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
in the cathedral a lost soul asks me the way to the gift shop — Mark Gilbert, Shortlisted, H. Gene Murtha Memorial Senryu Contest (2017)
Terri French encounters a missed moment:
Ah, the irony of this piece. I imagine this man (though, of course it could have as easily been a woman) dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a camera hung around their neck, a typical tourist; lost in more ways than one. Whether or not this person’s eternal soul was lost, we do not know. However, they were lost to the here and now in that they did not appreciate that bit of heaven here on earth. The grand architecture of the structure itself, the light streaming through stained glass, the religious significance of the sculpted figures at the altar — the awesomeness of the moment was lost to this soul. But, at least, they will always have the postcards as a remembrance.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă focuses on the mercantile:
In ancient times, you could even buy indulgences in advance for sins that were not yet committed, but nowadays things have changed a bit. However, some believe that if they have a lot of money, they can receive their indulgence as if they were buying coffee from a vending machine.
The lost soul in this poem has the impression that his prayers, his repentance, do not make sense or will not reach the recipient if he does not buy something from the gift shop. It is clear that this emphasizes the mercantilism of the church, in fact of the world in which we live. Money governs everything, because everything is salable.
Let us remember that, according to an account in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, thirty pieces of silver was the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.
What is happening here looks comic, hilarious, but sad at the same time. Somehow this senryu refers to the famous biblical parable of the lost sheep. Because today’s society abounds in all sorts of attractions, temptations, we always get lost and often forget to look for our shepherd.
On a phonetic level, certain consonants seem to suggest the whispers, the gossip that this episode triggers, as if inviting us to meditate more deeply on our condition as parishioners lost among meaningless words.
For Radhamani Sarma, the sacred and profane intersect:
At a time gripped by the menace of lock-down, when temples, churches and cathedrals everywhere are barred from holding public worship services and entry, we are forced to deem ourselves “lost souls,” searching in the wilderness for an identity, to gain peace. This week’s senryu by Mark Gilbert possibly proceeds from the searching eyes of the poet – an observation with a tinge of humor and mild satire.
Temples, churches and cathedrals, of course, are places of religious worship, and the choice of the observant poet to use the first-person point of view admittedly directs readers towards a shift in content, mood and meaning. Beginning with the first line, “in the cathedral,” things move with fluidity to the second and third lines – “a lost soul asks me the way/to the gift shop” – literally telling readers that while all others worship, kneel down or pray, there is a person shattered for various reasons, possibly due to the crumbling economy, ill health or a lack of harmony. This might be someone who wants to be directed to the gift shop.
Another interpretation of “a lost soul asks me the way” indicates a hidden clergy member or a priest in the midst of a ritual or religious fervor, distracted by the a lost soul asking the way to the gift shop. Maybe the lost soul cannot concentrate on the austere rituals or modes of worship going on in the cathedral, so he wants to be directed to the gift shop. Two contrasting images emerge: a sacred spot of religious fervor and a mundane gift shop.
From a historical perspective, this senryu can be viewed in a different sense. Significantly, the anti-clerical revolution aimed at the corrupt practices of the church depicts a clergyman with a “lost soul” – someone misdirected, not knowing what to do, perhaps in a bemused state of dissipation – asking the wrong person for the wrong reason the way to the gift shop. Taking this into consideration, the write also weaves a contrast of the time of worship with the search for gift purchases, hence a satire on clergy where seriousness is replaced by a non-serious attitude.
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!
autumn dusk... I stir my coffee anticlockwise — Chen-ou Liu, First Prize, 12th HIA Haiku Contest (2010)