood shifts with line three and the poem acquires an even more metaphysical dimension. The crawl space to be entered is that ‘of a younger self’. Again the implications are less than certain. Is it that N is recalling a previous time of fear and isolation? To be ‘home alone’ is probably most distressing for a child. Is N experiencing a recurrence of a previous depression? For readers who catch an allusion to Plath’s life and work the implications are concerning. Or is N simply withdrawing into a previous retreat, perhaps even a place of comfort, concrete or imagined? Our questions are left unresolved.

By the end of the haiku, Epstein has completely transcended any trite associations which line one may have carried for some readers and has created a poem which is evocative and unsettling.


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!

re:Virals 42:

     super 8 my father nothing but electrons
          Jim Kacian, Long After (Albalibri Editoire, Rosignano Marittimo, Italy, 2008)
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