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re:Virals 437

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, chosen by Marion Clarke, was:

     
     dad's tool shed—
     the taste of iron
     in my blood
     — P H Fischer
     The Heron's Nest Vol. XXIV, No.1,  March 2022

Introducing this poem, Marion writes:

Peter Fischer’s haiku had a slightly odd effect; it instantly conjured up my first experience of the taste of blood (my own, I hasten to add, from a cut finger!) As a trigger for childhood memories, it’s certainly a long way from Marcel Proust’s little French cake dipped in tea. After the scene setting of the first line, I could see several possible interpretations in the second and third. One of these was quite dark, so I look forward to learning what readers discovered in the imagery. Did it conjure up lost weekends watching a father pottering in his tool shed, or speak of a manual trade handed down from one generation to another…or did it unleash an unfriendly ghost?

Opening comment:

To me, this verse is well put together, sounds well, and is in plain language. Every noun counts, each with a charge of meaning.  It combines image and the olfactory sense with memory. Smell and taste are powerful in evoking recollection: the olfactory nerves convey sensory information to the limbic system where the amygdala and hippocampus are associated with learning and memory.

Many readers will recall their father’s tool shed. I do, and his father’s; a place for tools of making, fixing, building, mowing, sharpening, clipping. To some extent a domain, a refuge. Dark, damp and cool, with that characteristic smell of iron, a taste of it, some of it rusting a little. I too have tools in the garage.  It’s in the blood, father to son. So is iron, in the blood — haemoglobin.  A slight slip with the saw and you taste it.

In the traditional past, the tool shed was associated with fathers as a sewing box was with mothers, particularly among the working classes, my forebears who left farm labouring for the new ironworks of England’s Black Country.   And here, we get to other layers of interpretation. Do the tools represent a way of meeting and shaping the world; the iron, determination? A fatherly example? Or does the shed represent a dark place, the tools manipulation, the iron a stern, unbending father, the blood raised by blows? A negative interpretation is possible.  In the present climate where there may be a predisposition against fathers among some readers, that might be uppermost. I look forward to Peter’s comments as author.

Until he mellowed my father was firm and by nature controlling. We had rows, sometimes fierce though no blood was spilt (apart from when aged eight I stabbed him in the foot with a table fork), and I was glad to get away from home; but I also respected and admired him for many sterling qualities, not least his sense of duty.  Some of my tools are my father’s, with his neat draughtsman’s handwriting still on boxes of screws and drill bits a quarter century after he died.  I think of him with love as I DIY.

Peter Fischer’s lines bring all that back.

Penny Lowery:

A wonderful haiku or senryu by P H Fisher (and I’m not sure which – that says something in itself, as I usually know – this micro-poem is already interestingly ambiguous).  The double meaning is the cleverest thing here – is the iron in the writer’s blood because of one of those endless gardening accidents where you spear yourself with a fork? Or because of heredity? The form is of course too short to explain, and that’s what we all love about it… the reader has to do some work too: to accept that both parts of the double-entendre overlap and are equally valid, or to decide which we prefer. The first and most obvious interpretation is the literal one, because the iron is ‘tasted’ (after the spearing of the hand with a muddy fork, we suck the blood till it stops, no?) The second possible signification filters down afterwards – that the iron in the blood is passed on from father to offspring.

On a personal note, this haiku has a particular significance for those of us who live in areas of red soil, for this pigmentation is said to be the iron oxide, manifesting in the earth.

Pamela Garry:

At first read, a picture of horror. The memory that lingers of having been “disciplined” violently by dad, perhaps in his shed, by iron tools inflicting wounds that bleed. At another read, I focus on the facts that healthy blood needs iron. And “in my blood” can be a long line of inheritance, potentially for the good. Perhaps dad grew up around iron tools as did his son. Both through exposure and through inherited talent, the son is drawn to construction with hand tools. The poem leaves me yearning for, hunting for a positive take.

Jerome Berglund:

