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
forest skull’s sockets hold my eyes — John Martone, forest skull (dogwood & honeysuckle 2007)
Peter Newton, in his excellent explication of the poem, offers the following:
One tell-tale sign of haiku is the poet’s connection to nature. In Martone’s poem “forest skull’s” that connection is made on a visceral level. An awareness upon seeing the decayed skull of an animal — that humans too have sockets. Sockets — a shocking word really when it comes to describing the human body. Shocking as the sight of the animal skull. Sockets — the pivotal word — those compartments that hold our eyes and hold the blank space where the animal’s eyes were. A haunting image. A stark truth. The same eyes used to witness this realization. There’s a tone of sadness here. The touch word “hold” which of course is a strange way to describe how eyes exist in the human body, as held by sockets. The poet is reminding us here that we too are an assemblage of body parts. Prone to coming apart. The body as ephemera. Bits of bone and blank space. And yet we are also capable of compassion. And self-awareness. A defining human trait that Martone emphasizes in six words. Brevity at its best.
Our winner this week, however, is Jason Charnesky, who offers this paean to this seminal poem:
A web of image, sound, and sense that takes us from the unexamined commonplace face to face with the wordless real.
The naïve treesy image of that first word, “forest,” is undercut by “skull’s” as the poem reminds us that a forest is not simply some arboreal expanse of vegetation. It is a network, a web of living-dying things, each as much a part of the forest as the trees themselves.
So in this forest, and a part of it, a skull. This is not beaver skull or mouse skull anymore. It is forest skull. The animal’s death has returned its parts back to the forest.
The possessive ending of “skull’s” propels us to the second line’s “sockets.” We focus on an absence. The holes where the eyes were once. These empty cavities draw our attention as the poem finds its first complete phrase: forest skull’s sockets.
What a difficult phrase! The clusters of unvoiced /s/ and /t/ and /s/ and /k/ force us to deliberately enunciate that first line and to take particular care to mark the end of the first word and the start of the second. These clusters of unvoiced consonants are gathered together in the word “sockets” in an almost perfect chiasmus. These sounds are brought together, and our attention is brought into focus, in sockets.
Yet how difficult, on first hearing, to understand the grammar of this sentence. Does the forest skull? Do the forest skulls socket? No, there is an s – so socket isn’t the verb either. The first three words cast us into confusion until finally “hold” takes hold and puts the sentence in order. We understand. The sockets hold. And the sockets belong to a single skull in the forest.
But what can these emptinesses, these sockets, hold?
Caught in this koan-like puzzle we pass to the last line. “my eyes” The speaker, the hiker, the one who has come upon this skull is caught in a weirdly unreciprocated gaze — living eyes upon empty eye sockets.
The possessive first person pronoun inserts the human and positions it as point of view and focus of perception and action: “I” My ego. “my eye” And how insistently this phrase is held onto. “my eyes” begins with the voiced consonant and moves as a single tripthonged syllable or melisma through the semivowel and glide to the final s. A single move. “my” attached to those “eyes,” holding them in possession. So different from the unvoiced separation of forest skull.
Held in this gaze, the speaker is brought to a moment where it is possible to realize that those skull sockets hold the truth and future state of the living eyes. To this they, too, shall come. The forest skull sockets do, indeed, hold the eyes, as a place holder of their ultimate state.
We are reminded of the admonition in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: ‘when a bhikkhu sees a body discarded in the charnel ground, reduced to loose bones scattered in all directions — here bones of the hand, there bones of the foot, shin bones, thigh bones, pelvis, spine and skull — he then applies [this perception] to his own body, “Truly, this body too is of the same nature. It will become like that and will not go beyond that nature.”’
What nature is there to go beyond? The forest and the forest skull. The sockets and my eyes. The web of living-dying forms. This moment of wordless realization is held in the sockets of the skull. No wonder Allan Burns has called this poem “the great memento mori of our haiku literature.”
As this week’s winner, Jason 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!
where the battlefield narrows to a cattle path: the dew on the grass — Nick Virgilio, Selected Haiku (Black Moss Press 1988)