Tag Archives: Patricia Prime Poetry Reviews

Snow on the Lake reviewed by Patricia Prime

It’s been a little while since I published a review by Patricia Prime, so I was excited to receive this in my inbox today… Discovering a new haiku/haibun collection is always a joy so I hope that this review resonates deeply with many of you.

Snow on the Lake

Snow on the Lake: haibun and haiku by Glenn G. Coats. Virginia. Pineola Publishing. (2013) Pb. 87 pp. ISBN: 978-615-799-117.  The book is available at Amazon books for US$12. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

It is good to find a haibun poet’s efforts in print and Pineola have done a satisfactory piece of work in publishing Glenn G. Coats in this volume.  We are told in the blurb that the book is a “memoir of another time, narratives about being a son, a brother, a friend.” Coats is also the editor of haibun for the online journal Haibun Today.

The book contains four sections. “Baptisms” presents a range of mostly autobiographical poems telling of Coats’ childhood; “Night Brings Peace” deals with personal encounters; “Believers offers reflections on the pleasures of a youthful life spent fishing, swimming and camping, and in “Remains of Myself” the author reflects on life through the eyes and words of his grandsons.  Each section of haibun is divided by three pages of haiku, each containing four haiku and illustrated with a small drawing of a bird. These haiku complement the haibun. I quote one haiku from each section:

distant moon
one shirt holds the scent
of another home

late winter
I shake father’s watch
back to life

end of summer
rain pools
on a flip-flop

ripe strawberries
my grandson wonders
if I am old

Coats is always perceptive and often witty, and he writes with restraint and great care in his use and juxtaposition of prose and haiku in this book. More importantly, he is able to introduce an unusual perspective or unexpected viewpoint that amuses, compels thought, gives new insight, or occasionally startles or disturbs.

From the first haibun, “The House in Lawrence Street”, Coats has us eating out of his hand, wanting to read on, wondering why the child “can’t stand still, climbs up on everything in the house.” We don’t learn why the girl acts the way she does – it could be polio, but he asks why, then, is she able to “fly like a bird or jump like Tarzan.” In the lengthy haibun, “Baptisms”, he is perhaps laughing at himself remembering his cousin Jack as a child:

I see him the night before trout season opens. We are up all night talking; picking through my father’s ashtrays for butts long enough to smoke. In the morning Jack puts on a new fishing hat, and his boots and creel are also new.

But, later we see Jack as a man after he returns from the war in Vietnam:

I see me not much later reading Jack’s one letter from Vietnam, the one where he tells the truth, the horror, and the pain of it, but I am to promise to tell no one. He survives the war only to crash a motorcycle back in the states and for a time he is sucking food through a straw.

We don’t know whom to pity more, author or Jack. The simplicity of the narrative deceives. The spotlight Coats turns on himself and his cousin both amusing and poignant.

The haiku in this section are deceptively simple:

honk of a goose
no answer
to the loneliness

snow bound –
keeping the sock with a hole
one more day

If there is something cool about the descriptions in the first section, those in the second are warmer, yet there is an undercurrent of boldness.  Coats sometimes throws his spotlight on the bizarre or unusual – the “evil eye” of Father Henry in “Beginners”, after he catches Coats and his young friend smoking cigars; or about the poet’s thought processes when he is recovering from a car accident (“Deer in the Headlights”) or the scene where three generations are on a fishing boat in “Harbor Lights”:

My son’s legs begin to wobble. We send him into the cabin for a Coke, but he doesn’t return. An old salt curses through the door, says some kid heaved near the kitchen. We lead him back on deck where he falls like a coat on a bench.

Coats’ imagery is highly visual; we could wish he would engage the other senses more often and directly, but we are glad of his use of dark and cold in the second section’s first haibun “In the Hours Before School”:

We fall down the road like raindrops from a tall tree. It is dark, no lights yet in the houses. Bicycles whir down the hills and fishing poles point like antennas from the handlebars. Canvas creels flap against our sides, Thick hip boots tug at waists. Fingers are numb from the cold.

In this section, there is some concession to other senses, notably in “Night Brings Peace”:

The year that I had wood shop, I made a broom holder out of poplar and a book shelf. The wood was green in color; easy to cut and sand.

It is no coincidence that throughout this section we feel closer to the poet, as he takes us through his youthful pranks, as in “Three Speeds on the Column”:

It is Saturday night and the band at Turntable is warming up. A few of us linger on the sidewalk. Our conversations are muffled and hard to understand as if we are talking underwater.

The haiku here are more considered with the poet’s personal stories:

crunch of gravel –
in one of his last breaths
my name

moonlit cove
my son walks a lure
across water

Description again comes to the fore in the third section. There is clever, controlled writing about his youthful adventures: shooting with bow and arrows or a shotgun, a neighbour’s boy who “never comes out”, a man strumming his guitar, a bullying teacher. In “Believers”, his father attends Mass under duress:

By the end of Mass, he is ready to bolt. Mother and I have to hold him back, make him wait as one aisle after another exits in turn. Outside, in the cool spring air, my father gives Father Henry a big smile and a handshake. “Thanks for a fine sermon,” he says. “How about those Phillies?”

