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re:Virals 49

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

     My haplogroup
     shows the sponge gene
     distant lightning
          Robert Mainone, Modern Haiku 40.3 (2009)

Patrick Sweeney circles this beautiful poem in his characteristic fashion:

I’m not certain if Pascal said, “If it isn’t easy, it’s impossible.” I mean, he said so many things, he might have said it. I know for sure LeBron James said, “Basketball isn’t easy.” So there is a myth about haiku, a powerful myth that is unpopular to disagree with, that the haiku should be simple, easy. Basho is not easy. Mr. Mainone’s haiku is epistemological. A fella has to dig into it and discover what a “haplogroup” is, what role the “sponge gene” plays in a person’s medical history . . . and then, the last line is loaded with foreboding and beauty. A haiku like this one doesn’t stop on the page. The reader, and I mean “reader” in the George Steiner sense of the word, will go off on his own little search for meaning. I know this is not an explication, but why spoil the fun?

Cherie Hunter Day:

This haiku is definitely a deep stretch into molecular genetics. Mainone starts with haplogroups, which trace the genomic genealogy of DNA. By looking at specific markers scientists can analyze the genetic ancestry of humans distributed around the globe. Thirty years ago the theory focused on a single human progenitor, “mitochondrial Eve,” but now it is thought there are 10 to 12 predominant Y-DNA haplogroups in Europe alone. Mainone takes the genetic connections even further back on the evolutionary scale to sponges: humans share nearly 70 percent of their genetic make-up with sea sponges. All life on Earth is connected, and each nucleus of every cell has a record. With “distant lightning” in the third line the connection is taken back to the origin of life. Some readers might recall science textbooks that showed a painting of violent lightning storms over a tumultuous sea as an explanation of how life first evolved from the primordial soup of elements 3.5 billion years ago. Mainone has telescoped all of this human and pre-human history into just seven words. It’s a bolt of lightning in a haiku. As a former molecular biologist and geneticist I’m encouraged that haiku is large enough to peek in on such a vast topic.

Nathan Sidney:

A haplogroup is a set of genes inherited from a single parent, so is the parent in this case the sponge, thought to be the ancestor of all animals? Is the distant lightning the primordial spark that set all earthly life in motion? We are invited to think that maybe the poet could soak up the atmosphere without the burden of a discursive mind in the manner that the sponges body literally drinks the world, a sponge being nothing more than an agglomeration of this flow. Can a haiku evolve this way? The flow of genes across time links the poet to a birth in an ancient ocean wracked by storms. The technical term haplogroup and the reference to genes shows that though the past is still very much present, change has occurred over deep time. Transience of a different scale. The sponge has found a voice, and a sophisticated one at that, making us ask is a pure “haiku moment” available to this sophisticated modern mind, can we ever again be as innocent as the sponge? Would we want to be?

Stella Pierides:

Haplogroup, I understand, is the term describing the exact common ancestry, the genetic family tree down to its roots of a group of humans. In this poem’s case, the sponge.

At first, identifying with the narrator, I felt hurt to be classified as a sponge; then I reconsidered. After all, I’d read that sponges share a remarkable amount of genetic material with humans — so not to be taken personally. But did I want to be reminded on a Sunday morning, over coffee, that I have a lot in common with sponges?

It is of course science that gives me this information. Is science the bringer of uncomfortable news? Is it the culprit that clips the angel’s wings (Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,/ Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,/; Poe, “To Science”)? Or am I shooting the messenger? After all, Dawkins and others before him have argued that, rather than “Unweaving the Rainbow”, science reveals the worlds’s hidden beauty.

But here, in this context, it is the poet who reminds me of my humble beginnings. Of course, to their credit, sponges thrived for over 600 million years while I have struggled with fewer than 100. And recent research uncovered clues pointing to sponges descending from a more advanced ancestor than previously thought.

Still, how far am I reducible to bits of genetic information translated into proteins, labellable, traceable, ultimately replaceable? A mere cog in the cosmic machine? I, Stella, poet, writer, and sponge.

Be that as it may, what I find interesting, and welcome, is that the poet feels at ease with bringing a scientific fact into the poem. After all, objective scientific facts are as much part of our world as subjective experiences.

In earlier centuries (and as far back as the ancient Greek thinkers), it had been common practice for poets to describe scientific discoveries in their poems; poets popularised scientific ideas (think of Charles Darwin), and scientists popularised poetry. In the eighteenth century Dickens, and others, went further than mutual facilitation, exploring poetically, for instance, ideas of energy conservation and dissipation (cf. Barri J. Gold, “ThermoPoetics”). Literature and science have been inspiring and influencing each other in Victorian times, and since, as well as competing for access to truth.

In this poem, Robert Mainone’s narrator sounds both surprised and humbled at being reminded that he, we, are all branches of the same evolutionary tree, part of the same cosmos. The penny drops. The distant comes closer and light is thrown on the matter — aha! How humbling! How reassuring! We are all one.

Tom Sacramona:

Robert Mainone’s “my haplogroup” captures the interconnectedness of life on Earth and it calls to mind Basho’s “goi” poem. While Basho’s heron screams out of the darkness, Mainone’s sponge matches our genetic material. Mainone’s poem also centers on zoka – on creation out of seemingly nothing. For scientists, trying to decode DNA and synthesize its knowledge must feel like creating out of the void. In Mainone’s poem, the scientists he alludes to have learned through this very process the DNA code of a sea sponge, and in analyzing its data, they discovered we have something in common. What a shot in the dark! This knowledge of familiarity adds another ancestor to “[his] haplogroup”, resonates deeply with Mainone, and figures as his haiku moment. Science has illuminated the “distant” night of humanities’ origins and told us that all multi-cellular organisms owe something in their evolutionary history to the sponge.


As this week’s winner, Patrick 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 49:

     The many notes
     of the falling rain,
     all in tune.
          Don Wentworth, Tinywords 12.1 (November 2012)
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