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
pig and i spring rain — Marlene Mountain, Frogpond 2:3-4 (1979)
Garry Eaton discovers a democratic spirit:
I think it was de Tocqueville who, after seeing how many roving bands of semi-domesticated pigs ran unattended in the city streets of America in the 18th century, remarked that they were a perfect expression of America’s come-one come-all, democratic spirit. This poem by Marlene Mountain reminded me of him because by using the non-capitalized personal pronoun “i” she puts herself on a plane with the “pig”, and is as free as a pig is to enjoy the rain which falls democratically on all alike. There is something uninhibited in the pig’s appreciation of rain that the poet may well share, even if she does not bask, Moonbeam McSwine-like, in the mud. It is the poet’s joy to participate in the fructifying seasonal rebirth brought on by the change of weather, and take pleasure in the simple companionship of this uncomplicated animal. Reading it is like breaking through barriers to a free place.
Hansha Teki shares in the epiphany:
When I first read this haiku some years ago, the feeling awakened in me was similar to that which I experienced when I read Gabriel’s moment of epiphany in the final paragraph of Joyce’s The Dead:
“…snow was general all over Ireland (. . .) It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried (. . .) His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
‘pig’ is not defined by an article (neither definite nor indefinite) but as being just ‘pig’ manifestly present. ‘i’, in like manner, is not defined but is being manifestly present. The moment’s colocation of ‘pig’ and ‘i’ is in spring rain, faintly echoing the words of Matthew 5:45:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
mm’s haiku equates neither ‘pig’ nor ‘i’ with evil or good, or with just or unjust. For a startling moment of deep humility ‘pig’ and ‘i’ are manifestly present with each other in all that spring rain uniquely evokes.
Danny Blackwell wonders if the personal is political:
What a great haiku. It is hard not to feel compassion for the players in the scene. Sadly, it is also hard for me not to think about the pig’s destiny, which is likely one of suffering for the benefit of humans. For the most part pigs are not companions, like dogs or cats. Pigs are, more often than not, destined to be food. In fact, unless we work on a farm or in the countryside, we rarely see a living pig. Like many great haiku it is what isn’t said — what is implicit — that really resonates with us. The pig in this haiku will probably end up on someone’s plate, and one has to reflect on what that means. Upon reading this poem by Marlene Mountain I cannot help but recall an interview that I read not long ago, and which colours my reactions. While not a vegan myself, I recently stumbled across a pamphlet of resistance against speciesism, and I was particularly captivated by the opening interview with an individual named Rob, who served in the military during Desert Storm:
“I was out of the military for some time already, and I was struggling with PTSD (…) you see, when I was in the military I saw the most horrible and ugliest things, I saw innocent people die, and I saw these videos of animals, and noticed there was no difference in how humans and animals die, there was no difference in the bloodshed, the fight for life, and their subsequent death.
My eyes were wide open, and saw that we were the actual terrorists, we were the ones creating chaos and murdering innocent people for their resources, we had no right — as we have no right to take the lives of innocent animals — to invade or enter into those countries. Meanwhile, here at home, we people of color were being terrorized for years by the police. The lies we’ve been told about people in other countries, the environmental destruction humanity takes part in, the unnecessary killing of animals for food, imprisonment in zoos and aquariums, torture and murder in test labs. Why do these things resonate so much with me? Because as a black man, we also suffered these injustices and were marginalized in much the same way animals are . . .”
After reading this interview, I wonder how relevant the following comments by Marlene Mountain are:
“We have been ‘taught’ alienation and it seems imperative now that we seek that which affirms the common ground of all organisms.”
I was hesitant at first to include parts of the interview from the vegan pamphlet, as I don’t wish to misuse this space for political commentary, however, after reading up on Marlene Mountain, I feel that it touches on some issues which the poet has dealt with in her work, and that it gave me a springboard from which to see the poem in a winder context.
(It may also be worth bearing in mind that a great many of the haiku poets who defined the genre were Buddhists, and went to great lengths to not harm other living beings, and this, in turn, greatly influenced haiku culture. Though Marlene Mountain may have issues with such a Nippon-centric take on haiku, as in the essay they don’t shoot horses do they? she states: “those who champion the Japanese Spirit and its complex paraphernalia for North Americans are under considerable delusion.”)
As regards the topic of war, Marlene Mountain also has various haiku that tackle the topic explicitly. Take, for example, the following one-line haiku:a live update the men's war brushes off more 'collateral damage'
Is not the death of a pig for human consumption another example of ‘collateral damage’? In the aforementioned essay the poet is critical of anthropocentrism and authoritarianism, and at one point asks: “Must we continue to be subjected to hierarchical concepts which separate us from all other organisms?”
The comments I selected from the pamphlet, which touch on a variety of political topics, may shed little light on the poem in a strictly textual sense. And, if I’m honest, when I read the haiku I see little more than the image of a person and a pig, sharing in the spring rain. And it moves me. It has a restrained pathos that is representative of the best of haiku. But when I stop and think about the haiku — that is to say, not simply participate in the haiku moment — I cannot help but wonder about my own conduct and how political my personal decisions are.
One thing I know for sure: the spring rain falls on pig and person alike.
Ajaya Mahala sees rain as a great leveller:
I have come to know that in some cultures there is a custom to throw a pig into the air to invoke rain. But I do not find any connection between the custom and the haiku under consideration.
I consider spring rain to be untimely rain for which no one, including animals, is prepared. When it starts raining, everyone runs to the nearest shelter. There is a strong visual image depicting either the simultaneous running of the poet alongside a pig, or their sharing a common shelter, which may be a place under the tree canopy or an old barn.
The haiku also highlights another important aspect. Rain is one of the greatest levelers and it does not distinguish between a man and a pig. As a corollary, all forms of life on earth are exposed to the vagaries of nature and anyone of them can be as helpless as others in the group.
Quite incidentally, both the words ‘pig’ and ‘I’ appear respectively in the words ‘spring’ and ‘rain.’
The haiku, though very small in terms of syllable count, brings to mind the helter skelter images of an untimely rain so lively.
Dan Schwerin asks himself where the small i fits:
I think I saw this first in an article written by Cor van der Heuvel in Time magazine. I remember how arresting it was, and how it invited me deeper into the consideration of writing haiku. This poem is almost emblematic, and its openness is part of the allure. How and where does the small i fit? The small i is unobtrusive and in proportion to the created order. Here we are, two earthy creatures enveloped by the rain that unlocks creation from its icy grip. We share the coldness and the spring. My uncle farmed hogs. I had a hog farmer in one of my parishes. There is nothing glamorous within a half-mile radius of hogs. Pigs, being smart animals, likely understand this about us, too. So we share all of life with each other:
pig and i spring rain
As this week’s winner, Garry 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!
spring foghorn . . . cormorants spilling from an over-crowded ledge — Paul Miller, Called Home (2006)