The haiku which follow this section are primarily concerned with nature and human nature:

spring pastures
the farmer calls each cow
by name

It is in the final section that Coats comes closest to engaging our emotions. In the first haibun, “Dove Season”, after describing four boys painting a bicycle with cans of spray, he later discovers that the stolen bike belongs to him and the police are called:

The police know the boys and say they are always getting in trouble. Nothing they can do about the bike. Mama doesn’t keep a record of the serial number and the policemen say it is our word against theirs. No proof.

In these poems there are glimpses of childhood, youth and personal growth in which Coats opens the door a little of his own feelings. In “A Safe Distance From Home”, after describing purchasing a dog from the animal shelter, he writes:

A few hours later, after her first bath, her first walk around the yard, Angel slips away while I am talking on the phone. We call into the woods for an hour, a name the dog doesn’t recognize. Angel returns at dusk covered with mud and briars,

The dog has been ill-treated by a previous owner and Coates is speaking not only of his own feelings, but those of his grandson when, after the passage of a few weeks and “Angel has become Millie”, as

Conlyn lays his stick down beside the path. “I don’t need this stick anymore,” he says as he stoops down to pat Millie on the head.

In “The Snap of a Line”, after describing how his grandfather “bends over the bow”, he writes, “My father drifts in an aluminum boat across  man-made lakes”, while his son “waits for the high waters of spring to settle down then crosses islands on the river to where catfish are breaking the surface in the dark.” Coats is speaking of a family event that has moved him greatly. The restraint of expression in this haibun is eloquent of one who knows the limitations of language to tell such things:

summer barbecue
the scent
of singed eyebrows

Coats has developed as an interesting haibun poet. His craftsmanship is impressive: language honed to be the instrument of intellect, wit and observation.  Occasionally he lets us into that closely guarded inner sanctuary, as much by implication as by direct words.

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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:

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

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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Patricia Prime Reviews The Hidden Berkeley by Steven Carter

Again, I am privileged to publish this review by one the world’s keenest haiku minds, Patricia Prime. This time she reviews one of the prolific Steven Carter’s latest collections.

Hidden Berkeley

The Hidden Berkeley by Steven Carter. India: Cyberwit. (2012). Pb, 70 pp. ISBN: 978-81-8253-322-6. RRP: US$15. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Steven Carter’s work as a haiku and haibun poet has appeared regularly over the past year, and may therefore be familiar to readers both in the USA and elsewhere. The variety of haibun in The Hidden Berkeley is engaging. Over 30 haibun, a Prologue and Epilogue range across Carter’s life from the age of eighteen when he was a college freshman to his departure from Berkeley in 1967.

Carter’s collection of haibun, which vary in length from one to two pages, spans several years. The autobiographical sketches include vivid moments of encounters with the world, life-changing events, his love life and engagement with people that shaped him.

Shared worlds, physical, spiritual and cultural events inhabit this collection. Thus, in “From the Bottom of a Well”, a poem in memory of a “Foggy summer afternoon sitting on the rickety back porch”, the poet remembers the incidents of his Berkeley years and life with his mother and brother:

That Christmas we don’t buy a tree. My mom is too tired, I too     depressed, my teen-age brother too indifferent, to clean up the house.

Reading the poem on the page, the words are transmitted through the imagination and the reader’s own memories into a silent cadence that in turn shape the images. It is very easy to identify with many of Carter’s experiences and his various attempts to come to terms with his feelings as he tries to find his place in the world.

The poet’s work is clearly informed by his physical terrain, a fact that shows itself through not only the subject matter – childhood, youth and love are recurring themes – but frequently in the way the haibun appear on the page, inhabiting space in which the haiku shine through as a kind of coda. The joining of the prose and haiku works well in most of the haibun. Carter’s characteristic style being story followed by one haiku. The following haibun, “Fall ‘63” is quoted in full:

To my impoverished and callow twenty-year old sensibility, Marcia, the     willowy teen-ager next door on Hearst, is like water on a table-top; fun your     finger through it and it leaves no trace of where it was. Every night, at the     agreed-upon time, she flashes her bedroom light twice and, as I look on from     my kitchen window, bares her beautiful breasts to me.

my Plato falls open –
is a beggar

These are haibun which reward concentrated reading, and the cumulative effect is to offer deep insight into the poet’s life. Carter is attentive, his eye and ear are intensely tuned, so that story and haiku are partners. Girlfriends, funerals, and his grandmother: the images are vivid. Elsewhere it is friends, his brother, and a policeman that captures our attention. In “Far Side” he is “Returning to Berkeley from a carefree year in the Young People’s Republic of San Diego.” Alone, he experiences a bout of neurasthenia and rolls around in bed in pain, before taking the bus too his evening’s shift at the library. This poem is like a mark of the young man’s determination and fortitude against all odds. In “Rain” the two brothers are living with their grandmother when the repossession man comes to remove their TV. “’Sorry,’ the repossession man shrugs, turning off Walter Cronkite and unplugging the TV, ‘just doing my job.’”

