saying goodbye
to my youngest
milk thistle

 Jenny Fraser


My choice for a Featured Haiku from New Zealand stands out for its startling “leap” from the opening phrase in the first two lines to that of line three, creating intense emotional resonance. The unique and literally poignant imagery arose out of our landscape and history.

Each time I read this haiku, I feel a shock at the tension between the two last words. “Milk” brings to mind the bodily closeness of breast-feeding and all the years of motherly nurturing – cherishing the child all the more as she’s leaving – while the piercing sharpness of “thistle” gives a physicality to the pain of parting. So this short haiku encompasses three kinds of holding: the implied hug with the grown child in the present, cradling an infant in the past and holding the soreness of absence into the future.

It is this mix of opposing, vivid emotions that Jenny wonderfully unites with a mere three syllables. The poetic device of conjoining opposite qualities, I’ve just learned, is called an oxymoron. This one reminds us in a subtle way that what we most love will likely cause the greatest sorrow when gone… and the tighter you grasp, the more it hurts.

The New Zealand landscape is notable for the preponderance of introduced plants and trees, of which the milk thistle is one. We are mostly immigrants here. The milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is classified as a vigorous, noxious weed and is common on waste ground and rural land, such as the dairy farm where Jenny grew up. It came to New Zealand from Europe, where Jenny’s daughter is going to live, close to Scottish family roots. When young, the milk thistle forms a large, flat rosette of undeniably beautiful leaves, deep green adorned with a lacy pattern of white veins, then shoots up to 2m high when blooming. This is a haiku weed of powerful, irrepressible emotions, seeding and spreading.

However, I discovered unexpected layers in its meaning when I Googled “milk thistle” and found that it is actually best known for its beneficial attributes. The Latin species name, “marianum” refers to its association with the Virgin Mary, as it’s called “Mary’s thistle” in many languages. Legend has it that the white sap from its veins arose from being splashed with some of her breast milk. Its seeds have been used medicinally for more than two thousand years for treating the liver and “dispelling melancholy”, so it was likely brought by early European settlers as a healing herb. These days, milk thistle is grown and marketed in New Zealand as the best-known liver-cleansing remedy. Additionally, the milk thistle blooms provide a nectar loved by bees for making a flavourful honey. Painful spikes, milk and honey, weedy vigour, family roots, seeds for healing sadness… ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’, New Zealand style.

Haiku first published: Presence #62, 2018

Selection and commentary by Katherine Raine, New Zealand

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