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A Hundred Gourds 1:4 September 2012
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Nick Virgilio (1928-1989): An American Haiku Master Revisited

Kathleen O’Toole

|Introduction |page 2 |page 3 | page 4 |page 5 |

Elegist of the Vietnam War

Nick’s discovery of haiku while seeking an outlet in poetry from the heartbreak of a broken love affair, may be seen to foreshadow what is arguably his most enduring legacy ─ haiku as elegy. When his youngest brother, Larry, who enlisted in the Marine Corps, was killed in Vietnam in July 1967, Nick turned to haiku to keep alive the memory of his impetuous brother ─

a tiny butterfly
is helping little brother
forget the heat
atop the town flagpole
a gob of bubblegum
holds my dead brother’s dime

and to grapple with his own and his family’s grief:

still silent
in his closet
father’s violin
on the darkened wall
of my dead brother’s bedroom
the dates and how tall

It may also be true that this loss, which Nick often spoke of in public readings and interviews, contributed an edge to his haiku, a resonance that echoed classical Japanese haiku and at the same time reached a modern audience looking for ways to make sense of its collective loss.

flag-covered coffin
the shadow of the bugler
slips into the grave

Nick said that it took him as long as fifteen years to find just the right words to convey the images and emotion of his Vietnam poems, emphasizing just how enduring the grief, and the poet’s dedication to digging out the universal in his own loss. His friend and pastor, Fr. Michael Doyle praises Nick for wringing beauty out of the tragedy of his life and from the gutters of Camden.

sixteenth autumn since:
barely visible grease marks
where he parked his car.

"Don’t go to war. I’ll tell you that. It’s bad news. It never ends. My mother just died…and the Vietnam War is [now] over in our house. Rest her soul. She died because [my brother] died for nothing. And think of the MIA’s...the paraplegics…Don’t go to war"

            Nick Virgilio, final reading, Painted Bride Art Center 12/22/1988

image
Photo courtesy of Monsignor Michael Doyle

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