There’s something so mystical yet utilitarian about a tool shed, particularly its connotations, inextricable connection to that greatest generation of builders and tinkerers which preceded us. My grandfather who was a co-pilot fighting fascism in the second world war, and later an engine mechanic and union organizer for the airlines, spent much of his happiest time in his during those later years of retirement up north. There’s something so ruggedly individualist about it, a rustic sanctuary of sorts, the fisherman and crafter’s more practical and functioning variation on man caves of the softer, less rugged begotten to come. Almost akin to a sweat lodge or personal sauna, a space of privacy and meditation, for reflecting and gathering one’s wits, reminiscent of the ‘quiet places’ spiritual leaders of history and myth would retire to when in deep contemplation upon weighty topics — and sly old codgers might steal away to sneak a belt or two in some semblance of peace. I’m sure they exist around the globe, but also seem a particularly Western phenomenon in many ways, an offshoot of the American dream, tracing back to Walden pond and the transcendentalists. P H employs a terrific phrase here, and finds a truly extraordinary and memorable description and sensation, evoking the sabi idea and sensibility of rusting in the most unexpected, magnificent way!! The notions of lineage and legacy, perhaps connections to mining or the range, and also a sense of surviving conflict or injury, the ever menacing possibility of tetanus from cuts, punctures from nails and glass… The shed was a place for children of great curiosity but also some legitimate perils for the careless or uninitiated, increasing its mystique, allegoric appeal, imbuing its master with a sort of potency and proletarian grandeur. A fantastic, thought provoking and unforgettable poem of the variety we find ourselves pondering the intricacies of long after reading.

Radhamani Sarma:

In general principle, right from our birth till saturation much ofour learning comes by formal education from school and subsequently in colleges or in specialized training. There is an adage in Tamil saying, ancestral profession and training comes on its own without formal education. This ancestral profession like painting or carpentry or working with tools stems from the same roots. Written in first person, the persona in the form of the son begins: “dad’s tool shed”: distinctly brings his profession by roots, his lineage, his ancestral pride and prestige, accessories of iron and steel, etc. The statement ends in a pause; the following two lines give ample scope for us to proceed further and build up; day in and day out his dad deals, struggles, works for years. The following lines record that the taste of his dad‘s work replete with iron in the relevant tools of his lineage is recorded in his son’s every moment of life: so much so, the son breathes each moment the taste or smell of iron.

To put it in a nutshell, a whole day stretching into a whole life, iron has mixed in his blood, does it mean literally blood? Just as a priest, or singer or artist transmits his family tradition, so does the user of iron tools pass on to his children, and the son proudly declares it has mixed in his blood.
Some famous quotes on ancestral lineage:
“You are the protagonist of your forefathers’ fairy tale.”
“It is in the roots, not the branches, that a tree’s greatest strength lies.”
― Matshona Dhliwayo

Melissa Dennison:

Reading these words I am transported to childhood and imagining the first time I picked up a tool or tried my hand at woodworking. Closing my eyes I can see myself sucking on a finger that has got in the way, tasting the blood as I attempt to stop the bleeding. Just nine words, eloquent and evocative.

Andrew Shimield:

For a young boy, I think there is more awe in a tool shed than in a cathedral.
Saws, hammers, chisels, rakes, spades etc, the smell of oil……
And what do you do when told not to go into Dad’s tool shed — you go in.
And what do you do when told not to play with Dad’s chisels — you play with them.
And what do you do when you cut your finger on one — you put the finger in your mouth.
I enjoyed this one a lot.
I hope you learnt your lesson Fischer junior!

Amoolya Kamalnath:

This verse left an aftertaste in my mind.

A visual of a tool shed from the poet’s childhood – his dad’s – I assume it’s special, a special memory of, may be, a weekly, routine – I imagine a Sunday routine.

The poet incurred an injury – may be, a small one – while using one or two of the tools. The speaker may have been helping his father if he was old enough then or if he was quite small, may have been playing and the injury may have been accidental. As a child, many of us have immediately put our slightly bleeding finger into our mouths and have tasted the ‘iron’. It may also be that the injury was caused by an iron hammer or other tool and each drop of blood of the young child was a reminder of the piece of iron that hit his finger or toe. Hence, the verse is very relatable to everyone.

Could the speaker be referring to a case of child abuse?

There is a sense switching from fragment to phrase – visual to (tactile) to gustatory.

On a personal note, the moment I saw the verse, it put me off. Not because of the poem itself or it’s form/construction etc but because of the feeling of that metallic taste on my tongue – every night, I’m having to drink 10 ml of a haematinic tonic and that ‘blood’ and ‘metal’ taste lingers on until I eat something sweet to nullify its after-effects or if I remember, ingest it before I have my supper.

Alan Harvey—conflicting emotions:

I was surprised at how many conflicting emotions Fischer’s haiku provoked once I contemplated it. Initially you may picture a father passing down his weekend passion for the use of tools or working on cars to his son – a nostalgic, gender-specific stereotype. The tool shed conjures up objects of masculinity, workmanship, and pride.

The haiku turned for me on the taste of iron. A whole plethora of medical conditions can cause a taste of iron in your mouth. And an impatient, quick-tempered father can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Iron can suggest a dad’s strength (positive associations) or his attempt to toughen up his boy (negative).

