Polk Salad / Poke Sallet to the Haiku of Richard Wright ~ an exploration

Poisons come in all manner or form and the ones found in the plant body of Pokeweed are potently toxic. Fatal in large amounts, in smaller doses though, they are sufficient enough to make one seriously ill. The ingestion of any part of the plant might result in symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, and rapid heartbeat. As someone noted of poke-sallet or Phytolacca: “It will clean you out from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.” [1] The dish Polk Salad (made from its young leaves) itself is a form of survival cooking, a necessary thrice boiling out of toxins, like the purging of demons. Now what does Pokeweed have to do with Haiku one might ask …

As part of the Sealey Challenge [2], I took up the only poetry book written by artist Richard Nathaniel Wright, well known American author of Native Son and Black Boy, [3] who began writing Haiku towards the end of his life, thousands of them during his grueling battle with Amoebic dysentery and it quite melded with the Pokeweed I chanced upon during a marshland walk recently.

Phytolacca occupies that twilight zone between being totem and mascot of  poke-sallet themed festivals in Kentucky to noxious weed turned rare famine food. As a vermifuge (anthelmintic – medicines used against worms) it has had its use at a time when people were constantly plagued by gastrointestinal parasites, but today, it occupies disturbed land and is actually great food for songbirds. Native to eastern North America and the South, it is used as an ornamental in horticulture and is of some utility in biomedical research although for most part it is considered a pest or weed as it is poisonous to wild animals and livestock.

Phytolacca americana, also known as American pokeweed, pokeweed, poke sallet, dragonberries is a poisonous, herbaceous perennial plant in the pokeweed family Phytolaccaceae [4].

The berries develop from flowers that arise on elongated inflorescences called racemes; beautiful, symmetrical, predictable patterns like Haiku emerge, engorged on metaphor it would appear, they ripen to a debilitating crimson philosophy. Thus, they are quite unlike a traditional Haiku in construction, but if the flowering of Pokeweed is used as an analogy to  poetic process, it develops more like a trenchant Senryu.

In the helpful afterword by Hakutani and Tener, the editors of Richard Wright’s ‘Haiku, This other world’, the authors maintain that  Wright’s work was more Senryu than Haiku because he struggled to develop austerity in them i.e. the absence of philosophical or metaphysical comment, the absence of intellectualisation or imposition of an excessive rationality [5] Haiku essentially stresses non-intellectuality, a Zen kind of humour, lightness, a lack of sentimentality, profusion of joy and a deep connection with Nature. 

I understand Haiku to be more of a practice in the ‘where, what and when’ rather than the ‘how and why’, while Senryu is more of a mock Haiku despite the similarity in 5/7/5 syllabic arrangement, they are more logical and less intuitive. Hakutani and Tener suggest that the major themes in Wright’s haiku reveal his desire to create another world in which his black and white focus would be part of his feeling for nature, that he writes more often about death and the setting sun, about the moon and loneliness, about scarecrows, the rain, about farms and farm animals, about birds and insects, and about spring, the season of blossoms and blooming magnolias.

Traditional classical haiku thrives on the connection between man and nature, and has as its central focus, nature centred feelings of unity and harmony similar to Zen philosophy, which also stresses the experience of the present moment in life or in nature. Within the seventeen syllablic construction itself, two entirely different experiences may be joined in sameness: spirit and matter, present and future, doer and deed, word and thing, meaning and sensation (Hakutani and Tener). Haiku embodies Yugen. Wabi and Sabi. Yugen is a delicate principle of philosophy in Zen Metaphysics, applied to art to denote the mysterious, underlying the surface. Sabi is related to loneliness, a quiet graceful beauty, and Wabi to the uniquely human perception of beauty stemmed from poverty. Japan’s greatest Haiku poet, Matsuo Basho [6] is known to have used the aesthetics of Yugen, Wabi and Sabi. His poetry majorly illustrates that if a poet’s feelings were conveyed in haiku, then those must have been aroused by nature, the four seasons, flowers and even the moon.

Yet, the poems of Richard Wright, some of which read as Senryu if viewed under a classical lens, feel like an amalgam of the antithetical, of subtle beauty with a strong flavour, like Pokeweed. Then again, isn’t intrinsic harmony of being, simply a matter of perception? Aren’t our words merely an inadequate contrivance for harmonising that which we are unable to reconcile, given inherited ideas of beauty and perfection? A plant like Phytolacca, viewed from the principle of Yugen, is perfection in symmetry yet a potent poison. What poetic form could deny the clear beauty of a dangerous inflorescence, its inherent toxicity that would arouse  the emotion of fear or an action to self preservation, a serious aftertaste of misgivings. Even devoid of metaphor, Pokeweed is nature at its finest, benign in form but threatening a perilous interaction. Whether it be Senryu or Haiku, words do little justice to the thoughtlessness recommended in classical Haiku, no matter the strict adherence to form and yet words are all we have.

I have selected some of Wright’s Haiku to share, which I hope are not of disservice to what the author accomplished, given his own understanding and exploration of the form. Reading Wright’s process and the illuminating afterword provided by Hakutani and Tener has been useful in my own education on succinct verse.

Long myths of pokeweed.
Healing colours of marshes
are poison berries.

~ davina

References:

[1]~https://www.saveur.com/poke-sallet/

[2]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wright_(author)

[3]~https://lithub.com/the-sealey-challenge-an-expansive-way-of-reading-poetry/

[4]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytolacca_americana

[5]~Richard Wright, Haiku – this other world, pages 255, 279, 282

[6]~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/basho

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