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re:Virals 446

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 Vidya Premkumar, was:

     
     the mother my summer died
     — Susan Antolin
       Mariposa #49, Winter Issue 2023

Introducing this poem, Vidya writes:

This stood out for its evocative portrayal of grief and the passage of time. The poem, through its unique syntax and structure, captures the essence of loss and the vacancy it leaves behind in a deeply personal yet universally relatable way.

The syntax of the poem, unconventional and fragmentary, mirrors the disarray and disorientation that accompanies the loss of a loved one. Just as the words and lines defy traditional expectations, so too does the experience of grief disrupt the normalcy of life. This deliberate stylistic choice enhances the poem’s emotional weight, inviting readers to feel the disjointedness of sorrow and the struggle to find coherence in the wake of pain. The absence of punctuation and the use of lower-case letters throughout the poem further contribute to a sense of vulnerability and rawness, as if the poem itself is laid bare, stripped of any armor against the harsh reality of loss.

I chose this poem not only for its poignant subject matter but also for its ability to convey complex emotions through its structure. Antolin’s use of odd syntax acts as a powerful metaphor for the upheaval that death brings, challenging readers to navigate their own paths through the verse as one might navigate through the stages of grief. The poem serves as a reminder that in the face of such profound loss, the world around us and within us changes irrevocably, yet life’s cycles continue unabated—offering both a stark contrast to our pain and a canvas for our healing.

Opening comment:

I fully expect this short verse to spark controversy, particularly as coincidentally with Vidya’s choice it appeared in the longlist for the Touchstone Awards. Two days ago, it was revealed that it had progressed to the shortlist. The awards are to promote outstanding and innovative work. This fits the bill. The Touchstone Panel has already completed its deliberations and we will know in five days’ time which poems won the award this year.

I’m sure that I am not the only one who blinked, or will blink, on quickly reading Susan’s verse for the first time. However, of the many things I have learned from the discipline of re:Virals, one is to let a verse sit in the mind for a while to breathe, like a wine that opens out when decanted. Another is that in this genre of tiny poetry, when the drafting of a verse gets the readers’ attention they are more likely to give it that opportunity.

With its reversal of the natural order of words and meaning, this verse in the overlapping area between haiku and senryu certainly gets the attention. Among the many poems about diagnoses, hospices, ashes, and the grief of loss, the expected phrase “the summer my mother died” would not stand out as a monoku except for being laconic and detached. But the dislocation of ‘summer’ and ‘mother’ produces a remarkable transformative effect. This is not dada-ku, those playful obfuscatory jumbles that readers find either fun or an irritation. This is a serious heavy subject, and albeit the natural word order is reversed, it is immediately intelligible. The dislocation in lieu of a grammatical cut, which dislocation seems very strong as an unorthodox means of cutting, not only gets the reader’s attention but opens up meanings:

mother died
my summer died
the summer’s death is linked with (?caused by) the mother’s death or by the mother
the mother’s death is linked with (?caused by) the summer
summer, particularly qualified as ‘my’ summer, can also be seen metaphorically as the peak of mid-life powers and happiness;

…and the further layers could range from the disorientation of grief at the loss of mother, effectively ending the ‘summer’ years of one’s life; through, perhaps, a feeling of guilt that while the author was enjoying summer, it saw the death of their mother. Or even, read in another less generous and less likely way, that a needful, demanding or smothering mother spoiled the poet’s happiness just when things were going well. Or that her death was debilitating for the author. Or all of the above in the confusing emotional turmoil that follows the death of a mother. All broken open by this unorthodox ‘cut.’

Indeed, it is the very confusion of import that these few words have, consequent on this cut, that leaves the reader with an abiding impression. Vidya in her introduction has captured the essence of it better than I could have done. Anyone who has lost a mother (I’ve lost two) will feel it.

Leaving aside the welter of recent dada-ku there are few who have deployed such a dislocation or reversal of word order with success, and none (that I can think of) in such an effective way as to generate a mix of emotions.  I think it likely that this verse will illustrate future essays, and I hope to see it in the literature. Congratulations to Susan.

Melissa Dennison:

I really like this poem as every time I read it I find new meanings. That is what is great about it, the space it leaves for the reader. I also sense the play of these words. On the surface it feels counterintuitive to place ‘the mother’ before ‘my summer died’, but on subsequent readings I find it makes sense. I wonder what ‘the mother’ could be. Is it ‘the mother of all disasters’? (tongue in cheek comment) or something else? Perhaps she has met her girl/boyfriend’s mother for the first time and no matter what she does they just don’t get along? Whatever it means, I get a feeling of the dramatic. We all feel this way at times. It is just so human!

Lakshmi Iyer:

Just 7 syllables and an expanse of pain and grief described in this. The words ‘the mother’ states the intense love and respect for a feminine gender which encompasses the whole universe. Mother is matchless, she is divine, she is an outstanding creation on earth and boundless beauty!

