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Viral 8.1

Virals: a domino game of haiku selections and commentaries


(Viral 8.1)


By Scott Metz & Paul Pfleuger, Jr.


                                                    under the nitrogen blue sky
                                                    the white horse
                                                    of my life

                                                                 —Patrick Sweeney

SM: For me, this ku is about the fleetingness of life, motion, and also transformation. By invoking a gas (nitrogen), something ungraspable, yet definitive, is conjured. It’s a peculiar thing to use in a haiku poem—something scientifically named—yet it’s 78 % of the earth’s atmosphere, and so not that very peculiar at all. It feels modern though and part of our world and slang. The use of the word conjures exactness; it is precise and elemental. Again though, it has a vacuity to it, something odorless, escapable, always in motion, something that can not be held or tied down. What is “the white horse”? For me, it conjures speed, beauty, strength, freedom. It’s a strong (even mythically mighty) image that takes us from the infiniteness and ubiquitousness of the sky/air to something concrete. Yet, at the same time, it’s abstract and metaphorical. Could it, in fact, simply be a cloud that looks like a horse? And does this cloud remind the poet of their own life? Of our own lives? How simple; how beautiful. There’s a purity and evanescence that i love about this ku. All in all, it leads me, ultimately, to disintegration.

PP: We may instantly recall a number of storybook tales ending happily with a knight or a prince charming riding in on a white horse. We may think of gods riding chariots drawn by white horses, or the Book of Revelation (19:11-16), where Christ appears as the Word of God. A white horse as a symbol has no shortage of meanings. If it is, in fact, a metaphor, it’s unpretentious. “The white horse” could represent someone or thing that rescued or completes the poet—a lover, a child, a friend, a place. Regarding the latter, years ago, it was mountains that set me straight, and I don’t see it being too far of a stretch to see the likeness between snow-capped mountain humps bearing resemblance to a white horse. And there are literally White Horse Mountains that I know of in China (Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces), America (California), in Japan (Nagano Prefecture), and there may be others. We know Patrick Sweeney lives in Japan. Just a thought.

As featured poet, Patrick Sweeney will select a poem and provide commentary on it for Viral 8.2.

“under the nitrogen blue sky” first appeared in Roadrunner IX: 3

An Introduction to Virals

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. “it’s a matter of scattering” –Jack

    Whether horse or cloud, real or dream or metaphor, an individual life moves quickly and is gone. Through the use of the word nitrogen, Sweeney might have intended to remind us that the bits of stuff (molecules, aggregates?) that shape the physical world and us, inevitably fall away.

  2. “P.S.
    “We know Gabi Greve lives in Japan and speaks some German” ”

    Well, I was born in Germany many years ago, got a medical degreee at Heidelberg University and found my way through studying Asian Art, finally moving to Japan in 1977.
    English and Japanese are both languages I learned on my way.
    In Europe, my “nex-door neighbours” for a good dinner and wine were the French. . . .

    multi-kulti (experience of living in multiple cultures)

    and now off for more associations with the “white horse” … :o)

    BTW, I would like the above haiku without the word “nitrogen”.

  3. Master, do you lay on your back and try to find shapes in the clouds? If so, what would distinguish a vague representation of a horse from a cow, goat, dog, or other quadruped? Sweeney “saw” a horse, not a donkey, and that must mean something. While we could quarrel all day about the symbolism of a white horse, at the end of the day a horse is a horse (didn’t Freud say something like that). Antagonistically, I will add that Freud was stuck in the phallic stage of psycho-sexual development and “white horse” means more than just a horse-shaped cloud.

    Nevertheless, good call on the “cloud gazing”!

    P.S. “We know Gabi Greve lives in Japan and speaks some German”

    If the haiku were written in German, the alternative translation of “mold” would be very interesting. What a tangled web I weave.

  4. Within the plain signpost logic of the words, this short form poem references and invokes a cloud. Ask any child. Beyond this we can enter a trance of personal reference and fly off with the fairies. Still a cloud though. Still a nice enough senryu (aka: micropoem)

    — jp

  5. “We know Patrick Sweeney lives in Japan.”

    one more thing comes to mind:

    The famous Painter Higashiyama Kai has a series of “white horse” paintings,

    “White Horse in a Forest” is the most famous.

    東山 魁夷【白馬】

    Hopefully this link works

    Otherwise, here in my BLOG

    The “Schimmel ” (white horse in German) also comes with many legends and stories and poems, the
    Schimmelreiter novel by Theodor Storm is the most famous.


  6. Now we’re cooking with gas (Nitrogen). The oversimplification of “white horse” provided by earlier commentators (either referring to an arcane Japanese tradition or a commonplace American pre-occupation) diminishes the ambiguity and potential for vivid realism expressed by this “ku”. Introducing a vague interpretation of color in the first line makes a strict interpretation of color in the second line even more naive (unfortunately not every reference is singular in interpretation, Gabi).

    By the very diversity of interpretations, this haiku provides the reader (biased or not), with the liberty of applying her/his own visceral connotations to the work. This particular reader, condescendingly open-minded as he may be, would rather leave the tangential and amorphous in play. As such, the nitrogen blue skies may leave one long-lived, high, cold, satiated, or otherwise sensual. Who is to, pretentiously, say how one is to feel.

