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re:Virals 43

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.

virus2

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!

re:Virals 43:

     drought year in portrait or landscape

          Cherie Hunter Day, Modern Haiku 47.1 (2016)

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I’d like to thank all of you for your astute, interesting and compassionate readings of this poem. You have found elements in it that I was sure were buried for all time, but I am very glad to have been proved wrong. I think Peter catches me out in exactly the way I wish for: I am very deliberately not filling this poem (and many others) with any sort of easily available emotional response, and whether the circumstance of the poem raises emotion in the reader will depend according to each. What I am most interested in, as Peter suggests and Lorin codifies, are not the usual and vert emotional responses one has to the events of one’s life, but the verges between identified states, where we are mostly inarticulate. To provoke a clearly identified emotion in such cases is to allow the poem to speak only to that part of the terrain that has been mapped. Instead I hope to go off-track, and to meet others who similarly have decided the open road was no road for them. Undoubtedly I will continue to explore such states anyway, since they seem essential to me, but it is nevertheless heartening to have found others who identify with this sort of scenario, to which Alan attests as well as others who have communicated with me privately. This, of course, is what all writers want more than anything else: readers with the interest and wherewithal to go with you to those places you must go. Thank you.

  2. .
    Addendum:
    .
    I mis-remembered about the Polaroid camera episode, I was offered the chance to be the first child in Britain to own one, but I choose the alternative gift of a pair of binoculars.
    .
    Yes, it astounded both my father and his friend too!
    .
    But there was something about the instant gratification of a Polaroid camera that bored me, but the process of patience (yes, I could be patient, particularly on my own) of observing wildlife, in particular, birdlife, was too appealing to me.
    .
    .
    So yes, this one line haiku:
    .
    super 8 my father nothing but electrons
    .
    .
    The first two words conjure up a magic lantern of a world just on their own, nostalgia but also exciting technology not just of filming, but the whole thing, the race to the moon, the idea of getting to Mars, everything scientific and groundbreaking, except for that Polaroid alas.
    .
    It’s all to do with the process, whether life to death and being recycled for other life, or childhood and relations with parents, the wonder of mystery in and of the stars, and capturing an essence of a family holiday even if I was moody years before my teenage era.
    .
    .
    Breaking the poem down…
    .
    .

    super 8
    .
    Good factual time stamp, era, childhood, or being a parent then, or now.
    .
    .
    my father
    .
    Straightforward, and the two sections combined:
    .
    super 8 my father
    .
    To me it conjures up so many things, from good to bad, to his striving so much, from learning a new langauge (French) and being one of the first to have caravans in a mostly exclusively French holiday site, to learning new English words by reading the dictionary every evening, to filming us, wanting a record, and me often hating to be photographed, by a stills camera, and grateful now I’m caught on film, revisiting myself, a stranger, and trying to understand my father.
    .
    .
    nothing but electrons
    .
    Again for me it speaks volumes. Aloneness, though not always lonely, but a loner, even in a social group, so many awkward years, not finding comfort in myself until early 30s, always doing the best for others, and neglecting myself yet often for months on end being a reclusive, even though I enjoyed company at other times.
    .
    Literally there is nothing but electrons, I guess that’s scientific fact or educated current conjecture, and reflectively, we are all star material but where did the stars come from originally? Where did whatever come from originally come from, and before that, and can there ever be a “before that”?
    .
    And yes, I wished I had embraced the super 8 more, and filmed and documented my father (my adoptive father, as I never knew my biological father), and super 8 my father and study and appreciate him despite his weaknesses. We were very poor but out of hard honest often grinding hours of work we got better security from a post World War Britain as devastated financially for ordinary folk as was Japan perhaps? We looked on in awe at those massive American refrigerators that were, or appeared to be, as tall as a man and as wide as two men. We didn’t have a fridge for years, or an electric kettle, just a saucepan for tea or cooking, and just an old fashioned radio until we got our first albeit tiny television. But we did feel rich and never deprived even if it was bread and sugar one day, and making the most out of bread and beef dripping (a super luxury) for a few days.
    .
    Of course you can make puns out of super 8 as in “super hate” my dad, which I did a lot, but I missed a trick not getting his passion for things at times, but it’s got me through dark days later in my life.
    .
    So did I super 8 my father nothing but electrons now? I super appreciated more in hindsight now, but that’s getting to be like 20-20 hindsight which isn’t a bad thing I realise.
    .
    Yes, there’s a sound pun in appreciated, as in apprec8ed.
    .
    What I realise is that haiku can teach you to read between the lines, in life, not just haiku, or any writing on the wall, and we are all a film camera with our eyes, and those with no eyes, there is only blindness if you ignore things unrolling as they do, or see them as constantly stacked dice.
    .
    And the haiku has certainly drawn more out of me than I expected.
    .
    .
    Alan

