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In A New Garden by John Parsons: Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Keeping up with new releases world wide is a difficult thing to do… thank goodness for reviewers like Patricia Prime! Here’s a review of John Parsons’ new collection, In a New Garden.

New Garden

In a New Garden: haiku by John Parsons. Oxbridge, UK. Alba Publishing. www.albapublishing.com.
(2012) Pb. 96 pp. ISBN 978-0-9572592-6-3. UK12.00 / US$16.00 / €15. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

I was delighted when asked to write a comment for the jacket of John Parsons’ latest collection of haiku In a New Garden and, declaring this; I am equally pleased to review the work since I consider it to be one of the finest collections of haiku I have read. In his Preface to this fifth collection of haiku, Parsons writes, “This book is largely extracted from work over the past year, a time of upheaval and resettlement.” The book is divided into the seasons of the year; each season being prefaced by one of Parsons’ drawings.

The haiku are set out three to a page, in indented lines, with plenty of space around them. If you enjoy haiku, here is a volume full of delights and surprises. The strength, energy and compassion of Parsons’ haiku are impressive, and it is reader-friendly without ever being shallow. He brings a wealth of meticulous observation and personal experiences to his writing, through which we are better able to recognize ourselves and our surroundings. He invites the reader to share his vision and knowledge, and to discover with him, both human nature.

As I read and reflect on Parsons’ haiku, in all four sections of the seasonal year, I realize how the many layers of meaning of those title words – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – are embedded in this collection, adding to its depth and the way the haiku work on the reader’s imagination.

The book opens with the section Spring. In the first haiku, we are with the poet in his “new garden” watching the unfolding snowdrops:

sense of belonging
snowdrops open
in a new garden

Parsons writes empathetically about new growth, flowers, bird’s eggs, the weather and the song of birds:

somewhere
lost in mist      the robin
finds a song

this neatly sums up his interest in birds and their habitats. Moment after moment is described in meticulous detail, as we see in the following two haiku:

her book of symptoms
tulips writhe
against cut glass

*

in watery light
the whole meadow
webbed

By the closing poem of this section, the poet, fully aware of his own blessings, is able to give a “coin for the busker” and to hear him burst into song.

Parsons is a poet who has studied and practices drawing, printmaking, sculpture, songwriting and illustration and he has an instinctive understanding of line and form, and sensitivity to the music
of words. In the section Summer, for example, he writes

released lacewing
slow slant of glitter
lost in light

*

patch of moonlight
slips from her robe
the midnight room

each haiku having a fine feeling both of the musical and the “painterly” about them. Here we see “the moment under the moment”, the past that’s always there beneath the present.

Parsons seems to enjoy taking leaps to link ideas in unpredictable ways. In this section, for instance, he juxtaposes a dry beech mast to a baby toad, a stoat with a bow wave of rabbits, perennial leeks to random thoughts. Birds are clearly a passionate interest and fertile material for a number of haiku, among them a wren, a buzzard, gulls, pigeons, swallows and a goldfinch. As well as other fine haiku, including the beautiful

scent garden
for the blind     roses feel ways
over the path

then there is his powerful

daughter returns
a goldfinch alights
on wizened marguerites

In section three Autumn, there are Parsons enthralling haiku about making love, All Hallow’s, the death of a friend, a hospital waiting room. The heart-wrenching

moonlight     where she died
a ghost’s weight
on my shadow

Parsons demonstrates an unerring sense of voice in these autumnal poems in which he presents “rust-coloured chrysanths”, “shortening days”, “shriveled fronds”, but in all his work he subtly matches voice to mood and subject matter, as in the following haiku

beating heart
of silence     a goldfinch
amongst cornflowers

where his minute observation is a compelling drive.

In the final section Winter, the haiku range across many subjects, from those about day-to-day things such as “lipstick smudges”, a “smart phone”, “new gloves”, to haiku about  a value store, Christmas, snow and the lovely

tears on a greeting
where does she start
to wrap up a life

His desire to make a detailed study of the seasons seems to find its ultimate expression in the haiku

ice shards spread
in the oxbow’s curve     cracks
of a woodman’s fire

Densely packed with vivid image after image, the moment-by-moment thoughts and minutiae of life
flow elegantly down the pages. There are so many fine haiku to indulge in – the memorable lines of

family heirloom
in the unfinished quilt
her last faltering stitch

and there are other beautiful, sensual and imagistic haiku too; the compassion and empathy of
“joints stiffen / every elbow of twisted hazel / a nodule of ice”, the indelible image of “just enough light / the robin’s breast / gives dead nettles life” and “loneliness / evening sun on the seat / never sat on”.