One of Carter’s best haibun is “Mt Everest of kegs”, in which the two brothers fight. Their mother despairs of them and comes to the conclusion that there is no hope for either of them:

Discouraged with the lifestyles of both her sons, but especially of Allan, my mother confided in me shortly before her death that the best my brother could hope for was a career in the army.

In 1989 he was appointed to the Solana County Municipal Court Bench by the governor of California.

what might’ve been
the landlord’s
young Norwegian wife

The sense of the personal voice that rings with an awareness of life’s complexities and sadness, a world of ambiguities and sheer joy is perfectly heard in Carter’s haibun.  His voice sings of individualism in both form and content and it welcomes the reader in a manner that is both traditional in the use of image and form and new in its fresh magnanimity. In “Elevator out of service” the year is 1965, the poet has moved to the Berkeley Hotel in order to bring up his grades –

but also to forget what had happened in August, when Kim, the San Diego girl I wanted to marry, pulled the plug on our relationship. Drowning my sorrows in schoolwork, I figured, would kill two birds with one stone. I was half-right . . .

What is evident from this volume is how often Carter’s haibun concentrate on the big issues of existence: life and death, love and hope. These poems are strongly influenced by the particular timbre of the language, formed by the contours of the landscape and the life-rhythm of modern-day America. That said, they are crowded with impressions of light and darkness, summer and winter months: an existential searching for identity and context. The intensity of many of these haibun grows out of their truth, their reality. Moments are preserved, and the trigger of memory is released. Place, people and events weave a dance through haibun that evoke a beauty and power, treading a path through a life that is full of sadness, joy, wonderment and hope.

The overall attraction in these haibun is Carter’s trust in his reader to make sense of the disparate narrations he embarks on, the little chunks of history and geography in many of his haibun, and after a while one arrives at a familiarity with the man writing and the circumstances which permit him to record important events in his life. As the haibun “Morning Twilight” indicates Carter succeeds more often than not in holding our attention when he shows us into a room a writer’s mind inhabits:

When I was young, like all kids I expected adults to walk the straight and narrow and the world to be a more or less place. Then, one by one, my idols crumbled, as they must: my grandmother’s jolly grocer on the corner of Addison and Grant in Berkeley, who always sat me on the counter and sang a song in Italian, went to jail for tax evasion; the director of one of my foster homes, whom I’d begun to consider a second mother, went to jail for embezzlement; my grandmother herself, it turns out, played the ponies and     financed her gambling habit by stealing from my step-grandfather; and so on. These revelations were shattering once upon a time, but now I accept them, having learned in late middle age that forgiveness at a distance is a privilege, if not a luxury.

moonset &
the terror of

The Hidden Berkeley is replete with images, ideas and stories of the making of a man – of ordering and disrupting order, of the complex relationships between families, friends, colleagues, as well as with the placement of each within the history of one man. Throughout the book Carter works with a multiplicity of stories and draws the reader into associative ideas, bringing the reader to an ample understanding of the complex historical, cultural and philosophical foundations of his life. What might be poetic sketches from life becomes another field of composition: life as an artwork. The poet’s life compressed into this book unfolds ideas both minute and complex.   The collection contains fine examples of individual haibun and it also forms a cohesive whole as an autobiography. Carter presents an interesting way for haibun to be expanded from travel writing, or journal writing to a diary of awakening maturity.

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Patricia Prime Reviews Wind Through the Wheatfields by Beverley George

It’s always a pleasure to post one of Patricia Prime’s reviews, but tonight, the pleasure is even greater, as the review is of a collection by one of our great ambassadors for Japanese forms, Beverley George. If you are not familiar with Beverley’s work, this is a real treat.


WTTWWind through the Wheatfields, tanka by Beverley George writing with friends.  P O Box 37, Pearl Beach, Australia (2012). www.eucalypt.info. Pb. 56 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9578831-8-5. AUS$18 / NZ, Japan – AUD$22 (US$22) / UK, US, Canada, Europe – AUD$25 (US$25). Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Wind through the Wheatfields is a collection of tanka responses and tan renga featuring the work of Beverley George with many of the poets with whom she says in her Preface, she has “shared workshops; conferences, meetings; readings; a loved book; a point of view.” The poets come from several countries: Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A., France and South Africa. The book is beautifully illustrated by Pim Sarti and has been designed by Matthew George.

In this volume we see the way in which the challenge facing the contemporary poet writing tanka responses and tan renga forms, that date back to the Japanese Nara and Heian Periods, are currently manifesting themselves. How does one write tanka responses that are still recognizable as such without merely repeating what has already been done by others? And how do you write a tanka response that attempts to address wider issues? In these forms, the poets cover many subjects, from science fiction to beach softball.

The achievement and success of these now very well-known forms, written in many languages world-wide, attract a good following.  Many people are drawn to them as literary exercises, a challenge in conciseness, while others may enjoy the companionship of writing in tandem. The humility and the ambitions are finely balanced in the poems collected here.

