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
atop the town flagpole a gob of bubblegum holds my dead brother’s dime — Nick Virgilio, Selected Haiku of Nicholas Virgilio
Marina Bellini offers us a straight reading, shorn of biographical information:
Two boys playing, the daring one reaches the top of the flagpole and sticks a dime to mark his achievement; is lucky dime perhaps? In the last ku we learn that the brother is dead; the reader imagination can start from here. Did he die falling after his bravado? Or did he die at war? In my opinion the strong connection between the flag and all those soldiers who didn’t come back from the war zone, allow us to choose the second possibility; in my imagination I see all mourners at the funeral or commemoration, and the author remembers that dime still there and maybe he remembers their time as kids when all was an adventure.
And Danny Blackwell provides the context:
In Sean Dougherty’s video Remembering Nick Virgilio we can listen to the poet’s brother, Tony, recall the event that inspired this haiku in honour of Larry Virgilio:
“Before Larry was going off to boot training he was in the square with his buddies, and he shimmied up this enormous flagpole, and he took a piece of chewing gum and a dime, and he stuck it on the top, and he said: ‘When I come back I’m gonna go up and get that dime’.”
The tears that follow make it clear that Larry never came back from Vietnam.
Nick Virgilio described haiku as “a record of a moment of emotion keenly perceived that somehow links human nature to all nature.” And he said that we should aim to “become more conscious of our feelings and to share these with other people.” We constantly find that the more specific narratives are — the more based they are in the minutiae of other people’s lives — the more keenly we relate to them, irrespective of how distant to our own realities those narratives may be. It is a commonly repeated piece of advice among writers to write about what you know, and be as specific as possible because it is precisely this specificity of human life that is so universal. Nick himself says: “You explore this provincial you and you become universal,” you become “a tight little package of humanity,” and this poem is without doubt a tight little package of provincial humanity that is universal.
In the video, Nick talks about his belief that we all have haiku experiences, and that we should try to express them in “the least number of words possible,” starting with “the big scene first, then the little parts of the big scene” in order to create an effective “word painting.” (We could also consider haiku in cinematic terms. For example, the technique of this poem is akin to a zoom, or a series of cuts with each cut honing closer in on the key object of the scene.)
Nick definitely practiced what he preached — well-ordered, concise poems that detail very personal moments in honour of some universal humanity — and his command of the form was the result of a notoriously strict, almost monastic, work ethic. I have long been one of those poets that admittedly feels a bit snobbish about 5-7-5 haiku, and yet Nick’s 5-7-5 are sublime, and show no evidence of being in any way forced or contrived. He was also not afraid to use rhyme, which is often considered bad form in haiku. Here are two more haiku (both in the 5-7-5 metric and one of them rhyming) about his dead brother:
sixteenth autumn since:
barely visible grease marks
where he parked his car
on the darkened wall
of my dead brother’s bedroom:
the dates and how tall
The flagpole poem uses neither rhyme nor a 5-7-5 syllable count, but what is interesting is it’s syllabic symmetry: all three lines are of 6 syllables. I doubt that he went in with the intention of writing a 3-line poem of 6-syllable lines, but I’m fairly sure that he would have been aware of the syllable count, and that he would have been conscious of the poetic effect of every word, sound, and rhythm. Haiku can often be quite anemic because writers are striving for some Zen simplicity, or intentionally un-poetic declaration (in keeping with the generally held belief that haiku is a non-poetic form, or at the very least a genre that eschews unnecessary poetics in favour of presenting things in their essential unadorned is-ness). This is true to a degree: overly poetic haiku often do suffer as a result, but that doesn’t mean that a good haiku shouldn’t have poetry. The cadence of this poem, the alliteration, the order and presentation of its constituent images, are all masterfully presented. The images may be of inanimate objects, and this still-life poem has no direct human subject acting in the poem (except retrospectively), but the result could not be more human . . . could not be more emotive.
Here’s one more haiku by Nick, who says it all better than I ever could.
adding father’s name
to the family tombstone
with room for my own
For your service, Nick, we thank you.
