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
no one calls she gently dusts her porcelain rabbits — Elena Naskova, Nest Feathers: Selected Haiku from the First 15 Years of The Heron's Nest (2015)
This quiet but fraught tableau fairly hums with electricity beneath the surface. Marion Clarke takes this to be a family drama:
The first line of this haiku leads the reader to believe that this woman has been waiting on someone to call, but they haven’t turned up. In the second and third lines ‘gentle’ and ‘porcelain’ suggest such delicateness that this is perhaps an old lady and the fact that these are china rabbits made me think it is her children she has been waiting for in vain. Very sad.
And Garry Eaton discovers an analogue in one of 20th-century drama’s most famous productions:
This reminds me of The Glass Menagerie, in which a shy young woman, damaged by polio, invests herself in fantasies around a collection of delicate, glass animals at the expense of her opportunities for fuller human relationships. Her favorite, the unicorn, both Christian and sexual symbol, gets damaged as she dances with her only potential suitor. He accidentally knocks it off the shelf, breaking its horn, and she gives it away to him at the end of the play as a sign or her capitulation to her own damaged condition and her lonely fate.
Here, it is porcelain rabbits that are the objects of a lonely woman’s obsession. They too carry symbolic associations — here with Christ’s resurrection and with sexual reproduction — and the two works are further connected by the suggestion of a wounded and inverted narcissism in the character at the center of the each.
I enjoy the way the alliterative sibilance underscores the sadness in the tender dusting and hints at a concern for her aging ovaries.
While Tzetzka Ilieva finds a way in which the poem has potentially evolved over time:
I like the fragility of the situation. I can see her hand, moving slowly, almost automatically. She has been doing this so many times before. And it looks like she is perfectly calm and content, but I can’t help waiting for her to suddenly sweep a few rabbits off the shelf, thus breaking into pieces her porcelain life. Or maybe the phone, or the door bell would ring, and that sound would startle her just enough to knock down a rabbit, to break the routine.
While reading more poems from this author, I found a slightly different version of the haiku:
no one called
she gently dusts
her porcelain rabbits
The past tense would make the situation final — no one called and no one will call. That’s it. The porcelain life is all she has. I don’t know why the author decided to change it, but I prefer the version in the present tense. She seems more in control of her life in this one.
As this week’s winner, Tzetzka 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!
Deep in the inkwell a star. — Alexis Rotella, The Haiku Anthology (1999)