And the achievements are considerable.  In the first tanka response, between André Surridge and Beverley George, “Refrain”, George summons us all to the circle of friendship with the tanka:

half-circle of old friends
around the mallee-root fire
you reach for something
owned since childhood
read aloud ‘the hums of Pooh’

It is often, as in the responses between Beverley George and David Terelinck, in “Unseen Threads”, a matter of cadences:

synthetic world
of electronic gimmickry –
we tell our tales
by lamplight
our hands touching lightly


a loose thread
on your favourite jumper –
we will never
nurse a grandchild


Delicate syntax and concern with language are evident in the tanka response “Testing the Strength”. The dying-fall sadness of George’s last verse

how can I leave
a world you still Inhabit
my final breath
will ride the wind
without pause to where you are  

is considerably skillful and finds a precise rhythm for the subtlety of what is being said.

What is being “said” in these poems? Is it that we are alone in our own dreams and dramas, as we see in the tan renga “Converging Worlds” by Beverley George and David Terelinck?

thoughts tangle,
willow fronds in wind . . .
we must dream alone
the constant echo
of lessons not quite learned

Or is it that beauty can be found wherever one lives in the world, as we in this verse by Giselle Maya from “The Other Side of Blue”?

 I see the poet
on the far side of the globe
deep in winter
reaching out with words
I paint her in russet hues

Or maybe it is the poets’ personal concerns about family, as we see in the tan renga between the late Janice M. Bostok and Beverley George, “Mother’s Day”:

 picket fence
a group of grey-heads
stealing cuttings
mother’s honey suckle
follows me on moving day

she tries to beat
a computer game score
before an eye operation
grandma’s stories flicker
in fake log-fire flames

In the way images carry fleeting glimpses of meaning, the poem reveals the poets’ concerns with family. There are the elusive images of “mother’s honey suckle”, ”grandma’s stories”, “her first-born child’s / nervous win” and the “antique chair” which we might imagine once belonged to a loved one.

“Sliding into Silence” a tan renga between Beverley George and Julie Thorndyke focuses on a

winter evening
a rim of lamplight
on worn books
he lays down gold rimmed specs
hums to dispel the quiet

While in “Trade Winds” the two poets are in their homes where the builders are at work:

she barks orders
wants the whole thing
finished by Christmas
the builder clears his throat
stares at the horizon

Kathy Kituai and Beverley George take us on a trip to Scotland in their tanka response “Taking Hold: Letters Home from Scotland”:

narrow on our flag
St Andrew’s Cross
first streets
named Clyde or Ferguson,
thistle in our paddocks


Passing Places
on one vehicle roads
how welcome,
peak after lonely peak,
to pull over and wave


“An Owl in the Olive”, a tan renga between Beverley George and Kirsty Karkow includes references to science fiction, drawings in a Lascaux cave, bush fires, volcanoes and much more:

red-hot lava
sizzles through darkness
to a cold sea
a watch-dog chained
under Pompeii’s cinders

winter ebb-tide
a shapeless bundle
in the dune grass
was baby Moses’ cry
like that of passing gulls?

In “Bathers”, Beverley George and Meredith Ferris recollect motherhood in the 1940s and 1970s:

kitchen table
and a bowl of soapy water
Mum dressing me
for Sunday School
in clothes she’s proud she sewed


holiday house
she bathes my baby brother
in the laundry tub
perched on a stool
I lean into his laughter


The poem successfully mixes memories of the poets’ own childhoods, which are significantly different from those of contemporary children.

Beverley George returns to childhood in the tanka response with M. L. Grace, “Hollyhocks and Smocking”. The poets remember a “back-yard dairy”, “aunts / in cross-stitch aprons”, “crochet patterns” and “three generations / in the valley”.  While Owen Bullock’s easy comedic voice is brought into play in his and Beverley’s “Rosemary Hard-Pruned”, where Bullock’s themes are drawn from life and from Cornwall where he was born:

grandpa’s shed . . .
nuts and bolts in jam jars
sorted for size
bundles of lavender
strung from the rafters


Granfer drew cartoons
when he got sick
with diabetes
& Gran went to Chapel
to listen to the Preacher


Browsing, exploring, appreciating, finding inspiration, or simply enjoying the expression of our common humanity in such a rich variety of writing is a delight. For me, this collection proves most successful when the poets voyage into the past. That these poets are masters of the intellect, of words, of the tanka response and tan renga forms seems indisputable.

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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?

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

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.

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

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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Migrant Moon

It’s Friday night, the moon is beginning to wane and the wind is all bluster. There will be light and I will be chasing it… but for now, settle in to a review by Patricia Prime. As always, Patricia’s review is generous in quoting from the collection – the latest release from Miriam’s Well Press, Migrant Moon by Barbara Mautone Robidoux – to give you a feel for the work. And from Patricia’s reading, it is some very fine work indeed. Read on!