  3. .
    Fascinating comments around this haiku:
    .
    .
    super 8 my father nothing but electrons
    .
    .
    super 8 is again known to younger generations due to the Steven Spielberg film production, and for me it takes me back to childhood too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_8_%28film%29
    .
    .
    The holiday film would initially be fascinating, to see not just me, but us, on film, but also torture for a child to sit still for around an hour and a half, I think it was.
    .
    .
    After both my parents died, my mother died just recently, I discovered an old box and I think there’s super 8, a project to check out.
    .
    .
    super 8:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_8_film_camera
    http://www.kodak.co.uk/ek/us/en/Consumer/Products/Super8/default.htm
    .
    .
    I was the first kid in Britain to have a Polaroid camera, and we were the first on our street to own a television. Even the BBC War Correspondent Brian Barron’s family had to come to our house to see his first ever broadcast, they were so rare those televisions.
    .
    .
    So cameras and filming was exciting, and I loved my Kodak Instamatic, it created freedom, adventure, and creativity. And I loved it more than the Polaroid which sadly I got bored of very quickly. There was something about the process of the stills camera and film camera, from inception to perception you could say.
    .
    .
    So perhaps super 8 is a generational thing, and it unlocked worlds and possibilities, just as you hope your parents will do too.
    .
    .
    As we die we get recycled, both as molecules etc… and perhaps a cup here, a saucer there, those small memories you keep in possessions from selling your deceased parents’ home.
    .
    .
    Perhaps all that we are is a super 8 projection and a bit of star matter.
    .
    .
    warm regards,

    Alan

  4. This is a wonderful discussion. The interpretations are so interesting to read. I did not know what a super 8 was. It also made me have an interesting talk with my dad. :-]

    Having always believed that interpretations and critiques are a lot more personal than a critic thinks, I have been following this particular column with great interest. It makes a great read because haiku are so deep, and sometimes the layers escape me.

    Thanks all.

  5. But what is “feeling”, Peter? Are not awe, wonder,amazement, fascination or a sense of discovery “feelings” quite as much as sorrow, grief, happiness, grumpiness etc. , ie.those feelings that are (all too often in some haiku which verge on being short tanka, in my view) able to be reduced to mere sentiment? When it comes down to it, what is “nothing but electrons”?

    “Nothing but” can be used dismissively, certainly (She’s nothing but a nuisance) or positively (Nothing but the best for my girl) No thing but electrons. Electrons, being elementary particles, so basic to what is, cannot be dismissed as “nothing but”. It is said that in the first millisecond after the Big Bang photons were so superheated that they could combine & form electron-positron pairs. It’s “nothing but” that’s ambiguous here, and in a fruitful way.

    So the image of father on the screen is ‘made of’ electrons and photons & some other stuff. “Super 8” takes us back in time to the 60s & 70s but “electrons” takes us back to the beginning of everything, the Big Bang. Without getting too Freudian we could say the father & mother of all that is (as far as we know) was the Big Bang, without which there would be nothing. The scope of that “nothing but” becomes vast. We go from a 60s-70s super 8 film of a (possibly deceased) human father, which records a place & time in our own history and our father’s to the beginning of time. We simply would not be without a father, but nothing would be or have ever been without electrons.

    What is the “feeling” when we experience from this perspective?

    I find it interesting that another haiku of Jim’s is concerned with a leap from the present to deep time, a time in pre-history, when dragonflies existed but mammals (including humans) did not. Time before Jim was born, time before any human was born.

    my fingerprints
    on the dragonfly
    in amber

    So I’ve googled out of curiosity, and guess where our word for electricity and electrons came from:

    “The ancient Greeks noticed that amber attracted small objects when rubbed with fur. Along with lightning, this phenomenon is one of humanity’s earliest recorded experiences with electricity. [15] In his 1600 treatise De Magnete, the English scientist William Gilbert coined the New Latin term electricus, to refer to this property of attracting small objects after being rubbed. [16] Both electric and electricity are derived from the Latin ēlectrum (also the root of the alloy of the same name), which came from the Greek word for amber, ἤλεκτρον (ēlektron).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron

    Coincidence?

    – Lorin

    Super 8 home movies were quite the thing in the 6os and 70s.

  6. Nothing about this very short poem leads me to believe that its writer feels sorrow or loss or anything at all really. I can lead myself to that belief, but I could just as easily come to believe that the writer is expressing relief that someone who was let’s say abusive to him no longer has power over him, not even in memory. He can see his father’s image and not feel the old pain, or perhaps try to convince himself that he needn’t feel pain any more.

    Context could determine more of what the writer feels: poems preceding or following it. But seen on its own, I cannot be sure. Haiku, to put it in *that* context, are usually considered as texts which may be completed by the reader, or variously engaged with. My question is: is there too much to be completed here? Do you, the reader, want a poem, a haiku to act in some way as a rorschach test onto which your interpretation may end up saying more about you than its author, or than the subject of the poem?

    Many writers of haiku favor ambiguity. This poem certainly is ambiguous. For me it exists in a realm where feeling is approached and then abandoned. It seems that feeling *should* be present, but isn’t. I experience a kind of promise that is not fulfilled, and I’m frustrated. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s the nature of losing one’s father. Or maybe I’ve just told you something about myself.

  7. The comments on Jim’s haiku were illuminating as I thought a ‘super 8’ was a star! The narrator’s father described as ‘nothing but electrons’ worked for me in this context – perhaps our soul continues to glow after we depart our earthly form…

    I ought to have Googled the term, but I kind of like where this one took me in my ignorant bliss!

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