Whatever he writes about, Parsons always remains connected with the natural world and is sustained by it and even when he probes darker subjects, the sense of wonder it inspires shines through. He uses language powerfully to make us experience the world as he does, to hear birdsong, to feel the sun or the cold, to smell perfume or to sense the pain of stiff joints. His haiku shimmer with light, movement and colour, with sensual images that stay in the mind long after the book is closed.

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Review published at Haibun Today

I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Steven Carter’s latest haiku/haibun collection, Pillars of Fire. Excitingly, this review is now online and available to read. Here’s a section from the review:

Opening poem “Errand” is a fine example of Carter’s taut, incisive prose. Like many of the haibun in this collection, the subject matter is unsettling. “Errand” invites the reader to enter a moment between son and father-in-law, a man described by Carter as “blunt and crude.” In this moment, the son is asked to help drown a litter of kittens, a job he finds no joy in, but does not refuse, subtly illustrating the power imbalance in the relationship. As the moment unfolds, the son is handed a burlap sack to collect the kittens and then after a silent drive to the reservoir, the father-in-law asks, “Want to do it?” And in these four words, the tension of the poem is masterfully brought to a crescendo. The younger man, seeing this as a test, a strange initiation, tosses the bag “dead centre in the reservoir” and watches it disappear . . . only to turn and see his father-in-law, “leaning on the flat-bed, back turned, pretending to look assiduously into the distance.”

You can read the full review here and order the book online here: www.albapublishing.com

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The Fragrance of Dust

The heat has finally dissipated and the last night of spring has opened in all of its glory… the perfect night for reading and contemplating haiku and its related forms. As you all know, Patricia Prime is one of my favourite reviewers, so it is again, my pleasure to be posting this recent review.

The Fragrance of Dust

The Fragrance of Dust: Haiku Stories Poems by James Norton. Uxbridge, Alba Publishing. www.albapublishing.com (2012) Pb. 102 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9551254-8-5. Price: €15/US$16.00/UK £12.00. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

James Norton worked in the field of therapeutic horticulture and teaches within the Shambala Buddhist community. He has been an editor and is a founder member of Haiku Ireland and the Redthread Haiku Sangha. The Fragrance of Dust is his second collection of haiku and haibun.

Norton is a thinker, a lover of the lyric line, so it is that certain words can be applied to his writing: modest, assured, precise and finished. This is a poet who likes structure. His collection is subdivided into nine sections, and inside the sections there are haiku, poems and haibun.

The Fragrance of Dust invites its readers in with “Owl House Days”: the section opening with the haiku

She walks her horses
up the long hill, three heads
bowed to the rain

The haiku is followed by a poem and a rensaku. “Three Abandonments” contains three poems, while “Doublin’ Back” opens with four haiku which lead on to three haibun, several haiku, three more haibun, three haiku and two more haibun. The haibun feature vivid vignettes from the poet’s Irish background – a homage to Yeats and Joyce, for example, in this excerpt from “Sandscript”:

Baby William Butler Yeats was wheeled in a carriage through these streets. Young Stephen Dedalus strode into eternity along this strand. There Bloom ever wanders, ogles Gertie while his Molly plays. Which is real, who imagines?

Herons
mirrored in sky-pools
ruffled, rippled

Hand in hand
two tiny figures
cross immensity

Then there’s the Sunday morning cycle ride in “Between Bridges” with its evocation of Dublin:

A Sunday morning in early July after a night of warm rain, clouds promising more, the air tumescent with scents. At Lansdowne Bridge on impulse cycle upstream along the Dodder – An Dothra, the Flood – towards Ball’s Bridge.

The contrast between the haibun is a delight, while well-placed detail evokes a world that is surely passing, along with the donkey rides that are mentioned in “Knockree”:

City children holidaying. There am I in sepia, seated on a donkey, its ears back, not pleased. No more I am myself, braving it, but her arm around me and she smiling. Happy then.

