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:
rehearsing my breath rare orchid –Stephen toft, is/let, August 2019
Radhamani Sarma studies the breath:
This week’s poem by Stephen toft, veers round a daily habit of a breathing exercise while one repeats the same.
Beginning in the first person, the short lines, “rehearsing/my breath/” take us to view a persona’s constant rehearsal of breath in and out. The act of inhaling and exhaling, during the process, what he or she gets is the smell of all food smell, plants and herbs and roots, digested from stomach; Exercise is personalized and establishes connectivity between the nasal organ and stomach.
Another possibility is that the speaker either could be a child, might have eaten a flower of fragrance, now springing up during the breathing exercise.
Clayton Beach explores the white space:
Some haiku seem to resist any definite interpretation, choosing instead to set a tone and allow the reader to interpret as they will. This is one such ku, managing to be evocative without committing to any single interpretation and leaving many readers left wanting for answers.
“Rehearsing my breath” brings to mind a meditative setting, whether it is rooted in yoga or zazen, a measured, deliberate breathing is implied. “Rehearsing” connotes some level of insecurity or inexperience with the process, implying that the speaker is an acolyte or novice. Whatever the task, this is something that takes work or practice, and some level of concentration.
Leaving other interpretations open, at the very least the first section broadcasts a mix of vulnerability and diligence.
As a foil, “rare orchid” does not immediately shed light on the enigmatic base section, rather pointing to something seemingly unrelated. The distance between foil and base then requires quite a bit of legwork for the reader to connect the dots, a white space that may be intimidating to some readers in the gulf of meaning that we are meant to fill and which will leave us unsure of whatever answers we find.
Orchids are often a metaphor for things that are easily disrupted, fragile and particular, an “orchid child” is one who needs a very specific and narrow range of conditions to thrive. They are the ultimate “hothouse flowers.” “Rare” doubles down on this sense of the exotic, the fragile and beautifully diaphanous.
Is the flower of enlightenment something so difficult to grow? The lotus has its roots in the mud of life, with the flower representing enlightenment, but orchids are saprophytic tree dwellers, almost rooted in thin air, nestled tenuously in crooks and knotholes of lush tropical zones and only flowering when conditions are within that narrow Goldilocks zone of perfection. For this speaker, the fruit of their search is elusive, delicate and perhaps just out of reach. Rare orchid as flower of enlightenment is a hard-won insight pulled seemingly from nothing and lasting but an instant.
A more grounded and humorous reading takes the orchid as literal and re-contextualizes the rehearsal of breath; perhaps the speaker is an orchid enthusiast and is trying to pollinate or collect pollen from a rare specimen, in this case the slightest puff of breath might contaminate the pollen for long term storage, or blow precious granules away. Seed harvest is also a similarly dicey prospect, with microscopic seeds smaller and lighter than grains of sand, each of immense value, ready to scatter to the wind with the slightest of ill timed respiration, harvest must be quick, efficient and mindful of every tiny current and eddy of air.
Thus, perhaps the ku is less metaphysical than originally thought. Are we satisfied with the results? Is this a mysterious ku with metaphysical implications on the difficulties of finding enlightenment, or a lightly humorous evocation of an uncommon and eccentric hobby? Results may vary from reader to reader, and there is enough “dreaming space” to decoct any number of alternative explanations for what we find here in the spaces between the lines.
As this week’s winner, Radhamani 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!
first drizzle grandfather mentions an old song –Angela Giordano, Haiku Column, August 2019