I have had a real ‘haiku-headspace’ of late, so it is a great pleasure to be able to publish this review of John O’ Connor’s collection, Bright the Harvest Moon by Patricia Prime.
Bright the Harvest Moon by John O’Connor, Christchurch. Poets Group, Christchurch. (2011). 100 pp. p.b. RRP: NZ$20. ISBN: 978-0-9582191-6-7.
A consistent innovator, John O’Connor has been a leader in contemporary New Zealand haiku for several decades. His new collection, Bright the Harvest Moon, focuses attention on his unusual blend of typography, font styles and symbols.
The haiku are inspired by traditional influences – haiku written by the Japanese masters – Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and others. Noted for its tenderness and its irony, O’Connor’s work has revolutionized form in New Zealand haiku by taking words from various sources to create haiku to which he has applied his imagination to create new structures that support ambiguity, juxtaposition and humour, as we see in these two examples from After Basho:
Though singing till nightfall –
thinking the skylark
hasn’t sung at all.
In fine rain –
straw coats & willows
toward the river.
Rapturous, yet paradoxically precise and incisive, O’Connor’s haiku are both theatrical and performative. The haiku display his exhilarating sense of language, as well as his predilection for the comic play of typography and font which is sometimes at odds with the seriousness of the haiku. There’s a dynamic play between coherence and incoherence at the heart of this collection. We’re soothed into a welcoming comfort through his grammatically normative phrases – and their meaning. While the originals of his haiku may be familiar to many readers, each of his is original. As he says in his Note: “. . . I have ignored the disjunctive linkage of renga & at times the prescriptions & proscriptions of haiku.”
In After Buson,
A thousand steps e c h o
the market sounds.
The long roadside grasses –
a grave-post among them.
The haiku retain all the flash and dazzle of the ephemeral, all the play with which readers of his haiku will be familiar. And it is out of that flickering indeterminacy that O’Connor constructs the humour that drives his poetry. His work gives an aestheticized, meditative turn to daily detail that reflects his knowledge of the Japanese masters and his familiary with the art of haiku.
O’Connor makes haiku that inevitably feel stylish, timeless, and marked by a precise lyrical grace. His love, respect and knowledge of the Japanese masters influences his own work. Always challenging convention and form, this collection of haiku is inspired by, or is his “imitations” of haiku written by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and others, as we see in the following four haiku:
From After Issa:
Beneath the blossoms
there are no strangers.
Walking to Shinano –
higher & higher
the rice planters’ song.
From After Shiki:
How low the graves
under the grass
of late summer.
After rain –
late sun touching
His is a highly speculative poetic intelligence, both philosophically elegant and lyrically charged. Meditative and mysterious, his haiku track the subtle moments of consciousness against the background of nature and human nature, as we see in the following four haiku:
From After the Followers of Basho:
placing snow on this tray –
From After Other Haiku Masters:
Delaying my journey
The collection uses typeface, typography and symbols as a point of departure to alter our traditional ideas of haiku. Employing fragmentation and ellipsis, allusion and occasional symbols as a springboard that takes us back to the original haiku, but also emphasizes the public nature of personal experience; this is a collection to delight every reader of haiku.