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
an octopus in her father’s lungs . . . first autumn rain — Reka Nyitrai, Otata 36.
Alan Summers presents his findings:
What seems a simple opening line, for one of life’s most intelligent planetary occupants, appears to turn to surrealism. This haiku could be about a girl’s father and his deteriorating health due to either a racking wet cough of influenza or pneumonia, or emphysema, or cancer of the lungs.
For me it’s a very haunting first two lines whether it’s a metaphor for cancer, or other deadly illness, or a surrealist turn of phrase. I would, on a human level, want the allusion to mean the girl or woman’s father is a tremendous vocalist who reaches out tendrils or tentacles of music to every corner of an auditorium, or across the medium of music downloads to everyone’s smart devices.
The seasonal reference that can become so incredibly effective in non-Japanese haiku, when judged well, brings out a tone of mood beautifully and deeply poignantly. It only worries me, on an empathetic level, whether the first two lines are actually past tense, and that the parent has passed away:
“There was an octopus in a father’s lung and now he is dead, first autumn rain (funeral)?”
I do appreciate haiku that go beyond just showcasing “the present tense” and “a present moment” as everything is ongoing and simultaneously past, present and future.
Roberta Beary, too, is at a loss:
Three days ago another death. The cause: Stage 4 lung cancer. Diagnosed three months ago. The 10th friend/family in eight years caught by this disease. Reka Nyitrai’s haiku perfectly describes the mundane quality of lung cancer treatments juxtaposed with the disease’s devastating tenacity. Healthy cells die while mutant cells multiply. Treatments fail and new ones take their place. And the doctors, speaking in riddles, draw an image of an octopus who has made its unwelcome way into the body’s temple. As the octopus gains strength the patient grows weaker. What is there to do? What can one do against such a relentless onslaught? As Reka Nyitrai’s haiku tells us, we can listen to the sounds of the universe contracting and expanding. Listen, beyond the reach of the octopus, to the first drops of autumn rain.
Christina Pecoraro is ill at ease:
Sadness assaults me each time I re-read Reka Nyitra’s ku. ‘An octopus’ inevitably speaks of the inescapable reach of multiple arms. That such undulating appendages should appear ‘in her father’s lungs’ never fails to disturb, so aptly do they parallel actual lungs’ fleshy branches or bronchi, swollen and inflamed. I think subsequently of the father’s un-ease, or dis-ease. I think of cancer.
To further this mirroring, a bit of research tells me that ‘all octopuses are venomous’ and some ‘deadly.’ Also these creatures are short-lived. That an octopus should appear in mythology as a ‘sea monster’— or in the case of Nyitrai’s ku as a monstrous illness — is not surprising, given its uncomely and threatening appearance.
Knitting the whole together, the ku’s final line, ‘first autumn rain’ also presents an apt parallel. While ‘autumn’ evokes ending, its ‘first…rain’ indicates a beginning. So we might say that the final line heralds ‘the beginning of the end.’ Isn’t that what cancer itself often does? With metaphor and depth, then, Reka Nyitrai gives us a ku that is as well-crafted as it is moving.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă finds unity:
There is a lot of pain that arises from these verses. It is very clear that the author refers to cancer, the disease that destroys swiftly many of our fellows without giving them too much chances.
If we consider the images of a chest radiograph, then one can say that, due to the metastasis, the lung cancer is seen indeed like an octopus that dwells inside of the patient and conquers him step by step…
The ellipsis in the first part of the ku seems to be the author’s tears that ingeniously makes a reference to the second part where autumn rain is an extension of those points of suspension.
By using some invisible threads, the reader feels that the first autumn rain, an old metaphor for extinction, death, is in unity with the narrator who does not have enough tears to cry for her father.
Dave Read gets real about metaphor in haiku:
Many practitioners of haiku, and indeed many journals, eschew the use of metaphor. They claim it is against the spirit of the genre, and that it doesn’t work well in the small space the ku is afforded. Instead, they prefer “realism” — attempting to capture the image “as it is” while allowing the reader to fill in the gaps this spare form provides.
Although this approach works for many poems, it’s prescriptive nature can limit the possibilities of the genre. Metaphor can be effective in haiku, and Reka Nyitrai’s “an octopus” is a superb example. The octopus, as a metaphor for illness, creates a savage image. The reader is compelled to imagine the creature’s many tentacles stretching down through the trachea into the bronchioles, brushing the alveoli with murderous intent. Or perhaps one sees the octopus ink choking lungs in cancerous clouds — blackening them with a deathly fate. The surrealist image of “an octopus in her father’s lungs” creates a much stronger description of a man crippled by disease than simply naming the disease ever could. Indeed, Nyitrai’s heart-wrenching haiku carries its power as a result of metaphor — not in spite of it.
As this week’s winner, Dave 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!
prairie storm the darkness disperses as buffalo — Chad Lee Robinson, The Heron’s Nest XIX:3 (2017)