What is so fascinating is that the poet has beautifully carved a relation between ‘the mother’ and ‘my summer’ – had it been ‘my mother’ and ‘the summer’it would have been different, wouldn’t it? I feel honoured reading this poem
1. the grandeur of the juxta with summer
2. the intense memories of summer with her mother
Both of them no more, reason being if there’s no summer, no mother and vice versa maybe. I strongly believe that the poet has no such experience of summer or maybe with the minimum most summer to live; there’s a possibility that mother is no more so why remember summer when there’s no mother around! “the mother my summer died’ is a classic haiku with the irony that when you have your mother with you, one hardly thinks about her as contrasted with when she’s no more, we try to find ways to justify the reasoning with seasons!

Ashoka Weerakkody:

Susan Antolin, with this one line has shown us that a plain sentence borne sentimentally in mind can transform into a winning “ku” through apt transposition of some word/s therein, with sensible poetic intent. To this end the author had to re-arrange a base line which may have read, ‘the summer my mother died’ and that looks very much a painful memory one would bear like the irritant an oyster tolerates within its softy-flexy self, prior to forming up the lustrous matter, painfully taking its time in creating layer by layer, ending at length the irritable spell of pain by acting as the soft buffer between its living tissue and undying irritant!

The same may be true of this one-line “ku” on which already so much commenting has surfaced well before any commentary was even attempted in earnest.

The transposition aforesaid has given the straightforward sentence lustre and style, making it the short poem it is with a bend that has provided the reader with a thin veil of mist to stare through and catch that glimpse of the covert shape within and perhaps say, ‘Oh!  I see now.’

Rather disappointed? Not at all. After all it’s fair and simple short form poetry.  But if, if I have missed the turn and gone miles away, another conceivable situ could be that this one-liner is hiding something we recent acolytes couldn’t decipher, not knowing the code in current use? Just as when in wartime, ships sailing through hostile zones might transmit plainly worded phrases via radio-telegraph that even enemy ships can copy, but cannot decode their meaning.

Amoolya Kamalnath:

‘the summer my mother died’ would be a memorable start to a story or novel, perhaps. The rather deliberate shuffling or interchanging of the words leaves this monoku more open-ended and interesting.

Sounds of the, mo-ther, sum-mer punctuated by my, died exhibits poignancy.

Why ‘the’ mother and not (fondly) ‘my’ mother? Has there been a discord in this mother-daughter relationship?

What or who has died? Both mother and the summer. Is it because the mother died that the summer has died too? Perhaps, yes. The young speaker is unable to enjoy the summer of her life since ‘the’ mother is no more (physically passed away or the cutting off emotional bonding and relationship in spite of physical presence).

The ceasing of the existence of the relationship with the mother may have hampered the speaker’s (higher) education or even a precious relationship with own father or boyfriend/spouse resulting in bitterness. This may have felt like the end of a bright future and hence the end of summer.

Alan Harvey—death jars the senses, the emotions:

The “mother my summer died” or the summer my mother died.

At first reading the former seems a scrambled version of the latter. The death of a mother is a time of deep reflection and emotion which tends to jar the senses. It scrambles the orderly transition of life and creates a fixed point in our lifeline. So, scrambling the sentence’s meaning mirrors the sensation an individual feels for their mother.

Setting the poem in the summer further heightens the sense of loss. Winter is the season of loss, not summer which is the longest, hottest, and brightest season. It is the season of outdoor play. To lose your mother during summer increases the contrast between life and death.

I suspect the “mother my summer died” is a deeply personal tribute to the poet’s mother and I would celebrate that interpretation. I hope we hear from Susan Antolin in this issue of re:Virals.

Another thought more farfetched occurs when reading the haiku slightly askew. Think of mother as Mother Nature. Then combine that with the summer forest fires that we in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of world are experiencing. Summer dies in the flames and smoke covering great parts of the world. It feels like Mother Nature is dying. This reading of mother is more collective than individual.

Author Susan Antolin:

the mother my summer died

The above haiku (if it is a haiku at all!) came to me entirely intuitively in the sleep-deprived and grief-stricken state I found myself in following my mother’s death in July 2023. Any logic can be attached to it only in retrospect. I was very close to my mother, and so her death felt larger to me than the phrase “the summer my mother died” could contain. Much more died for me than my mother. How can a summer die? Could “summer” refer not only to the summer of one year but to the larger summer of life as well? How does grief so alter the world that only the surreal feels adequate to describe it? If any of those questions come to mind when reading the poem, I am gratified. My heartfelt thanks to Vidya Premkumar for selecting this poem and to all who have responded to it!


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:

     
     desert cliffs
     the shadow of a raven 
     carries dad home
     — Bruce H. Feingold
       To Live Here: A Haiku Anthology, 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:

Susan Antolin has a website. Her short bio appears in Haikupedia. Mike Rehling interviewed her in 2021.

