of the wishbone
taking the route scented
by a bread truck
a beetle shimmers
in my bucket
Laurie D. Morrissey
Hopkinton, New Hampshire
The Heron's Nest Award
of the wishbone
The breaking of the wishbone—where the v-shaped bone at the base of a turkey's neck is snapped in two, granting the person with the biggest piece a wish—is such a long-standing tradition that scientists have run simulations to develop winning strategies.1 Of course, as this poem from Francine Banwarth suggests, there's one even more certain way to get that wish granted: living alone.
The prevalence of the wishbone tradition is one of the things that makes this haiku stand out. It's a shared cultural touchstone, unlocking what literary critic Julia Kristeva calls intertextuality, or the "vertical" definition of a word outside of the text in which it is located.2 It may be odd to think of culture as a "text," but in the broadest sense it is: the practices of our families and ancestors put a layer on the world, and colour every aspect of how we interact with it.
Americans will most likely think of Thanksgiving, a time of family gatherings and togetherness, when they remember wishbones. As someone born in the UK, I don't recall my family ever taking part in this particular tradition even after we moved to the US and nominally observed Thanksgiving ourselves. All the same, seeing the word immediately sets off a chain of associations which set the haiku in a specific context—or at least one possible context.
That simple phrase in the first line, "living alone," is the other key to this haiku's excellence. But first, let's take a quick detour: one of the essential characteristics of Issa's haiku, according to translator and Issa expert David Lanoue, is his "comic approach," which "...approaches the universe with the comic gesture of not grasping: of letting go and surrendering to it with good humor." 3
In this case, getting your wish every time you find a wishbone would seem to be an unmitigated benefit to living alone. But then we have to consider the implications. We have to look back at the impressions a wishbone calls up: family; a big, shared meal; warmth. (Or perhaps, depending on your relationship with your family: frustration; arguments; and a desire to escape.) And let's not forget that although you're always going to get the winning side of the wishbone if you're alone, you're also always going to get the losing side...
The vertical dimensions of "wishbone" play with "living alone" in interesting ways. Is the narrator of the poem relieved to be away from their family, where nobody can interfere with their wish-making? Or are they disappointed that those they love aren't there to share in their wish? Are they at peace with their single life, or are they lonely? Why exactly are they alone?
Regardless of which reading rings true for each reader, the gentle, wry humour in this haiku brings to mind Issa at his best.
Stewart C Baker
- Abigail Malate, "How to Win a Wishbone Breaking Contest" in Inside Science, 2017 (https://www.insidescience.org/news/how-win-wishbone-breaking-contest)
- Julia Kristeva. "Word, Dialogue and Novel" in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Editor, Leon S. Roudiez, 1980.
- "About Issa" in Issa's Best, David G. Lanoue, 2012
The Heron's Nest XX.3 (9-2018)