Migrant Moon by Barbara Mautone Robidoux. Miriam’s Well Press. miriamswell.wordpress.com (2012) Pb. 101 pp. ISBN: 978-1-893003-15-6. Price: US$14.00 Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Migrant Moon is Barbara Mautone Robidoux’s second book of poetry. She also writes short stories and is currently working on a collection set on a reservation in northern Maine where she once lived. She now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Migrant Moon is a collection of tanka, tanka sequences and haibun. It shows the poet’s journeys through her travels, her inner and outer life and through the movement of the seasons. What we have here is superb: it’s a collection that doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Also, seeing the genres together increases one’s awareness that Robidoux’s poetry comprises various strands and feels like a unified body of work.

Robidoux’s use of language can be vivid, but self-explanatory, as in the haibun “Migration”, which is quoted in full:

Three bottle nose dolphins circle the harbor off Nantucket
Island. It is a cold December day and they should be out to sea on
winter migration south. No one knows why they have come into the
harbor. An old woman stands alone on the shore. She watches
and listens.

“they have come for me”
she tells
no one

Yet she also delights in writing simply, but at the same time effectively, as in the first verse of the tanka sequence, “Moonwashed”:

This moon washed town
October snow softens
cold cobblestone streets –
Was the sea
really once here?

Robidoux is often concise, yet even when she’s more expansive, as in the haibun, she is never wordy. She is a skilled raconteur – I would recommend the extraordinary haibun “November” in particular. Here is the first paragraph and following haiku:

In those days we wore red in the woods. Red woolen jackets
and caps over layers of thermal underwear and flannel shirts. I
had a favourite pair of wool pants which my mother kept in her
cedar chest until hunting season. My mother never hunted. Her job
was to preserve and cook the meat after the kill. But even though I
was a girl she allowed me to go out with the men to hunt. I believe
she felt it was an important way for me to learn about the
sacredness of life.

leaves rustle in wind
a doe enters the meadow

Robidoux has a good ear and eye. Her interest in her surroundings is most evident in the archeology of these haibun, both the literal archeology of the landscape and the mythological and folklore archeology of their people. The haibun “Stupa” takes us back into the poorest surroundings:

On the south side, the poor side, the immigrant-laden, gangster-
ridden, bean burrito and Tres XXX’s-riddled side of an otherwise
fancy art mecca in the west, a small group of Tibetan Buddhists
built a stupa. It is a golden pearl in a desert of empty-pocketed
sand. Trailer homes surround it.

“Ceremony for Letting Go” is a more domestic poem, calling on the poet’s love for an old cat who is “tired, very, very tired”, to present a multi-layered picture of the devotion one can feel for a pet. It contains the following haiku:

my elderly cat
losing weight day after day
I miss her already

In “Arroyo” Robidoux is a careful chronicler of the hidden history of a small village in the mountains of northern New Mexico:

It is summer evening and the desert heat has not descended
into night. Cholla cactus still hold their bloom. A veteran recently
home from the war in Iraq leaves his shiny red Mustang running
when he goes into the bar to buy a six pack of Budweiser. He has
used all of his severance pay to buy the car and he calls it “Baby.”

The selection of tanka takes us from “spring snows/ three feet deep” to “after tsunami”:

spring snows three feet deep
deer yard out in the orchard
patiently waiting –
frozen apples
fall one by one

after tsunami
funerals held in the streets
four purple irises
with tea leaves scattered
to honor the dead

Several things have accompanied Robidoux on this poetic journey: mysteriousness, musicality, humour, surprises, gracefulness and heart. How these elements work their way into the tanka is a delight for the reader to explore, as see in, as see in this tanka:

our chief is laid out
at the community center
killed on black ice;
asleep in the next room
you dream your own death song

The musicality of the tanka catches the reader’s imagination. The words and phrases have infectious rhythms and harmonies that are always linked to Robidoux’s experiences, as we see in the following tanka:

full winter moon
at Chaco Canyon
light bathes the badlands –
you refuse to remember
our first night together

Her choice of words transforms mundane things into things that exude poetry. As the magic kicks in, you absorb the music, the nostalgia and the narrative:

in the desert sand
poems found
under a full moon –
our long shadows
against the red canyon wall

The second thing that captures the reader is the way the tanka are saturated with humour:

wind down from Denver
blows neighbor’s mailbox open
yesterday’s letter
delivered airmail
to my address

Intimate details glimmer like gems throughout the tanka, but sometimes the tanka tilt into mystery with what the poet holds back:

after thirty years
I cut my long hair
and left you –
fog lifts
with the outgoing tide

There are many poems to love in this book – poems that favour language, narrative and nature as well as music, mystery and adventure. Robidoux has written some remarkable haibun and tanka that can stand as good examples of both genres. You need to linger and let her words wash over you as you accumulate their subtle delights.

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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 –

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.


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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Chris Mansell’s Spine Lingo

Spine Lingo: New & Selected Poems, Chris MansellKardoorair Press, PO Box 478, Armidale, N.S.W. 2350, Australia.   orders@kardoorair.com.au (2010) pp. 232.  ISBN 978-0-908244-83-6.