The brevity and detachment, and the subject matter, of Susan’s verse brought to mind another masterful one in the genre, likewise essentially a single-sentence haiku notable for its concise, understated power:

her
being
dead
goes
on
—John Stevenson
Acorn #29, 2012

Lastly, Susan’s poem is in the past tense. It has come to be held that this flouts a ‘rule’ in English language haiku. Yet there are some fine verses by the old masters of Japan that are also in a past tense (either by context or auxiliary verb)… Again I feel that one must sometimes look beyond formal structures and arbitrary strictures to find the spirit of haiku and release it.

one moonlit night I released every last bug from its cage
—Shiki tr. Keene.
(aru tsukiyo… a certain moon night)
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This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Hi Keith,
    In one of your future articles, could you possibly give examples of ‘experimental works high on their own cleverness’ and compare them with works successfully using the ‘cut’, so that I (we) can fully understand the difference? I’m learning so much from reading the comments people write about the selected haiku. This is such a valuable resource.

    1. Jenny:
      That may have been an unguarded comment! I will think about your question, but I am not sure that the comparison would lead anywhere. I had in mind the verses one sees that contain two or more images or thoughts that are jumbled to the point of exasperating unintelligibility, sometimes by visual devices on the page or other affectations, and sometimes by an almost random disconnectedness. Very few of them seem to me to carry insight, beauty or emotion conveyed subtly by a few plain words. They follow in the path of the surreal or dada, perhaps (surrealism itself is not so far removed from haiku — you might like the comments here: https://thehaikufoundation.org/what-do-surrealism-and-haiku-have-in-common/). A few are intelligible without inordinate effort, and do work, sometimes with impact enhanced by the devices used.

      Yet in these tiny, constrained poems, haiku, where an accumulation of conventions can lead to tedious similarity, I do like innovative or unorthodox approaches. Some of them add to the tools available, though they can quickly lose their novelty if others copy the techniques. The question is perhaps whether the approach/technique becomes an end in itself, or adds significantly to meaning in a particular verse. Or, as Philip Rowland put it, “enable new inflections of the haiku spirit.”

      There’s also the matter of personal taste. I haven’t been collecting examples of verses that don’t work for me, but ones that do. And I would not wish to arraign individual poets by quoting examples that to my taste are more about cleverness than authenticity.

      On ‘cutting,’ that’s another matter. An interesting subject I am lately thinking about… If only life was not so short.

      I leave you with one I like (a sucker for haikai humour*):

      M

      IS FOR

      MAHONEY

      —Robert Grenier, “Sentences” 1978.
      (…the ‘ah’ moment…)
      *afterthought: just to be clear: I’m not saying this is a senryu or was intended to be one, but it has some characteristics and is an interesting and amusing way of ‘cutting’ — that is, produced by the ‘AH’. Grenier’s sentence fragments on index cards were intended for recombination by the reader. However, some of them make interesting standalone lines of a haiku-like kind.

  2. Thanks Keith! Interesting read, as always. No worries. I’ll try again next week. Take care!

  3. My condolences, Susan. And I second the comment about your superlative expression of the loss ( I also experienced a fairly recent loss of a parent). I haven’t been able to get this poem out of my head since I first read it; it was great to get others’ impressions and thoughts and learn more about the genesis of the line. All my best to you, Susan. Thank you for this remarkable ku.

    1. Thank you, Laurie, for the kind comments and condolences. And my condolences to you as well for your recent loss. I am grateful that you found something meaningful in my poem.

  4. Sorry for your loss, Susan. I hope you have found peace since the passing of your mother. You expressed it with grace.

  5. I enjoyed reading all the comments on this monoku. And the best poetry comes unasked, intuitively, as Susan Antolin has clarified. Brilliantly designed to express the emotions and state of a grief- stricken individual where logic, reason & clear-headedness does not prevail.
    Thank you, I learned a lot today.

    1. Thank you, Rupa, for your kind comments on my poem. You are right that logic and clear-headedness are in short supply in a time of profound loss. I appreciate your comments.

  6. Hi,
    My commentary did not appear. Perhaps there’s a glitch again this week? Just checking in. Thanks much, Jennifer Gurney

    1. Jen: there were indeed problems with the forwarding this week (our webmaster believes the problem has been identified, with the aid of the software provider, and will take a little while to fix). Only one commentary made it to my mailbox, the rest were in the database on server which I checked throughout the submission period; but your commentary was not in the database, which suggests that something may have gone wrong with the submission process somewhere. Did you get the submission message in your browser when you sent it in?

      By all means add your commentary below: we’d like to see it.

  7. There are other haiku where a word is swapped with another, often across lines, to grab attention. I must admit I simply replace the words in my head, and generally find that that the original version is no worse than the edit. None of that applies here. I also admire Susan’s poem because it undermines the simplistic interpretation of kigo and seasonal words. How many, having written or read it, would have thought that summer was the ‘wrong’ season, and considered swapping it with autumn or winter?

    1. Thank you, Mark. If you have some examples — not dadaku, nor experimental works high on their own cleverness or dottiness, but works that successfully use the technique to ‘cut’ a verse and that evoke insight and/or emotions — then I’d be glad to see them. I couldn’t find one or two in the time available.

    2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Mark. I can’t claim any particular wisdom in using summer in my poem, as I wrote it just as it came to me–in July! I think the actuality of a death in the middle of summer hits harder and feels stranger in real life, and so that effect carried over into the poem. So many of the comments on this poem have made me think about it more carefully. I agree that swapping summer for autumn or winter would have made the poem less interesting.

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