Tag Archives: Haiku Reviews

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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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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Bright the Harvest Moon

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.

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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,

 Rising mist.
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
the cicada.

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:

So carefully
placing snow on this tray –
“autumn flowers”.

(After Kikaku)

From After Other Haiku Masters:

Delaying my journey
yet again
for spring.

(After Ryota)

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.

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