  7. Well now, Paul and Scott . . . several points and questions about this ”ku.” Why couldn’t it be that there was a real experiential horse? It is unlikely to be a cloud else wise where is the poet? Above cloud and sky? The word “under” must mean something. If a horse, then the symbolism and metaphor of the line may flow more naturally. And, it is an English idiom to experience: the time of my life, the meal of my life, the concert of my life, the love of my life, the best sex of my life — so why not the horse of my life. Although I never saw the animal in person, Secretariat was the horse of my life … Triple Crown of racing, track records. So, if the poet sees a white horse on parade, or snorting and galloping, or posing in verdant green? Could have led to the poet’s horse moment of his life?

    As to the odd word of the poem, nitrogen. I find it a distraction and so odd as to add a quality of Dada. Nitrogen gas is colorless (and odorless — I think it’s ozone that you might smell near storms, Lorin). The color of the sky has little or nothing to do with nitrogen. Rather, the physics of light, the light of the sun, and the physiology of color receptors in the human retina (which may or may not have evolved to focus more on blue in the light spectrum– think prism or rainbow for the whole spectrum of white light which is sunlight). Particulates in the atmosphere determine the color and clarity of the light that gets to us, and the time of day. Early or late in the day, the sun’s light has to pass through more length of atmosphere. A very clear dawn or sunset means there really is hardly any water vapor, or sand, smoke, etc. in the air. 78% of the molecules refracting the sunlight are nitrogen, true, but the color would be the same if 50% or 90%. As written in English, nitrogen modifies both blue and sky. “nitrogen sky” by itself seems nonsensical, as does “nitrogen blue (no sky mentioned).” I do not see how this chain of modifiers helps in any way with meaning. “pale yellow sunset” works because the “pale” could modify both subsequent words — together “pale” and “yellow” are more precise. The poem’s first line is a non sequitor.

  8. Fascinating, Gabi. Thanks!

    That information, the basis of ‘white horse’ in Japanese mythology and tradition, certainly adds a lot to what can be gained from this ku.

  9. “We know Patrick Sweeney lives in Japan.”

    The white horse
    in Japan is closely related to the Shinto deities.
    There is a festival in its honor

    White Horse Festival (hakuba sai)

    kigo for the New Year

    If you see a white horse during the New Year celebrations, you will ward off evil for the coming year and stay healthy. Therefore shrines with a white horse make a parade for all to see the animal. Some parades are quite famous and reach back to the Kamakura period. In Kashima, they parade seven white horses. If you pick up a small stone where the horses walked or have your hankerchief trodden on, this will bring your love to fulfillment.
    On this day, white sweet ricewine (amazake) and porridge of seven herbs is also served.

    There is a poem by Otomo Yakamochi 大伴家持 in the ManyoShu poetry collection, dating from 758:


    The people who viewed the white horse today
    – the color of the wings of a white duck –
    Will enjoy long life, it is said.

    Tr. Taro Sakamoto

    Greetings from Japan.
    (thanks to a friend who asked me to post this here)

  10. under the nitrogen blue sky
    the white horse
    of my life

    —Patrick Sweeney

    well, if you’re a green thing, a plant, grass, a leaf you can ‘tie down’ nitrogen . . . enough to feed on it anyway. 🙂 Plant life can absorb it through the leaf as well as through the roots. I swear I can smell nitrogen in the air when a rainstorm is coming, and I notice that droopy plants stand up and seem to reach for the nitrogen when it’s concentrated like that. But that’s all beside the point , here.

    I think this ku works because of what seems like precision of definition in ‘nitrogen blue sky’. (& Jack’s comments indicate that there actually is a scientific kind of precision) Set against this kind of knowing, ‘the white horse of my life’ might indicate another sort of knowing. Calling in the ‘positive image’ (photographic) of ‘white horse’, I think of the colloquial metaphor ‘dark horse’, someone mysterious and unknowable (all your Scorpio friends, as tradition has it 😉 … and there are the classical black horses belonging to Pluto/ Hades, of the underworld ), so the ‘white horse of my life’ seems to show a transparency, an openness in the life, the complementary opposite of the ‘dark horse’.

    The image might’ve been inspired by a cloud, a cirrus cloud perhaps, against the sky. They’re wispy, airy, ‘see through’ clouds, and one formation is popularly known as ‘mare’s tail’. It is this sense of openness, of the life having been ‘seen through’… that sort of knowing. . . which I see set beside the knowledge of the periodic table and the image ‘nitrogen blue sky’.

    It *feels* like a Summer poem.

  11. Wbite horse = cocaine.
    White horse = white man enjoying the fellowship of non-white jockeys (jockeyettes). Love asia, man.

  12. It’s a matter of scattering. Of the spectrum, blue waves are approximately the size of oxygen and nitrogen molecules, so they bounce off of them and produce the blue of the sky. That is why the sky is often referred to as the nitrogen blue sky.
    Of course, the light of life is white when taken together and when we are embodied, like the white horse, the molecules are too large to scatter the waves and so we are like a cloud (the way all the colors of light exist together). So, like this wondrous white horse, our life contains the whole spectrum of light beautifully composed and charging through time.
    A really first rate poem.

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