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re:Virals 54

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

     mid-life     the afternoon rain     lingering
          David Jacobs, grandma’s chip bowl, Hub Editions (2015)

Mojde Marvast is moved to quasi-poetic musing:

Midlife, afternoon and rain
Afternoon, passes the middle point (noon)
Is time passing heavily because of its density or because of a burden!
Rain is the density of the cloud.
Cloud is so light,
Middle point is so confusing because of emergence of so many questions; and surely so fertile and influential.

And Marion Clarke filled in the gap:

My mind automatically filled in the word ‘crisis’ after reading ‘mid-life’. With the persistent rain, there is a real sense of despondency in this monoku and the concrete way in which the word ‘lingers’ hangs at the end suggests the narrator’s melancholy state will not be eased any time soon.

Nathan Sidney finds solace in the sluicing:

Is it the rain or the poet that lingers? And if the poet, is s/he lingering in the manner of a terminal patient or like a lover who wants to savour one more moment of a glorious sunset? The opening line carries a world of connotations; a crisis, a turning point, an epiphany. Afternoon rain suggests a day of heat and brightness now tempered by a cooling shower. The turn of the day mirrors the turn of life from youth to middle age. Is the rain dampening the poet’s hopes or watering them?

We might be tempted to make a pessimistic interpretation, but the ambiguity of the word lingering allows us to imagine that this is a positive experience, tinged with sadness perhaps but also wisdom gained and the recognition of new beginnings. Rain after all is what allows the earth to bring forth all it’s myriad forms, coming in the afternoon it often eases the tensions of the day. We can easily believe the poet wants the rain to linger and likewise is happy to linger a little longer himself.

My initial reaction was to view this as a sombre poem, after all mid-life is so often associated with crisis, with the fact of facing up to the loss of youth, but increasingly we see people embracing their maturity, taking the opportunity to slough off the old skin and embrace a more authentic existence. The longer I spent with this poem the more I began to see it in a positive light. Yes, the word lingering conveys a certain sense of reluctance, of hanging around longer than one should, but don’t we linger on earth because of friends and family, joy and beauty, because afternoon rain is just so comforting?

Alan Summers compares it with other from the same collection:

Although this particular haiku was not included in my book review, amongst the fifteen haiku I did include, there was a very good reason:

“Jacobs is also a practitioner of finely nuanced one-line haiku, but I won’t give more than one example, as you must get the book, and witness this astuteness for yourself.”

Ah, when we reach that part of our life when we reconsider things wisely or foolishly in what is often termed a mid-life crisis. In this haiku we have long deliberate visual pauses between each word, literally lingering over them, as is the author perhaps over the spent rain and thoughts?

Of course the haiku could be brought back into what is often thought of as the standard approach of three lines:

the afternoon rain

But the craft and the extra-special pausing and nunaces are lost and better suited as a one-line haiku (monoku).

mid-life the afternoon rain lingering

Those long pauses, that long white space, could indicate the passing afternoon rain, remnants settling on everyday objects, and a lone man sitting on a bench in a park perhaps?

It feels both celebratory and poignant which may make sense to some of us who have varying degrees of depression, as this is a recurring theme in David’s book. This is a good example of where the white spaces are packed with words unsaid. A highly evocative piece of writing.

And Jo McInerney delves into its process:

Though time seems to press down in Jacobs’s haiku, it retains a curiously indeterminate quality, like the life stage it explores.

A monoku usually progresses with relative rapidity. Not here. The spacing prompts heavy pauses after ‘mid-life’ and ‘rain’. The isolated opening compound noun forces us to stop and consider the state to which it refers. ‘[M]id-life’ — on the one hand ‘in the middle of life’, an apparently enlivened state; on the other, that period of existential reckoning often associated with emotional crisis.

The middle of the monoku appears to strand the reader on a wet afternoon, perhaps stirring childhood memories of seemingly endless hours confined indoors. However, this is not an expression of youthful impatience. Afternoon rain is quite simply an unavoidable element of existence. The definite article gently underlines the specificity and apparent inevitability of this condition. If we do not die young, there will be afternoon rain. ‘Into each life some rain must fall.’ That line, popularised by Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots in the 1940s, comes from
Longfellow’s ‘The Rainy Day’.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall

Jacobs’s haiku has more to offer than Longfellow’s determinedly consolatory sentiments. It states the fact of afternoon rain and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Afternoon is an interesting time in the day. Noon has passed with its bright light and symbolic sense of apogee. What follows is automatically a decline; however, it can be a seemingly long journey toward night, offering its own warmth and light. However, Jacobs’s is not such. There is rain, or is there? ‘[T]he afternoon rain lingering’. The effect of the final word, which Jacobs makes us wait for, is significant. Lingering in what sense? Does the rain continue into evening? Does it remain only as moisture in the air or puddles on the ground? Does it fall from shaken branches? And what time is this? Has the afternoon passed? Are we now in evening, or beyond, with the afternoon recalled only through the rain that fell then?

There is no definite answer to any of these questions. Jacobs has taken us into a curious, inconclusive space where boundaries and conditions blur. That may be the essence of middle age and what follows.

I remember leaving my middle age more strongly than I do entering it. I remember the sense of a slow yet inevitable shift and the apprehension that came with it. It is different now; there is less a sense of either progression or decline and, for the moment, more a sense of stasis, of living in the present. Carpe diem is, I think, an injunction more for the old than the young. As we move beyond middle age, the sense of having nothing but this day is likely to become more acute.

Jacobs’s subtly shifting, indeterminate poem suggests this for me. However, it is open to many readings as befits a haiku exploring as subjectively experienced a condition as aging.


As this week’s winner, Jo 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 54:

     how to dress her
     for eternity —
     blossom rain
          Carolyn Hall, The Heron’s Nest XIII:1 (2011)
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