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re:Virals 78

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

     home from the funeral
     I remove clothes from the dryer
     before they wrinkle
          — Carolyn Hall, Modern Haiku 40.3 (2009)

Mojde Marvast expresses her feelings conjured by this poem through symbolic language:

Sad! Tears washed life, now it is the start of a new phase of life.
After the storm the waves ebb. Death is mystery though the grief is more or less the same, only the depth makes it different . . .

And Marina Bellini parses it in detail:

Line 1 sets a mournful atmosphere; we do not know if the funeral was of somebody she loved or just somebody she knew; once at the house, the author tries to keep busy doing an everyday chore. Line 3 gives the reader the choice of interpretation, the twist to this haiku, “before they wrinkle”, it’s the urge to keep things going, the need to have all in order, nice and tidy; but that wrinkle refers not only to clothes — as time passes her face will wrinkle, thus it’s better to move on trying to enjoy what life gives, before it is too late.

Meanwhile David Jacobs notes the sureness of formal control:

As a contributor to many of the English language journals, I always get the impression that Carolyn Hall is never satisfied with standing still — always working to make her latest haiku better than the one before (difficult!) and experimenting both with form and content. Sometimes I feel she doesn’t get it quite right (that is the penalty for ambition), but very often she comes up with a gem.

The haiku here, apart from being such a gem, may not be strictly ‘experimental’, but it did take me by surprise to notice it had exceeded 17 syllables. That does show ambition and confidence, someone who isn’t worried about contracting her haiku into the more generally touted 11-14 syllables. There is not a word or syllable here that isn’t needed or doesn’t work for its keep.

As such there is almost not much to say about it. The simple everyday action of removing clothes from a washing machine, the thoughts that accompany such an action are seen as no less relevant or important than an entire life which has reached its end The juxtaposition is near perfect. The final ‘wrinkle’ with all its connotations gives the haiku its final click of the box.

And Jean LeBlanc finds its literary predecessors, and places the poem in context:

Just this past week in American Literature class, we discussed Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out —,” which describes the accidental death of a boy on a farm and ends with the lines, “And they, because they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” It takes my students a few minutes of discussion to work out that the family is not indifferent to the boy’s death, but instead must carry their grief with them as they return to the necessary work of running a family farm in hardscrabble New Hampshire in the early 20th century. Carolyn Hall’s haiku reminded me of Frost’s poem in how it depicts not so much the need to “move on” (a need that doesn’t come until well after the grief-causing event, if ever) but the need to go through the motions of life, even if one feels that, suddenly, chores are so trivial compared to the newly-experienced loss. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” wrote another great American poet, Emily Dickinson. The formality offered by routine is exquisitely portrayed in Carolyn Hall’s haiku. And that final line, “before they wrinkle” — what an evocation of age, or of dying before one reaches an advanced age . . . This haiku is a mini-masterclass on subtlety, grace, and living.


As this week’s winner, Jean selects the next 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 78:

     starfish . . .
     to feel so much
     of what we touch
          — Peter Newton, What We Find (Imaginary Press, 2011)
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