Like many quality haiku, Fischer’s dad’s tool shed conjures up multiple interpretations for each reader. It may conjure up an image of hard work (fixing the tractor and mending the fences), tender memories of hands passing knowledge and passion to the next generation (skill with brushes and tools), or irritation/violence at the hands. Each a possibility depending on the reader’s experiences.

Author P. H. Fischer:

My father, who died on Easter Sunday four years ago, was not a man of letters. He only read poems found in the Psalms. He was a man who carried the earth, workshop grease, and coke oven ore under his fingernails. A newcomer to Canada, he walked upwards of 50 kms a day begging employers for a chance. Just before his last dollar fled his pocket, the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) hired him. He laboured morning, afternoon, and night shifts for the next 35 years before a brain hemorrhage forced him to the sidelines, or more specifically his tool shed, for the remaining years of his life. Dad’s tool shed became, for him, a place of solace. Severely disabled, he retreated to his shed daily to tinker with his tools, tend to his machinery, and trust that his abilities were still somewhat sufficient to contribute to the family’s welfare. Witnessing my father’s strength in weakness inspired my appreciation for the beauty of imperfection. Despite his limitations, his perseverance and resilience, no doubt, added years to his life, as he never gave up hope that his life could transcend his weaknesses. His four sons certainly noted this.

In contrast to Dad, I am not mechanically inclined. I’m more at home in a library than a factory. More likely to pick up a pen than a hammer or a hacksaw. I’m all thumbs! That said, when I fly the 4000 kms back home to visit my aging mother, one of the first things I do upon arrival is take a stroll around back of my childhood home to Dad’s tool shed—a monument that Mom has left unchanged since my dad died. There’s his old workboots still caked in mud, an old calendar with a greasy thumbprint on it, his tools scattered on his workbench, some of them properly hung in their traced place on the tool peg board. Dad’s tool shed is a sanctuary, a “thin place” if you will. The place where I commune with the memory of a man who meant the world to me. A place where, despite our differences of temperament and outlook, we remain united in flesh and blood. Many a time, I have banged or cut myself trying to emulate my father’s mechanical abilities. As mentioned, my skills lie elsewhere. Yet, I am my father’s son. I cherish the knowledge that some part of his toil and trouble was for me. This poem is for him.

I’m grateful to Marion Clarke for selecting my poem for this week’s re:Virals and bringing to mind my father’s profound impact on my life. I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to add their own interpretations of the poem. No matter how you read it, I hope it has deepened the appreciation you have for the meaningful connections you have with those closest to you.


fireworks image

Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Alan 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:

     
     whales breaching the inside of a wish
     — Aidan Castle
     whiptail issue 6, February 2023 

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:

P. H. Fischer lives in Vancouver, Canada. Peter is co-editor of Prune Juice Journal. His poetry appears in international haiku/senryu/haibun journals and anthologies including the Red Moon Anthology, Modern Haiku Press Haiku 2023, and Contemporary Haibun 18. He is the winner of the Vancouver category of the 2022 Haiku Invitational of the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. Find him on Instagram @p.h.fischer

A bow to Peter for the heart-warming encomium of his father.  A great read.  Yet again a verse that has got through to a place in reader’s hearts stems from a direct,  authentic experience, expressed with sincerity.
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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. I have to add that P.H. Fischer commentary on his own haiku is poignant and beautiful. What a wonderful tribute to a man who has lived.

  2. Thank you Marion for choosing a very well crafted haiku. It is a great pleasure to discover this one by P.H Fischer. This haiku has many dimensions and resonances for me and for many potential readers, men or women, grown-ups or not so grown-ups.
    It is a pleasure too, to be able to read a haiku that doesn’t try to stretch the capabilities of my left brain…

  3. Thank-you, Keith, Marion, Alan, and all of you who took the time to provide exceptional interpretations and comments. I am humbled and honoured by your attention to this poem about my loving father. I also marvel at the power of these little poems to generate such meaningful discussion and varied views. There’s much room in haiku for the reader to make themselves at home, and to voice and honour their own stories alongside the poet’s humble offering. I feel this communal aspect of our form is an incomparable blessing. Warmly, Peter

  4. Echoing others’ praise, this poem and its back story are a wonderful tribute to a great father by a devoted son. They go together like a well-crafted haibun.

  5. dad’s tool shed—
    the taste of iron
    in my blood
    — P H Fischer
    In my opinion, an excellent and classic haiku. (Call it a senryu if you like, but to my knowledge there are haiku without seasonal reference and senryu with seasonal reference. ) Thanks, Marion, for selecting it.