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

It’s always a pleasure to open a new book of poetry by Chris Mansell, and Spine Lingo is no exception. What a fantastic mind the poet has, and what a wonderful way with words. This is Mansell’s eighth collection, but one senses many of these poems have had a long gestation period, for each is polished, pared-back and honed to perfection.  The poems are presented more or less one poem per page, without punctuation.

Mansell seems always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by.  Her memories are something that contributes and advances presentness.  Knowledge is not a complete thing, but is part of the whole . . . from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainly with the temporal.  For Mansell writing itself – an act that is simultaneously one of forgetting and remembering – is an aid to redefinition of the past.

In Spine Lingo, Mansell further explores her own past and autobiography.  Her poems unfold one on the other, growing in resonance and beauty, filling the reader’s head to overflowing.  Here we have themes on landscapes, geography, history, travel, loss, Lady Gedanke, nature.  Somehow Mansell has managed to capture all these elements and more, in her book.

Human loss is a theme which echoes through the collection.  The elegy “Amelia Earhart flies out from Lae, New Guinea” is dealt with lightly but unflinchingly.  The poet recalls that the pioneer aviator left “my old town,” but now she and her friends wait for her return:

           as we stand on the black sand beach
           imagine your flight
           straight ahead
           over the isthmus Salamaua
           string of sand
           can’t imagine the gun emplacements
           there yet

The natural world – the dark, flowers, the ocean, beach, birds, animals – are featured throughout the book.  “the dry movement / as sand across / contradictory sand,” begins “17 Types of Movement.”  Mansell has a knack of stripping the visual world back to basics.  One example of her fresh use of language can be found in “Santa Maria di Maggiore, Rome”:

and now Santa Maria di Maggiore
suffers a busload of tourists
for the worship of architecture
en masse
the shuffle and gawp
fills its important walls
which do not flinch

A seemingly innocent poem about a visit to the Catholic Basilica by a protestant becomes a remarkable, sensory expression as “this palace of popes / calls out with its five bells” and “gods tumble out / of high ceilings.”

Some of the most startling imagery occurs when the subject is Australia, as in “Christmas in Australia,” where the poet wakes to fires that still burn in Tomerong.  “Cooper’s Creek” is an historical poem about the loss of explorers Burke and Wills, and the later death of their fellow explorer King in 1861:

King, as instructed
left Burke dead
under an open sky
pistol in hand.

The series of poems about Lady Gedanke strip back the visual world to basics; only then does Mansell build human emotion back into the poem.  Here is an excerpt from “Lady Gedanke tells J. S. Mill her Happiness Theory”:

now each glistening season
the earth becomes
more frangible
and finite more
unreliable and particular
each year
is counted out
like coins of light

“the other river” is a poem divided into 12 days, beginning with a description of the river and ending on day 12 with the simple, yet expressive poem that returns us to the river:



Love is a theme throughout the book; glinting through the surface, then disappearing again.  It is dealt with lightly but fearlessly: “How I know,” focuses on the absence of a lover: “and though you’ve gone / I want to go with you / because I am in love with your children,” while “the kiss” is a “poem for your lips” and “Song” relates the loved one to the ocean which “holds me like you do / in the open rhythms the pull and suck / the deep movement . . .”

The lengthy poem “Head, Heart & Stone” is divided into 10 parts.  In this poem Mansell writes so vividly and directly that we feel we are with her in the setting: “There is a handcrafted painting of a wattle or a ti-tree.”  Some of the most beautiful poetic moments occur in these longer poems.  “Ordinary truth” fairly sizzles on the page:

           first it comes like hush
           like blisters you know it’s there
           like a trial coming up a journey
           you can never be prepared for
           like angels in your garden taking time
           like a physicist with theories like angles
           sharp it comes again acute

In the face of relationships, whether failed or fulfilling, Mansell writes from her heart.  Here we have the poems “Daughter”: “My daughter speaks Bingle. / A dog whoop whoops in the night”;  “waiting for my daughter”:  “you have run off into childhood barely / looking back at cold mother absent / father you slip hipped bone agile daughter” and then there’s “the family”: “first there is the mother / the mother has two melon breasts / and stands with legs apart / arms agape like a child’s drawing.”

Mansell finds salvation in the act of writing itself.  Often her work is about artistic endeavour: the desire to write poetry that is going to survive.  In the poem, “Good poetry,” for example, she says,

           Good poetry is
           cocktail poetry – often short & very
           urbane.  Good poetry is slim &
           articulate with impeccable antecedents.
           Sometimes it speaks French, but usually
           it speaks only English.  Good English.

In “Poem in feint ruled purple,” she writes to a friend:

           you gave me some bright pink paper to write rich red poems on
           (poems with the scent of just ripe pomegranates
           poems that melt with touch
           poems that cull up and indulge purple and cerise
           and scarlet women with the fops
           and spangle bright harlots
           with roses on their lips

The act of writing is a conscious effort that helps to change the ways of the world: “blood red poems to make the revolution come.”  Yet the poet is also aware in “Subtext to the poem in feint ruled purple” that she does not “want to write / this poem, or any other. / I want this poem to fly in the face / of my dark horses . . .”

