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re:Virals 61

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

     amniotic sac
the floating nests
of prairie doves
          — Marianne Paul, Frozen Butterfly, the video journal of English Language Haiku 2 (2015)

Mojde Marvast has a visceral response to this poem:

Floating nests
With no eggs and no mother to sit on eggs!!
Reminds me of an abortion or a miscarriage.

Marion Clarke did too, but in quite the opposite direction:

Everything about this ku by Marianne Paul speaks of incubation, warmth and safety. Although those floating nests might be a bit more at risk than a human baby in the womb, the fact that they are floating on water places them out of harm’s way from land-based predators. Or, since I don’t know anything about floating nests, is the poet perhaps saying the opposite — that the baby is safe in its amniotic sac while the dove’s eggs, although also floating and warm in her nest, are open to predators? Perhaps the narrator is an expectant mother and she is worrying about those eggs on the water. I’m not sure, but I got a sense of safety from this delightful poem.

While Megan Hallisey displays an admirable process:

Is it reasonable to say that a haiku is a poem that you don’t need to labor over? One breath, I believe, can mean one “intake” of breath, the whole poem taken in at once. Though the author may have labored over it, a good one gives the impression of having arrived fully made. This poem seems to want me to work to make something of it, and I find that if I strain a little, squint a little, I almost can. But it takes a whole lotta huffing and puffing to get there.

The first line hovers over the next two as a kind of question: am I presented with the amniotic sac of a human or an animal? Will it matter? Is it the idea of an amniotic sac? Will what follows enlighten me — maybe not answer my questions, but even better, will it remove my need to ask them?

Immediately, however, I am faced with more questions. What I am given, especially following that puzzling sac, is so odd as to seem unreal. Floating nests, at least at first, take me out of my usual sense of things. That’s fine, I like that, but giving myself over to this possibility of an alternate world by opening my dream-eyes, doesn’t help. I can conjure a kind of dream image, but it is not satisfying. It’s my dream, developing in the amniotic sac of my imagination. Oh, is that what the author wants? And yet it seems, in giving me two more or less concrete things — an amniotic sac and prairie dove nests — she doesn’t want me to go off into dreamy imaginings. But honestly, I’m not sure.

So I look up “prairie doves” and discover that they are a kind of gull that makes its nest of bullrushes and marsh grasses in the northern prairie of the US and southern prairie of Canada. So the nests are real things, not gendai imaginings, surrounded by water that in some sense “float”. So yes, I’ve been given something pretty specific, juxtaposed by something which seems specific — an amniotic sac — but is mysteriously general. Anyway I’ve done my research and I go back to the poem.

I try to let the juxtaposition just happen to me, see if it will spread some haiku juju my way. Nothing happens. (Usually I’d just give up at this point, but I’ve started this re:Virals exercise and might as well go on). So here comes more straining and squinting. I come up with something: in the nests there are eggs, each containing amniotic sacs. But the author speaks of an amniotic sac, singular. So what I make out of this is that the nests full of eggs are themselves in an amniotic sac, as suggested by being on water. So there must a sac surrounding the whole thing, the prairie marsh, you and me, earth and sky, the whole universe and beyond. Right? I’m back to dreaming. But that’s what haiku can do, I think; what Basho could do — use the real world to conjure dreams. Is that what’s happening here, or am I trying really hard to make it happen, to make, as I said, something of the poem?

Well, one famous idea about haiku is that they are co-written, so to speak, by the author and reader. A kind of collaboration. But I feel like I’ve had to do 90% of the work here, including research. And I come away feeling like I’ve mostly experienced my own projections and my own cosmology from a couple of odd factoids that have prompted a guessing game on my part.

That, and a rather long and probably annoying attempt to explain why I find this poem, in the end, exhausting.


As this week’s winner, Megan 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 61:

     just please how to forgive spring rain
          — Michelle Tennison, Modern Haiku 44.1 (2013)
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