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re:Virals 44

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

     drought year in portrait or landscape
          Cherie Hunter Day, Modern Haiku 47.1 (2016)

Our correspondents all took this haunting poem home. Jo McInerney brings it to suburbia:

The six words in Day’s haiku demand careful re-examination, showing wider and deeper implications with each reading and disrupting the easy assumptions of a technologically preoccupied age.

‘[D]rought year’ at its simplest is one in which a drought is experienced. There are technical definitions of ‘drought’. In Australia we have three — appropriate for a dry continent; however, I suspect our categories are applied elsewhere. A drought can be ‘a prolonged period of below-average precipitation’; ‘a period during which water reserves fall below the statistical average’ or ‘a period where there is insufficient moisture for crop production’. The first definition seems a cause, the last two effects. Day’s haiku leads the reader into consideration of all of them.

On first reading ‘in portrait or landscape’ is likely to suggest the layout options supplied by a word-processing program, a publishing program or a professional photographer. A vertical or horizontal format. Thus the haiku suggests a couple of ways of viewing this ‘drought year’. However, there is more at issue than just the way we hold the picture.

Before it was used to suggest simply a vertical format, ‘portrait’ meant a representation of one or more faces. The haiku implies the personal cost of a ‘drought year’. What can we see in the face of someone who has endured a year of drought? Are the lines deeper and accentuated by dust? Has the skin dried? Are eyes narrowed to protect from the sun and strained from looking for cloud? Behind the bland surface of Day’s haiku are images like the iconic photographs of Dust Bowl farmers in the 1930s United States, the misery of their lives worn into the fibre of their beings.

And behind the figures of suffering men and women is the land they stand on; ‘landscape’ from which most either cannot or will not escape. The horizontal format suggests the scope of the desolation. Dry fields reaching to the horizon; blown soil carried on the wind; the flat, cracked bottoms of empty dams.

Many of us live in ordered, suburban worlds where ‘drought year’ means relatively little. Day’s haiku gives us frames within which to place a more fundamental reality.

And Kathe L. Palka to some of the threatened landscapes surrounding it:

Reading Cherie Hunter Day’s fine monoku I was immediately reminded of a photo series I recently viewed on Lake Poopó located in the Altiplano Mountains of Bolivia. Lake Poopó has long been vulnerable to the vagaries of weather due to its location and has recently dried up again. However, many fear it will not return this time but remain dry, a victim, in part, of climate change. The rains may never sufficiently return. The photo series included sweeping landscape vistas of the dry lakebed ringed by arid mountains as well as portraits of the local people and their empty landlocked boats photographed against the backdrop of the cracked lakebed. The disappearance of Lake Poopó has caused the displacement of many villagers who lived lakeside and once made their livelihood by fishing its saline waters. In addition to the loss of aquatic life dozens of local bird species such as the flamingo have been impacted by the lake’s disappearance.

A drought year can transform the geography of a region, dramatically changing lakes, ponds, streams, wetlands, rivers, plains and the lives of the animals, peoples and all biologic diversity that resides there. Changing both the overall landscape and all that exists therein. This brief monoku by Cherie Hunter Day asks the reader to imagine both the big picture and the details/more intimate portraits of a drought year. Using the language of photography it asks what print view/orientation the image taker/reader would prefer and in so doing asks that we imagine both. In photography as in haiku, narrowing the focus, or zeroing in on a detail of the bigger picture often creates a more powerful image. Each reader will imagine their own.


As this week’s winner, Kathe 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 44:

     some part of me
     still wild
          Annette Makino, tinywords 13.2 (2013)
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