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re:Virals 46

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

     a stranger’s blood
     on my hand
          Quendryth Young, Wollumbin Haiku Workshop NSW (2007)

Jo McInerney parses this intimate moment with her usual depth:

Quendryth Young’s haiku performs a deft balancing act, maintaining a delicate poise between humour and insight.

Line one gives the reader the sudden presence of the insect. Perhaps N is alerted by the whine; more likely by the bite, because lines two and three take us swiftly to the probable site of injury and retribution. The bite is not described; its consequences are — the smear of blood on a human hand from the squashed body of the small bloodsucker.

There may be a moment’s puzzlement. Why ‘a stranger’s blood’? Surely the blood is N’s own; but apparently not. No, the insect has been despatched before it has bitten, just at the moment of its alighting on its next victim’s skin. The smeared blood is that of the last person whom it feed from — ‘a stranger’.

Another double take as the reader recognises the usual context in which someone is said to have blood on his or her hands. This is normally a metaphor for guilt, where Lady Macbeth-like, the bloodied one laments the (sometimes literally murderous) action he or she has performed. A joke, surely? Yes, in part. N has not killed the stranger whose blood has been left behind; just the little bleeder that was trying to take more. We smile, recognising the disproportion between the serious phrase and the trivial event.

Then we pause again. Yes, the life taken is only that of an annoying insect. Yet that blood was far more important to the tiny creature than it was to the person from whom it was drawn. Only female mosquitoes take blood. They use the protein and iron found in blood to make their eggs. More generally they feed on nectar and water, as male mosquitoes do exclusively. And how much do they take? Three milligrams or three millionths of a litre. A minute enough amount to be donated without being missed. And the itch? A mild (for most) allergic reaction to the mosquito’s saliva.

Perhaps as we pause to consider the small life lost we feel a twinge of sympathy and even regret for the many such lives we are likely to have taken. Young has moved us into Issa’s territory.

Don’t kill that fly!
Look — it’s wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.

And she has done so apparently effortlessly, with no obvious injunction, and with an admixture of humour.

All this is implicit in Nathan Sidney’s response:

Disgust, regret, an unexpected moment of intimacy. The mingling of blood usually happens through conception, a mingling of bloodlines. Here it’s discovered that our boundaries aren’t as solid as we would like. In one reading the stranger’s blood is the act of murdering the mosquito as in “I have blood on my hands”. In another reading it is the recognition that this mosquito is a spreader of disease, a parasite that steals and infects. The ambiguity of the poem reflects the ambiguity of the act of killing the mosquito, unthinkingly swatted, then the small pang of guilt. On an impulse, a life is taken. The word stranger implies that maybe the mosquito could have been a friend. Here the possibility of friendship is not only missed but silently crushed. And there is also the knowledge that this stranger, whose blood is on the haijin’s hand, is made of the same stuff, is flesh. Here we are all linked by vital fluids, by the suddenness of death, perhaps not such strangers after all.


As this week’s winner, Nathan 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 46:

     gossamer the length of a dream
          Shloka Shankar, A Hundred Gourds 5:1, (2015)
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