The registering of her poetics is one of Mansell’s strengths, and it is in the treatment of writing itself that her work is at its most quietly moving.  One has no trouble in believing in the poetic truth of what Mansell says in the fine poems, “A hand in the mouth,” “Poem Written in the Key of Mother Tongue” and “The Secret.”  Mansell’s poems are full of “experience,” full of her sense of the world, in both the apprehension and the comprehension of what is implied in the recognition of “the moment” in poetry, as we see in her poem “making the garden safe”:

           he is thinking for a moment
           no more
           and soon he will have the axe
           biting into the tender
           heart of that tree
           through its resilient bark
           through the moist interior
           through the timelines

But Mansell is not simply a passive poet.  She also writes poems in which the search for an axis of living is conducted in very different settings, settings, for example, where

           in the hope that punishment
           would not get worse we agreed
           to our torture and left the children
           at the gate

            (“Passive voice”)

Then there are the extraordinary poems featuring the Australian landscape.  “On (the) edge of Toowoomba”

           there is nothing
           bush and bush
           and mist slung into trees like fruitbats 
           and the millennia set to roll
           anxious as a child’s marble
           rolling with the hum and throb
           of a song linking horizon to horizon
           time rolling down the range

In “The Tree” the fragmented phrases – “we climbed the tree,” “the sunlight fills the sky,” “Shuquin sees the wall / during the Cultural Revolution” and “the wall is filled with her name,” – echo Mansell’s preoccupation with beauty and truth.  The poem concludes inexorably yet gently with the words

           and yet she does not know yet
           that truth imprisons her

“Neda” is a lengthy poem divided into fifteen triplets: a narrative that begins with Neda suckling the infant Zeus and concludes with

           the sound of a casual bullet
           tearing the air to find a girl
           on her way to music class

“Beneath Breathing” is another lengthy poem covering eighteen pages.  This poem is perhaps the most compelling in the book.  It is a narrative about war and provides a richness of detail that almost swamps the reader.  In the first part of the poem we see the persona caught in what appears to be a war zone:

           our shattered building is on top of me
           below around and we have become one thing

           all the hopes and stairs
           carpets and casualness of the day

           have smacked into this hard dead
           end and me with it

The relationship of these elements to the rest of the psychological drama covers a brother returning from war, the dead brother “steeped in earth,” the poet’s rage at war and “the lost language of the gods.”   In the second half of the poem the flow of the work is more disposed.  As though to help the reader, there is the instruction: “(read this out loud, in one breath).”  The implication is that Mansell’s style differs here in mood and flow.  Now it’s the turn of a stunningly projective imaging of the birth of the poem and the reader’s complicity in it.

The final five-page poem, “The Ecstasy of the Lily” is a deep play on the various poetic components: shirt, bombs, lily, death, judge, uranium.  The poem ends:

we are bright in our own starlight
language is more fun to do than to reflect
the orange air with its screaming flowers
spells ecstasy and burns down the house
and I am still inside talking about wearing a shirt
while the bright red canna lily shrieks

In such poems the precision of Mansell’s writing is a recurrent delight.  Mansell’s real but unaffected attentiveness to detail is evidence of both a stilled self-consciousness and a process of self-discovery.  There is an occasionally breath-taking responsiveness to simple beauty in her work, just as there is often an unflinchingly open-eyed registration of human pain.

The poems in Spine Lingo pitch the power and wonder of nature against the frailty and failure of the human, their utter seriousness leavened by a wry, dry and disarming humour.  All of the poems are haunted by the presence and pressure of the world against our own beliefs, and are written with the kind of dreamlike description that has become Mansell’s trademark.  In short, this is an important collection of a poet whose reputation has long been well established.  Spine Lingo is a book of considerable grandeur and sweep by one of the most powerful Australian poet’s working today.


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Patricia Prime reviews ‘waves whisper the shoreline to life’ by Agnieszka Niemira

waves whisper the shoreline to life, Agnieszka Niemira. 
Post Pressed, 38 Suncroft St., Mt. Gravatt, Queensland 4122, Australia.  www.postpressed.com.au.  2010.  98 pp.  ISBN 978-1921214-63-9.  AUSS$19.95 + p&p

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

waves whisper the shoreline to life is Agnieszka Niemira’s second book of poetry.  This is a more substantial volume than Niemira’s first collection, Making the Invisible Transparent.  Here again, we have a beautiful volume published by Post Pressed, with front cover photo by the poet, back cover photo by Elleni Toumpas and additional photos by Barrie Frost.

A very different presentation characterizes many of the poems in this collection.  Many of the poems are longer than in the previous book, although it also contains haiku and short poems.