While Marietta McGregor brings us to its pathos:
A first reading of this haiku reveals a single run-on idea without a definitive kire, comprising what appears to be a statement of simple fact, albeit an unusual and quite arresting one. From L1 and L2 we learn that someone has left something in an unusual place, a place they probably shouldn’t have been. We imagine from those first two lines a dare-devil act, probably some youngster who has taken up a dare and scrambled monkey-like up the flagpole to deposit gum and stick a coin on top. Probably no more than a young teenager, this agile gum-chewer probably laughs with triumph at the top of the pole, having won the dare and left a token for posterity. He (and we find out it is a ‘he’ not a ‘she’ doing the climbing), doesn’t think about adult concerns such as respect for the flag or the slight disrespect in climbing the town flagpole that proudly flies the national standard. He’s young, and he can do it, so he does! So far, so funny. Then when we begin further to deconstruct the poem a much sadder story emerges, one of great depth and breadth in time and space. The closing line. “my dead brother’s dime” is a sudden shock dragging us into the ‘now’ reality. That laughing, devil-may-care boy is dead, while his brother lives on, older and sadder, possibly in the same town, or perhaps just revisiting the town they once lived in, remembering very well that day when his brother climbed so high, with a joyful flourish to mark his exploit. Knowing a little about Nick Virgilio’s life helps with our further insights. His beloved brother met an untimely death in Vietnam, and he wrote many haiku in an elegy of mourning for his sibling. This haiku shows us how we are never free of a great loss, but by simply remembering them, we honour our loved ones. That little coin still stuck on gum way up up high is a kind of memento mori. This is a powerful haiku of great emotion, conveyed in the most unadorned of words, and all the stronger for that.
And Tom Sacramona sums it all up:
Nick Virgilio wrote the haiku above, the subject of this week’s re:Virals, memorializing his youngest brother, Larry, who died in the Vietnam War:
deep in rank grass,
through a bullet-riddled helmet:
an unknown flower
in memory of Lawrence J. Virgilio
Nick Virgilio’s elegiac poem “atop the town flagpole” is a perfect English-language haiku exemplifying the mood Basho wrote his best work conveying (Basho’s autumn poem about a crow [or crows] squatting on the withered branch comes to mind). Nick is separated from his brother Larry, the distance felt is realistically too immense but, as poet, Virgilio uses concrete imagery to render objects for comparison — he chooses a small child and a tall flagpole at the center of town, maybe also the center of this child (or young man’s) world. Of course, this “child” is from Nick’s memory. (Tony Virgilio, Nick’s middle brother, discusses this haiku in a video remembering Nick,(1) and he places this poem a few days or weeks before Larry goes off to war, saying he will be back to get it. We may therefore assume Larry is 18 years old in the haiku, but the poet having the haiku moment, Nick Virgilio, is probably more than twice Larry’s age, still mourning the loss of a beloved brother). If not a “child,” Larry is certainly still “child-like” in his knowledge about the world. Larry had yet to experience the horrors of war before he climbed and put that gob of bubblegum (and symbol of innocence) atop the town flagpole.
The reader may also assume it’s an American flag, which on a number of occasions Nick Virgilio writes about remembering, perhaps with a pang of irony, that Larry died fighting for his country in an unpopular war. Arguably, the incongruity between reality and expectation resulting from the true outcome of the Vietnam War provides a backdrop Virgilio uses when exploring the flag as symbol in other poems as well (“always returning/ to the flag-covered coffin:/ dragonfly”).
In “atop the town flagpole,” the mood is somehow lighter despite its content, and, amazingly, the poem exudes a childhood wonder and adult regret, innocence which had its risks and rewards. So Nick gives the pole to the reader as an image to depict the emotional distance he felt, as well as suggest a metaphorical replacement of reverence for country with reverence for his brother, which the physical objects Virgilio chooses and their placement (and replacement) in the poem implies, i.e., the bubblegum receives the emphasis and the poet’s attention rather than the American flag.
In addition, one could make a case for Christian overtones in Virgilio’s use of the spatial attitude of the pole, pointing/leading the eye towards the heavens, where Larry may still be, implying some part of his brother remains, and is looking down. However, I am sometimes left feeling very cold after reading this, and feel that maybe more of its power as a poetic piece comes from the contrast between its shared exploration of themes of presence and absence.
(1) Dougherty, Sean. (2015). remembering Nick Virgilio. YouTube. April 16, 2015. Retrieved on July 24, 2017.
As this week’s winner, Tom gets to select 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!
unable to get hibiscus red the artist eats the flower — Raymond Roseliep, Step on the Rain (1977)