    It takes me back. My father did not have a tool shed as such until we moved to the country, a remote timber town on the Prince’s Highway where he was licensee of the hotel. There was a row of 3 sheds there, one containing the electricity generator, another containing his boat that he built to go fishing in and another which was full of junk and spiders.

    But after he’d retired and was living back in an inner city suburb, he built a small shed for me, (more like an outdoor cupboard) in my backyard when he helped me renovate this old property I still live in. ( um, it’s more truthful to say I helped him renovate .) Since the possums found ways to get into the ‘shed’, many years ago, now, it’s derelict. They’ve pushed off the rusting stuff from the remaining shelves to the brick floor.

    Recently, I used my Dad’s old plane (which I keep with a few other essential tools in a basket in the house… ) to peel away layers of swollen wood of old drawers so that I can now actually open and close them.

    What I admire about this haiku by P. H. Fischer is that, without any fuss or cleverness, it offers to readers a literal and a figurative meaning, both of which ring true.

    Yes, sooner or later a child is likely to cut oneself when fiddling around with Dad’s tools. Automatically, we suck at a cut on our hands or fingers, especially if our Mother has repeatedly threatened: “You’ll get tetanus!” In childhood, we know the taste of iron in our blood before we know what iron is. “Around 70% of the iron in the human body is found in the hemoglobin of red blood cells. ”

    Bur iron, in the form of metal, is also associated with physical strength. Iron doesn’t bend easily. Think of the many ‘Iron Men’. Or think of a non-physical strength, such as strength of will or persistence. (A certain English Prime Minister who was referred to as “the Iron Lady” springs to mind.)

  6. I loved reading the back story to this haiku, which for me enriched it it hugely. I also remember clearing out my father’s toolshed, but it was going rather against the grain, since my mother was inclined to throw rubbish into it! The shed underwent a few clearouts over the thirty years between his death and hers… the very final one was the saddest, as so many rusty tools,
    broken tiles and other treasures – finally unearthed – had to go to the dump.

    I should add that I am extremely happy and grateful to have my commentary selected, which is a first for me! Thank you.

  7. Of course the ones we call the haiku masters did not determine everything but I have a question: did Buson, Basho or Issa write haiku referring to relatives? Maybe because most of my family is far away I am touched by such haiku and would like to know.

    This haiku, as said, could be negative in outlook or positive. Do I have to choose? If i choose one, the other remains. Does that make a good haiku?

    V

    1. Very quickly:
      Q1: Yes. Issa, who had a complicated family life and was married with children (who died), several, e.g.
      .夏山や片足かけては母のため
      natsu yama ya kata ashi kakete wa haha no tame

      summer mountain–
      one foot on it
      for Mother’s sake

      .母恋し恋しと蝉も聞ゆらん
      haha koishi koishi to semi mo kikoyuran
      do you also miss
      your mother?
      cicada

      .亡母や海見る度に見る度に
      naki haha ya umi miru tabi ni miru tabi ni

      my dead mother–
      every time I see the ocean
      every time…

      .ちちははの小言聞々千鳥哉
      chichi haha no kogoto kiki-kiki chidori kana

      I hear my father
      and mother nagging…
      plovers

      .娘見よ身を売れつつ行く蛍
      musume mi yo mi wo urare-tsutsu yuku hotaru

      daughter, look!
      fireflies to be sold
      one by one

      .露盛て並べる娘がいちご哉
      tsuyu morite naraberu musume ga ichigo kana

      gathering dewdrops–
      each one the life
      of a daughter

      all translations by David Lanoue

      And of his wife:
      her moon comes round
      so we go moon-viewing
      with the dog
      tr. Gill
      —-
      Basho, unmarried, hardly any although he did use ‘mother’ etc. in other contexts; and:

      “My elder brother opened an amulet
      case and said reverently to me, “Look at mother’s
      white hair.””

      if taken in my hand
      it would vanish in hot tears
      autumn frost

      tofu pulp
      without a mother in the house
      so dreary


      Buson some e.g.
      Kawahori ya/mukai no niyoubou/kochi o miru
      across from me
      my wife is looking here —
      a flying bat

      sitting on a veranda
      avoiding my wife and children —
      heat

      stepping in the bedroom
      I am pierced by
      my late wife’s comb
      (although his wife was alive when he composed the poem…)

      all tr. Persinger

      Then there’s Shuson’s famous:
      I kill an ant
      and realize my three children
      have been watching

      Q2: Where interpretations may reasonably differ in an English Language haiku, where there’s no question of translation to account for, I don’t think anyone would argue that a reader ‘has to’ choose one of them. Sometimes the context is more important than other times in determining the intended meaning, as with Issa’s or Basho’s notes. I guess there’s a continuum between totally explicit communication and totally vague communication between poet and readers who, when they read, may have very different things in mind to those in the poet’s when the words were written. Both extremes (explicit and vague) would probably be frowned upon, but where you draw the line between the extremes is debatable.