The first lines of the very first poem, “the story begins” reads very simply:

 it is quiet

 the house is asleep
 i am enveloped
 in its imperceptible breathing

This process of discovery, from inside to outside, the search to establish some sense of possible relationship between the inner self and the exterior world, is central to this collection.  The same initial poem concludes thus:

 i will love
 i will question
 what love actually means

 should i be trusting you with myself like that

 and would you trust me      to be taken where I go

waves whisper the shoreline to life is characterized by Niemira’s alertness to incidents that took place in wartime.  “visitors” and “survivors 1945” are concerned with the horrors of war.  From “visitors”:

 a gun pointed at my brothers and me
 my father     watching

and from “survivors 1945”:
 a single woman
 her house destroyed

 they give her
 one of their rooms

The ideas in these two poems are fully felt, unsentimentally realized and emotionally felt.  The precariousness of human individuality, the difficulty of sustaining family values in the face of war, functions in Niemira’s work not just as an intellectual conceit but as emotional reality.  In the poem “echoes,” for example, the poet lives with “grandma and grandpa / in a post-german house.”  But, though they are surrounded by “wetlands / meadows    gardens” animals, friends, and relatives, all is not well in this idyllic setting:

 grandpa drinks
 i dread seeing him
 leaving the house with his mates

but by the end of the poem, we discover the reason for grandpa’s drinking and anger:

 he survives a german forced labour camp
 i listen
 i hear screams

 grandfather talks
 war echoes

Niemira’s poetic persona has a confident, but not over-confident, sense of its own identity.  Niemira is able to write of others with a degree of empathy.  There is an impressive meticulousness of emotional observation and a lack of sentimentality which isn’t flaunted, as we see in the love poem “summer loving”:

you come with delicate breeze

you take me into the sapphire-blue snowstorm

we experience the omnipotence
of misty sanctification

the mysterious kiss ripens
in the freedom of the night

The registering of human emotions is one of Niemira’s strengths, and it is in her treatment of those people in her immediate circle that her work is at its most quietly moving.  One has no doubt in believing in the truth of what Niemira says in a fine poem “the world has no sharp edges”:

 so the world is round, no sharp edges,
 she tends to relax into various colours:
 sea green, purple, blue . . . rainbow . . .
 could be falling out of the sky too,
 perhaps being flexible and bouncy
 with an honestly smiling face.

A longer poem “dimensions” is full of Niemira’s experiences, full of her sense  of love, warmth and peace and in both the apprehension and comprehension of what is implied in the recognition of herself in a photo:

 what is this     she points to the screen

 marcus looks at the photo

 his tearful eyes find me
 is that you

But Niemira is not simply a poet of emotional lives.  She also writes poems in which the search for an axis of living is conducted in natural settings.  In the poem “dawn,” for example, she hears the birds and goes outside to listen to them:

hearing the birds singing their greetings
i go outside to unite with the world of awakening

i breathe in the freshness

the place is alive
though people are nowhere to be seen

In such poems the precision of Niemira’s writing is a recurrent delight.  Niemira’s real but unaffected attentiveness to nature is registered in a language which, very naturally, makes such attentiveness evidence both of a stilled self-consciousness and of a process of self-discovery.  There is a breathtaking responsiveness to simple beauty in her work.  In “the intimately known mystery” she observes that “my baby is out of my womb / out of my body // quiet for a moment / then crying / i stroke my son’s cheek     featherily.”  Another poem “motherhood” also recalls the poet’s experience of being a mother, “before i was just myself / now i am a mother / to eternity.”  The long poem “perfection” shows us the child’s humming and laughter:

 the music is perfected
 by my son’s humming and laughter
 i want to delight in the moment
 but the longing to see him
 overwhelms me
 i open the door to my bedroom
 he runs towards me
 and gives his mother
   the morning hug

“laughter” is a poem at ease with itself, conveying with skilful brevity the love between poet and grandmother:

 i come in quietly
 the house breathes to its own rhythm
 hello granny dearest     i say softly
 she does not recognize me
 but I know what to do
 . . . i laugh
 oh agnieszka     she smiles
 and dozes off in her armchair

In these poems we pick up on the poet’s relationships as subject, with a smile towards her feelings, shown in simple language.  Niemira pays minute attention to language, managing to achieve warmth and humour with concision and pointedness; and invention, either in the form and layout or use of space. 

In “silencescream” the effect of dreadfulness is conveyed by subtle and varying line length, reflecting the state of mind of the personae, in which everything is disjointed.  This is hysteria with a strange inevitability:

 in silence
 you tell me your story
 i see the scars
 looking into your young eyes
 i notice
 there is beauty but no youth in them

 the bloodstained images
 you’ve brought to life
 stay with us

 we fall asleep regardless

After this there is a group of tough, short poems which reveal the terrors of war.  In “terror triptych” “girls for sale / girls for the taking,” while in “honour” we see a “gang-raped woman // stoned to death.”  “staying alive” describes the persona of a young woman in an unpleasant situation.  A feat this, to picture such ugliness in an excellent poem.  Finally “this is my home” tells us that the poet would invite us in “but I had a bad experience.”

Although many of the poems make one look at hard subjects, reading this collection with its terse but vibrant images, tense voices and lives, the poems gather momentum each time you read them.


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