The next section, “Westerlies”, is composed of a haiku sequence, individual haiku and seven poems. The poems serve to illustrate another facet of Norton’s writing: his tendency for lyric phrases and cadences. Here we have the grace of lines and stanzas, the imagery and intensity of diction, as we see, for example, in the final verse from “At Thoor Ballylee”:

Out back a damson:
fruiting stone.
The sounding water rushes on.

In “Another Country”, two haibun are dedicated to friends: the first, “Welsh Rarebit”, to the eminent haibun poet, Ken Jones, and his wife Norah, and the second, “One for the Slate”, to Jane and Mickie. “Welsh Rarebit” is a lovely example of the poet’s recollection of a visit to Jones and his wife in Cym Rheidol. It is a vignette of the poet’s love of history and nature, reinforced by perfect precision, as we see in this final paragraph and following haiku:

Something shifts. The truth of being as it is. Place and moment gather into completeness. We limp back to Plas Plwca as night falls.

His thin-ness –
two skeletons embrace
departing

Three haibun and several individual haiku are grouped under the heading “Aragonese”. The first of these, “Romerias 1, 2 & 3” is particularly good. It focuses on a visit overseas to see a sculptor friend. The haibun is constructed in beautiful shapes, sound and tone: here is the haiku and opening paragraph from the first section with its frustration at airport holdups brilliantly evoked:

night sounds
hearing silence in each creak
and fading footfall

Bedlam at the airport. It seems we all want to leave. Security can’t cope. I miss the flight, and ring to say no go. Then I’m on standby. Six hours to explore Departures.

In the second haibun, “A Tear of the Sun”, the poet is in a Spanish supermarket “stocking up for a week of mountain solitude, in flight from Christmas jingles.” And in the third haibun, “Ruta Orwell”, he writes about George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War. I quote the last paragraph and haiku:

The trenches and sandbagged redoubts are reconstructions but the scouring wind and the sense of melancholy in these hills is real.

Monegros
the heroic struggle against
boredom and lice

“Warrior Cries” contains one haibun, “Leaf-bursts”, and three poems. “Leaf-bursts” takes us to Poland, where

Apartments from the soviet era squat beside crumbling brick barns, greying timber houses. Implements in yards, each eloquent in its own, the broken and the useful, in rain and sunlight, idleness and labour, just as they are. Black soil of vegetable plots, turned and ready.

the sick catnow
into ginger fur
licks warm sun

The section entitled “Laborare est” contains three haibun and several individual haiku. The first haibun, “Yeh Go I” focusses on a “slow boy” and to his delight in racing round a go-kart tract:

Then to the figure-8 go-kart track. Around and around he goes at a     sedate pace while I watch. Tiring of it, I go back to the van for a snooze, leaving the attendant to keep watch.

The next haibun, “Seedling”, is bravely honest in its portrayal of a marginal figure:

See him raking leaves on a winter’s day, bent to his task, hoodie shadowing his face, he’s a diminutive serf locked in the margins of a Book of Hours. See his absorbed expression listening to vintage reggae – he’s burnin’ Babylon.

While the last haibun, “Something in the Air”, is a delightful portrait of a workman: his day done, he admires his work:

Job done, he pauses in the roadway, looks about expressionless. The blower’s nozzle swinging idly across the detritus of chipping randomly patterns the underlying surface. He squeezes the throttle gently. Shapes appear and dissolve. Smiles.

just a few raindrops
enough to release it
the fragrance of dust

Here are three haiku from the section:

The little larch
still wearing its name-tag
it too turns brown

Lengthening
a snail’s shadow
draws out the sun

April hail –
two robins at a pear-bud
freeze in mid-flight

The final section, “In an Acorn Cup”, contains eight poems and six pages of haiku. In “To a Fallen Swallow”, a nature piece which has much to commend it, Norton’s cadences seem very appropriate to the theme. Here is the first verse:

Sweeping round the office park
I find the little clochan
fallen from the eaves, its nest
dissolved to mud and straw by winter rain.

