In the latest weekly posting of the ‘re:Virals’ segment on The Haiku Foundation’s website, Australian haiku poet Jo McInerney features once again, this time through her response to the following haiku:
dry wheat grass . . .
the whiteness of
a child dying
— Robert D. Wilson, ‘A Lousy Mirror’ (2011)
As well as being reproduced here in full, below, Jo’s response can be accessed at the following link:
As noted in The Haiku Foundation’s introduction, with Jo McInerney ‘commenting on her own selection’ of haiku in ‘re: Virals 21’, she ‘provides insight into why she wanted to give this poem greater exposure’:
‘I think Wilson’s haiku is on the very edge of what literature can do, reaching off the page and deep into the ethical lives of readers. It is appalling in the original sense — it leaves the reader dismayed. It is a challenge to our shared humanity and to whatever beliefs we hold about what makes life meaningful.
‘It begins benignly enough with “dry wheat grass”. This is a soft-sounding line — the first two words, with their long vowel sounds, the doubly aspirated wh, the gentle sibilance of grass, combine to allow us to hear what seems like a sough of the wind. The sigh is attenuated via the ellipsis. The second line continues the effect, again a long vowel, aspirance and sibilance in whiteness; however, this is followed by the syntactically odd enjambment through of; the line-end coming mid-phrase forces the reader to pause when s/he would normally continue smoothly to the next line. The reader may use the pause to begin to consider the significance of whiteness. A first thought could be to associate it with the grass, with its pale, bleached colour in late summer.
‘Line three is confounding. The whiteness we find relates to “a child dying”. The mind is likely to recoil from this image and then wonder, perplexedly, how such a distressing occurrence connects to whiteness. Whiteness has a long associative history in European culture — suggestive of innocence, purity, and joy. I don’t think this death is being offered as a cause for joy; instead the terrible disjunction between death and young, innocent life is felt. On a realistic rather than a symbolic level, there is a link with the pallor of inadequate blood flow, restricted breath, malnutrition. The reader is taken back to line one and an additional significance emerges. That “dry wheat grass” may be a blighted crop, the young shoots killed by drought before the grain can form and ripen, leaving people only grass to eat. News reports or historical accounts of those enduring such circumstances may stir in the reader’s mind; however, the haiku confronts us with nothing remote in place or time. There is no comfort to be taken in distance.
‘Line three wracks our compassion. This is not a dead child; it is “a child dying”. The child’s suffering is in the present continuous — happening now, still happening. Those whispered initial lines and the catch at the end of line two now seem to mimic the sufferer’s shallow, halting breath. It is difficult to read, even as a vicarious experience.
‘For me this haiku has echoes of Melville’s chapter on whiteness in ‘Moby Dick’. The narrator, far closer here to Melville than Ishmael, states, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” What follows is a discourse on whiteness and its significance in many cultural contexts. It concludes by suggesting the colour is terrifying because it implies a void, an absolute lack of meaning beneath the surface values humanity attaches to existence. I think Wilson’s haiku confronts us with a similar prospect. How can there be meaning in a world where such things happen? I find this haiku highly discomforting, at least in part because to do no more than discuss it seems self-indulgence.’