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
arms race how quickly can you fold paper cranes — Johnny Baranski, tinywords 13.2 (2013)
Both our respondents this week caught the allusion that centers this week’s haiku. Nathan Sidney asks the pertinent question:
Hands moving quickly, folding paper cranes or assembling the components of an atom bomb. An arms race between paper folders or nation states. On the one hand the poem is innocent, a simple question asked between origamists as theirs arms race each other in playful competition. In another reading I am reminded of the story of Sadako and the thousand cranes who dies from “atom bomb sickness”. Sadako tries to fold a thousand cranes so that she may, as in the folktale, be granted a wish. In the novel she dies well short of the mark, but in reality she easily completes the thousand cranes. Was her wish granted? Will our poet have theirs granted? So the poem can also produce an air of foreboding, as if some tragedy is on the way; a nuclear winter, a cold war, a war on terror, that only hope and wishes can forestall. Perhaps the arms race is between the weapon makers and the origamists, racing the war machine to gain their wish for peace. There is perhaps a third reading, where “how quickly can you fold” refers to losing the arms race. “Paper cranes” then becomes an exclamation, an origami still life juxtaposed against the frenzy of the arms race and the disaster of having lost, a snapshot from the life of the little people before the crisis hits.
While Sheila Sondik had a visceral response:
I gasped the first time I read this haiku. It’s so matter-of-fact and understated that its impact is like a sneak attack on the reader.
The poem’s subject, “arms race,” is as topical as ever, unfortunately. We have to do something to deflect our governments from spending precious resources on instruments of war. None of us has yet figured out an effective way to do this. The poignancy of offering our paper symbols of peace against the weight of bombs and missiles is a stunning juxtaposition.
The haiku refers to the short life of Sadako Sasaki who was 2 years old when the atom bomb exploded near her Hiroshima home. She died of radiation-related leukemia when she was twelve. Before her death she folded over 1000 origami cranes in the hope of getting her wish to stay alive.
As this week’s winner, Sheila chooses 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!
winter night my car follows its own light — Dietmar Tauchner, as far as I can (Red Moon Press, 2010)
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I’ve enjoyed reading both Nathan’s and Sheila’s commentaries. I knew the background, the story of Sadako, the reference to the 1,000 paper cranes which have become a symbol for peace and disarmament, but coincidentally I’ve recently re-watched the ‘redux’ version of ‘Apocalypse Now’, the war that concerned my generation specifically and in which my brother-in-law died in one of the many absurd ‘accidents’. . . “friendly fire”, they call it in the USA. . . and I’ve also been re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s books, including ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, (set within the absurd bombing of Dresden in WW2)
Baranski’s haiku is possibly the darkest genuine response to the now historic arms race I’ve read. Despair underlies the sharp cynicism of the question. Origami cranes (a gentle art) and ‘magical thinking’ vs all the weapons of mass destruction? “Give Peace a Chance” chanted in a nation where citizens of all sorts demand the right bear arms, and use them? Yeah.
(Not to mention the chill up my spine when viewing a game show host (now president-elect ) who points at the camera and declares, “Ah aim yore vaus!” )
Conrad’s Kurtz had it right: “The horror!”
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