That’s a superb image – effective and memorable. In another poem, “What the Shed-boy Said”, the poem records a boy’s joy at not having to live in a bricks and mortar house, but in a cabin surrounded by natural sights and sounds:

Last night I heard the vixen scream;
the dogs went wild and bayed a while.
And so I thought – yeh,
blest that in a cabin dwell

One cannot do justice to this collection in a review as it is jam-packed with material. The mapping of personalities and places is integral to the poet’s vision and the confessional passages of the book are complemented well by his experiments with form. At his best, Norton blends the complex tradition of Japanese verse forms and lyric poetry into something wholly his own. His poems are both original and informed by the tradition he loves. They are also visually and aurally satisfying. This is a book that celebrates life, a book for which many readers should make time.

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The Zen Parables of Steven Carter

The art of haiku is never far from my mind, so it is always a joy to discover a new collection that has been released. Steven Carter’s latest book After Blossom Viewing: Zen parables with Haiku was released by Alba publishing in May this year, so when Patricia Prime offered me the chance to publish her review of the collection, I of course said yes.

After Blossom Viewing: Zen Parables with Haiku by Steven Carter. Uxbridge, Alba Publishing. (2012) p.b. 36 pp. RRP: US$10. UK£7.00 / €8.00. ISBN 978-0-9551254-7-8. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Steven Carter is a linguistic virtuoso; his work encompassing haiku, tanka, haibun and now his latest offering – Zen parables. Carter’s work is often self-referential, based on his experiences, travel and nature, but the viewpoint in this new book is different, distinctive, disarming in some way.

The set-up is straightforward enough, featuring in twenty-six parables either a Zen Master and his novice or a group of novices, or a monk narrating a fable. What’s notable about them is that they’re almost all narrated in a one-on-one conversation. It’s a remarkable feat: dramatic, sometimes humourous, often very wise. There are moments of comedy, sombre moments of fasting and hunger, revelatory moments, as when a jolly monk tells the story of a cruel emperor in “The Unhappy Emperor”, which ends on a suitably merry note:

“Tell me the secret of happiness,” he thundered, “or I shall have you beheaded.”
“There are two secrets to happiness,” the man said, “The first is being     summoned to such a grand palace as this, to see the towers, the coats of arms, the torches  – “
“What is the second secret?” the emperor cut him off gruffly.
“The second secret is not being beheaded by the emperor,” replied the man.

Cloud Mountain –
the world
seen through a ruby

All the personae are vulnerable to shock and change: the circle of novices in “The Meadow”, one of whom announces that he has no illusions, only to be advised that everything is an illusion. There’s the Zen Master in “The Message” who tells a story from the outside world about a man who receives a letter from his lover only to discover there is no letter inside the envelope, but “the man keeps the envelope very carefully.” A once worldly monk in “Of Love” shares a parable concerning a man sitting beside the sea when a single drop of water lands on his hand and he believes “that the entire sea was contained in that drop. . .

The plain, effective language of “The Monks”, a humourous parable of two monks, allusion and image deal with the theme of comfort in the likeness of their shiny bald heads:

Two bald monks sit down at a table. Pointing to his shiny pate, one says, “On me it looks good.” The other agrees, “On you it looks good.” Both are comforted.

knitted brow of clouds –
seeking a horizon
the summer moon.

In contrast, in “Three Birds” he describes a lay monk remembering a fable about a yellow bird and two sparrows:

A yellow bird flew onto a branch next to two sparrows.
“A canary!” the first sparrow said.
“All canaries aren’t yellow, my friend,” the yellow bird said.
“An all yellow birds aren’t canaries, my friend,” the second sparrow said.
“So I am content to be a yellow bird.”

harmony –
mountain winds
mountain shadows

There’s enjoyment in nature and the countryside is evoked in many of the parables, as we see in “Last Day of the Sixth Month”:

Sitting in a bamboo garden outside the Fukushima Temple, two Zen monks wax philosophical.
“We don’t agree on much, my friend,” observes one, “but you will agree that there are things in life that do not change, that they are, I mean to say, immortal?”
“Yes.”
“And will you agree that the immortal things of this world cannot bestow immortality?”
“Yes, my friend. That’s why they are immortal!”

once again
yesterday’s birdsong –
a different branch

The landscape is beautifully evoked in both the prose and the haiku: “a tree bowing over the steam”, “a grove of poplars”, “mountain shadows”, “the summer moon and “a spreading bayan”. But Carter’s focus is on personal landscapes, the parables he is recounting and their effect both on the novices and the readers of the parables.

