atop the town flagpole a gob of bubblegum holds my dead brother’s dime — Nick Virgilio, Selected Haiku of Nicholas Virgilio
In Sean Dougherty’s video Remembering Nick Virgilio we can listen to the poet’s brother, Tony, recall the event that inspired this haiku in honour of Larry Virgilio:
“Before Larry was going off to boot training he was in the square with his buddies, and he shimmied up this enormous flagpole, and he took a piece of chewing gum and a dime, and he stuck it on the top, and he said: ‘When I come back I’m gonna go up and get that dime’.”The tears that follow make it clear that Larry never came back from Vietnam.
Nick Virgilio described haiku as “a record of a moment of emotion keenly perceived that somehow links human nature to all nature.” And he said that we should aim to “become more conscious of our feelings and to share these with other people.” We constantly find that the more specific narratives are — the more based they are in the minutiae of other people’s lives — the more keenly we relate to them, irrespective of how distant to our own realities those narratives may be. It is a commonly repeated piece of advice among writers to write about what you know, and be as specific as possible because it is precisely this specificity of human life that is so universal. Nick himself says: “You explore this provincial you and you become universal,” you become “a tight little package of humanity,” and this poem is without doubt a tight little package of provincial humanity that is universal.
In the video, Nick talks about his belief that we all have haiku experiences, and that we should try to express them in “the least number of words possible,” starting with “the big scene first, then the little parts of the big scene” in order to create an effective “word painting.” (We could also consider haiku in cinematic terms. For example, the technique of this poem is akin to a zoom, or a series of cuts with each cut honing closer in on the key object of the scene.)
Nick definitely practiced what he preached — well-ordered, concise poems that detail very personal moments in honour of some universal humanity — and his command of the form was the result of a notoriously strict, almost monastic, work ethic. I have long been one of those poets that admittedly feels a bit snobbish about 5-7-5 haiku, and yet Nick’s 5-7-5 are sublime, and show no evidence of being in any way forced or contrived. He was also not afraid to use rhyme, which is often considered bad form in haiku. Here are two more haiku (both in the 5-7-5 metric and one of them rhyming) about his dead brother:
sixteenth autumn since:The flagpole poem uses neither rhyme nor a 5-7-5 syllable count, but what is interesting is it’s syllabic symmetry: all three lines are of 6 syllables. I doubt that he went in with the intention of writing a 3-line poem of 6-syllable lines, but I’m fairly sure that he would have been aware of the syllable count, and that he would have been conscious of the poetic effect of every word, sound, and rhythm. Haiku can often be quite anemic because writers are striving for some Zen simplicity, or intentionally un-poetic declaration (in keeping with the generally held belief that haiku is a non-poetic form, or at the very least a genre that eschews unnecessary poetics in favour of presenting things in their essential unadorned is-ness). This is true to a degree: overly poetic haiku often do suffer as a result, but that doesn’t mean that a good haiku shouldn’t have poetry. The cadence of this poem, the alliteration, the order and presentation of its constituent images, are all masterfully presented. The images may be of inanimate objects, and this still-life poem has no direct human subject acting in the poem (except retrospectively), but the result could not be more human . . . could not be more emotive.
barely visible grease marks
where he parked his car
on the darkened wall
of my dead brother’s bedroom:
the dates and how tall
Here’s one more haiku by Nick, who says it all better than I ever could.
adding father’s nameFor your service, Nick, we thank you.
to the family tombstone
with room for my own