      But maybe others will chip in with their views.

      1. Oh, an anthology you have given us! Thank you.

        Someone once advised me to hold off on reading the backstory of a poem until you have had a time to take it in as it is presented.
        I try to do that, so I don’t know where P H Fischer is coming from. I think the one clue I have is the use of “dad” which is a little warmer than “father”.

        1. Well yes, I think it highly desirable that a poem should stand on its own, but there’s no denying that context can often focus and deepen appreciation of it. From a dedication, to knowledge of Issa’s grief for his dead little children in his dewdrop world, or Shiki’s protracted choking to death on his sickbed, or many of Bashō’s hokku in the context of his travels.

          Whereas Bashō’s handsome (and hilarious) tribute to spring is pretty universal and freestanding:

          spring, spring!
          how great is spring!
          and so on
          —Basho tr. Reichhold
          (What editor today would accept that one?)

          But the (possible) spoof along those lines a while later apocryphally misattributed to him* requires background knowledge that the place is famed for its beauty, beyond words:

          Matsushima!
          ah Matsushima!
          Matsushima!
          —?Tawara-bō (“Boy from Tawara”)

          You can play with substituting e.g. Slough or Detroit (if you have an evergreen sense of humour).
          * see e.g. https://crd.ndl.go.jp/reference/modules/d3ndlcrdentry/index.php?page=ref_view&id=1000204432

          1. spring, spring!
            how great is spring!
            and so on
            —Basho tr. Reichhold
            (What editor today would accept that one?)- Keith

            An editor with a sense of humour, one who understands that a haiku is not a shortened tanka, but has a spirit quite other than that of tanka. An editor who knows that Basho was first and foremost a master of haikai, and a leader/ sabaki of haikai no renga (modern term: ‘renku’)

            I have only one book of translations of some of Basho’s renku. (Title: ‘Monkey’s Raincoat’, translated by Maeda Cana, first published 1973) On page 47 the renku “Summer Moon” begins with this first verse ( the hokku):

            in town
            the smell of things
            summer moon – Boncho

            You can bet that whatever Japanese word ‘smell’ was translated from, it doesn’t mean “pleasant perfume” but implies something closer to “stink”. The ‘speaker’ would be coming into town from a less settled place, on horseback.

            The 2nd verse, which links to the hokku, is:

            it’s hot, it’s hot
            at each portal the sigh – Basho

            (There are just 3 participants in this renku: Basho, Boncho and Kyorai )

          2. Lorin: Yes – they are rare…

            For others: The Cana version is here, free to read: https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/files/original/7d2279ec8820bbeae00337ee65a24935.pdf

            and the translation notes give:
            “ichinaka wa / mono no niyoi ya / natsu no tsuki
            In town, the intense mid-summer heat remains even after sunset and the air is foul with the conglomerate smell of sundry things, but in the sky, the moon appears cool and refreshing. In the original manuscript the writer’s name is given as Kasho but this is Boncho’s earlier pen name.
            *ichinaka: machinaka\ in town.
            *mono no niyoi: the sundry smells of things permeating the air.
            *natsu no tsuki: summer moon, expressing coolness.”
            ….
            niyoi : online refs give odour; odor; scent; smell; stench​; whiff
            ….
            Other versions of Boncho’s hokku give:
            Throughout the town:
            smells of things
            and the summer moon.
            Basho, Matsuo (1980) “The Summer Moon translated by Etsuko Terasaki,” CutBank: Vol. 1 : Iss. 14 , Article 41. Available at: https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cutbank/vol1/iss14/41

            In the town
            smells of things
            under a summer moon
            MONKEY’S RAINCOAT
            SARUMINO
            Linked Poetry of the Basho School with Haiku Selections
            translated by LENORE MAYHEW

      2. Keith and VPJ,
        I may be stating the obvious, but each reader of a poem, whether a haiku or some other poem (short or long), often brings their own life experiences, or lack thereof, to their own interpretation of the poem. I think with haiku it is even more so. This column shows us that weekly.

  8. Marion writes via the submission form:

    “Thank you, Peter, for sharing the wonderful back story to this haiku. It was one of ten I selected from the four issues of The Heron’s Nest from 2022 as my Readers’ Choice poems. It has. stayed with me since. I’m so happy it was written from good memories. Your father sounds like a really great man and ‘dad’s tool shed’ is a very fitting tribute.”

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