Towards the end the book, and perhaps where we see the duality of prose and poem at its best, is the long parable “Near Kyoto” in which Carter uses his poetic skill to ensure that this story crucial to an understanding of parables is neither forgotten nor mythologised by telling it in controlled language. The voices speak plain English: “You know, my friend, doing things right makes one happy. You ought to try it.” Yet the man who did get things wrong prefers to ignore his talkative friend and replies: “But I am happy, my friend; happy as the proverbial mollusk!”

Funny and poignant, tender and wise, the author’s virtuosity impresses. The book contains much fine writing and some positive endings to his tales.

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Snow Moon reviewed by Patricia Prime

Snow Moon by Steven Carter, Uxbridge. Alba Publishing, Uxbridge, UK. www.albapublishing.com (2011) 48 pp. p.b. US$12.00/UK8.00 pounds. ISBN 978-095512544-7. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Steven Carter is a retired emeritus professor of English and his book of essays, Devotions to the Text, was awarded the Eric Hoffer Foundation’s Montaigne Medal grand prize.  Carter secures his position as one of the most remarkable of contemporary writers with his first collection of haiku and haibun, Snow Moon.

The haiku and haibun in this collection are expressed in plain language that nevertheless enlightens us with their lightest and deepest concepts. In his haiku, which are divided into three sections: Equinox, The House and October, Carter ponders and marvels over the various seasonal changes that take place during the equinox, the practicalities of the house, and the coming of winter. Each section is headed by a haibun and the final section L’Envoi, contains ten haibun.

In Carter’s individual haiku, his mode is accessible, sometimes surprising, as in the opening haiku:

our silences –
the right words
only words

Carter displays considerable artistry in the haiku which sometimes jolts us out of complacency:

brightening the night
pale yellow moon –
heartache

and, at the same time, does not abandon the domestic:

careening moon –
the stillness
of your glass of wine

This trustworthy voice is welcome over a broad spectrum of subjects, yet is tied together so that each haiku unfolds something different and satisfying. In the section entitled The House, for example, there are haiku about the highs and lows, the practical and the emotional – test results, the garden, the empty birdhouse, rummaging in the attic, unwritten poems and more. The first haiku in this section:

waiting for the test results –
on which side of the window
a fly?

is offset by the nature haiku:

day moon on the lake
flying into its reflection
a hummingbird

or morphs into an account of disease:

mottled moon
no one brings up
the lymphoma

The final section of haiku, October, guides the reader through nature, landscape, seasonal weather, camping and the fireside. Here everyday occurrences and encounters enable the haiku to function as a catharsis to undercurrents that run beneath the poems, as for example, in the following haiku where we get caught up in the struggle that takes place in most of our lives:

behind scattered clouds
the coy moon
. . . regretting a kindness

taking early retirement –
winter moon
no longer part of something

Carter’s haibun are indicative of his interest in the form and sustain a high level of achievement throughout, but I do have my favourites: “Over Lunch”, “Kite””Sawtooth Range” and “1991”. What is particularly good, and the mark of a fine poet, is Carter’s ability and confidence to take chances.  In this particular book, the addition of “1991” abut a visit to Auschwitz places his haibun in the contemporary arena. Here is a short quote from the poem:

In a strange and terrible way, September is the cruelest month for     Auschwitz –     the skies are blue and balmy, the grounds and surrounding fields     lush with flowers, grasses and chestnut trees. These landscapes make the     facilities – gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, dungeons, the Wall of Death –     more poignant, even unbearable. I saw more than one Fullbrighter     throw up and     return to the bus.

The care that is paid to language in Carter’s poetry is just as evident in his prose and it is therefore no surprise that his haibun are exemplary. His haibun “Sawtooth Range” is impressive, and contains many well-crafted impressions of the “bearded, long-haired, very thin” young man carrying a cross he sees on his journey through Montana. : His lips move slowly – I can’t hear him because my window’s closed – but I lip-read his words: ‘Don’t forget me.”

This is a very fine collection and an engaging, attractive and worthwhile book.

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