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
super 8 my father nothing but electrons Jim Kacian, Long After (Albalibri Editoire, Rosignano Marittimo, Italy, 2008)
Peter Newton finds a world of big fins here:
The power of the automobile to symbolize strength, style and class was the major marketing tool in the heyday of the auto industry (USA). A super 8 was one of the biggest and best as far as those three criteria go. In this one-liner the poet has put his words to the test. All about speed. And in 7 words we have the life and death of a man. At the start he’s bombin’ down the road in his super 8. By the end of the poem he’s in the ether. All life forms returned to particles of energy. Dust to dust except in this case the focus is on the father at the height of his power in a super 8 (in life) and a few words later his power diminishes when he transforms into “nothing but electrons” (upon death). But power is power. One man’s super 8 is another man’s electron. There’s a subtle commentary going on here. The “nothing but” suggests that electrons were all he (& we) ever were. Of course, that’s a perspective only available to a grown son perhaps which gives the poem its heart and sorrow.
Meanwhile, both Jo McInerney and Garry Eaton discover cosmic implications here. Jo parses carefully its constituents:
Jim Kacian’s ‘super 8’ is a moving treatment of memory, love and loss that teases the reader with questions of what remains after death.
The one-liner opens with a reference to a popular form of home movie film stock released by Kodak in the mid sixties. For those who remember this, there is an immediate tug of nostalgia. Memories are triggered of parents and siblings, birthdays, holidays, childhood games. Flickering, sometimes halting images of a world of love and security. For some, the opening two words may also suggest something in addition to home movies. There are faint echoes of the superheroes of a sixties’ childhood — the exaggerated fighting figures from comics and dauntless boys and girls from children’s adventure stories. This note of youthful idealisation carries into what is to follow.
The next two words are powerfully personal and immediate. The frame comes into focus. N is watching images of his father. There is a tone of hushed acknowledgement, almost surprised recognition, as though after long absence his father has materialised as he was years before. The words are almost a prayer, spoken to the figure on the screen and to the vitalised memory of the man he was.
After the contemplative pause that follows ‘father’, forced by the lack of a verb, the mood changes again. Under the cold scrutiny of current reality, who, what is this father? The initial statement is a shocking ‘nothing’ and then, a partial reprieve, ‘nothing but . . .’ The reader is shaken and expectant. The final answer? ‘[E]lectrons’. The reader may be briefly bewildered. Electrons? Gradual understanding follows. No more than the image projected on the screen, powered by electricity, a flow of electrons. Reader response is likely to be empathy for N’s grief. This father is dead. His image only an illusion, light playing on a wall.
Yet this is not merely an external image. It lives in the mind of the son, in the mind of the reader, who is likely also to have known a father. It exists in the neural mesh of memory, in pathways along which electrons make their way, carrying and creating life present and past. However, the tracking does not end there.
Finally, the reader is left to speculate about where else the father might be. Twenty-one grams; that small, vital essence that separates the living from the dead. The galvanising electrical impulse that appears fundamental to life. As the reader considers the significance of this haiku’s last word, ‘electrons’ may well seem a physicist’s term for the soul, the location of which can only be something about which to wonder.
Garry finds much the same primary reading, and then explores its cosmological implications:
Supperate — 1. adjective-archaic — overcome; surmounted; surpassed
On a simple level, this one-line haiku describes the viewing of a home movie made with the iconic Super 8 movie camera and 8mm film, products marketed by Kodak to home move makers in the super square ’50s, when Jim Kacian was still in his boyhood. With the advents of the invasive portable video camera, the social turbulence of the ’60s and ’70s and the revolution in home infotainment started by television, these products have become associated nostalgically with a simpler era in America, and in the West, generally. The poet has grown up since the home movie was made and when he feels the sentimental impulse to view it sometime after his father’s death and thereby reconnect with that aspect of his past, the experience launches him into the poetic realization that not only has the living, moving being representing itself on the screen as his father long since passed into other, more elementary states of being, but the past moments recreated by the images on the screen have also morphed into something else, and represent to him now, in the midst of overwhelming change, just how unrecoverable the past really is.
On a deeper level, I am reminded of how ingeniously the poets of earlier times, when speaking of creation and destruction, evoked ambiguous images of dust or clay as both mortal remains and God’s building blocks. Kacian has moved this into the modern, scientific era with his use of ‘electrons’ in place of dust or clay, with the result that, for me at least, the creator or guiding hand, traditionally symbolized by the father, has been supplanted with ‘life force,’ ‘energy,’ ‘amoral evolutionary creativity,’ what you will. Such deep depersonalization of experience seems fundamental to the best haiku.
Finally, Paul Miller overcomes some initial skepticism about the poem, and finds a clinching element:
In a number of places Jim Kacian has discussed English-language haiku’s need to embrace modernity, most recently arguing that ”Contemporary haiku must be able to account for equity derivatives, mass killing at a distance, the purchase of political power within a democracy, the discovery of the Higgs boson, internet dating and much much more…” (Modern Haiku 47.2). This poem is a prime example of this kind of embrace.
My initial take on the poem was that it presented a clever conceit and nothing more. In fact this is a fault I often find with much modern haiku, where novelty, style, or intent is sometimes valued more than the haiku’s effectiveness. Using a twenty-five cent word when a five cent word will suffice, for example.
As most people know, “super 8” is a kind of film (8mm) that was especially prevalent in the 1960s and 70s and often associated with home movies of that period. So I read this poem as Kacian’s realization that the film stock his father’s image was captured on was made up of electrons; and perhaps by extension that his father wasn’t as tangible as he initially perceived. A clever idea but not a lot of room for further exploration by the reader.
But upon reflection I realized that Kacian didn’t start the poem with the words “home movies” or “video blog” but rather with the time-specific “super 8.” That phrase sets up a nice contrast of how Kacian may have seen his father in the 1960s/70s compared to how he came to see him in later years. I know for myself, as a child, I used to see my parents as all-knowing, having everything in control — “super,” if you will. As I became the age they were when they were parents I realized that that was all an illusion. They must have had the same doubts and insecurities I had. Ultimately, this is a poem about perception, and how those perceptions change over time.
Lastly, I like the pun in which the film stock “8 my father” . . . which with Kacian’s new perspective is undoubtedly true.
As this week’s winner, Paul 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!
drought year in portrait or landscape Cherie Hunter Day, Modern Haiku 47.1 (2016)