Reviews in Presence 59

Below are my reviews of three haiku books in Presence #59.

*

Ghost Moon, Mark Gilfillan
Alba Publishing, PO Box 266, Uxbridge, UB9 5NX, UK; €14/£12/ US$15,
ISBN 978-1-910185-68-1.

On the Edge, Tim Gardiner
Brambleby Books, 15 Lyngford Square, Taunton, TA2 7ES, UK, £6.99,
ISBN 978-1-908241-53-5.

naad anunaad, eds. Kala Ramesh, Sanjuktaa Asopa and Shloka Shankar
Vishwakarma Publications, 283 Budhwar Peth, Near City Post, Pune, 411002, India; ₹340,
ISBN 978-93-85665-33-2.

Ghost Moon consists of 99 haiku, which seem to have been collated without any attempt to put them into a logical sequence or to weed out poems which have little or nothing to recommend them. The lack of thematic unity makes for a rollercoaster ride of subject-matter – just within the first 10 pages, we’re taken from very English scenes, involving conkers, slippers and an honesty-box, all the way to Uluru and Louisiana. That could, if one were feeling charitable, conversely be considered a virtue, but, alas, there is an overall lack of quality.

For example, Gilfillan has a predilection for anthropomorphic, military metaphors: ‘a squadron of geese / fly over / winter’s victory’, ‘by the cold stream / a heron / stands guard’, ‘dandelion spores / silent paratroopers / hanging on the breeze’ and ‘from the train window / pylon platoons / regroup’. Surely it’s of much more lasting value to write haiku which describe natural and man-made objects on their own terms, i.e. it’s almost always best just to “say what you see”, as Roy Walker used to implore on Catchphrase, though ideally in an original way, rather than to say what you think or, worse still, over-think. To his credit, Gilfillan occasionally does try to do that, e.g. in ‘branch to branch / releasing sudden snowfalls / these sharp-eyed rooks’, but here the well-caught immediacy of the moment is somewhat spoiled by the superfluity of ‘sudden’ since the word ‘releasing’ implies a sudden movement. On occasion, though, he happily delivers the goods:

log scattered boats
the slow sweep
of the river                                                         

wooden bridge
a koi carp’s slow rise
to kiss a cloud

In both these, Gilfillan’s clear focus is on what he perceives, without a layer of cerebral commentary. The phrase ‘log scattered boats’, though it would be improved by a hyphen between ‘log’ and ‘scattered’, draws the reader in because it’s not run-of-the-mill wording and it shows an aspect of the world in a fresh, simple and therefore effective manner. One could argue that the haiku has room for an adjective before ‘river’, but that might just over-egg it, so the restraint, intentional or not, is, on balance, probably right. In the other haiku, I’m not sure if the phrasing is entirely original given the preponderance of ‘reflection-in-water’ haiku (not that I’m implying any plagiarism), but it’s a beautifully poised poem which reads well and sounds lovely, with the double alliteration. Unfortunately, the excellence of this haiku is somewhat undone by the inclusion in the book of a much poorer one which repeats its key verb use: ‘rising trout / kiss the surface / ………looks like rain’. 

Ghost Moon includes more than a few poems which are over-reliant on puns (‘The British Library / this silence / speaks volumes’), or attempts at ‘irony’ (the wretched ‘health and safety / the execution chamber’s / sterilized needle’); include more anthropomorphism (‘harbour dancing / one hundred / white sails’) or unnecessary meta-commentary of sorts (‘outpatients / we’re still waiting / batteries running low’); or even, in one instance, coin a conspicuous archaism (‘standing to attention / afront the war memorial / a tulip parade’). But Gilfillan can – and does – write nice haiku, so I’ll end with one which I really like (albeit that the impact of the mild but effective pathetic fallacy of ‘curious’ is diminished by also being ascribed to a dog elsewhere in the book): ‘slowly rising / behind the terrace / a curious moon’.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: publishing a collection of haiku, or any poems, too soon in a writing career does no-one any favours, least of all the writer concerned. There is, of course, a certain amount of bravery to be admired on the part of anyone who puts their work out into the world; however, it is always advisable first to reflect objectively and fully on that work, and to consider how it compares with that of writers whose collections have been published to critical acclaim.

*

On the Edge is subtitled as ‘a collection of short poems inspired by the landscape of the Peak District’ and consists of 97 haiku, grouped by theme, e.g. ‘Vales and Dales’, and then by location, e.g. ‘Dovedale’, with some accompanying black and white photographs taken by Gardiner. Some of the haiku are prefixed by straightforward descriptions of the locations and natural features, such as Mam Tor and Blue John Cavern. As such, the book is clearly aimed as much at visitors to the Peak District as it is at haiku aficionados. Since he’s an ecologist with a particular interest in grasshoppers and crickets, Gardiner’s eye is often scientifically forensic yet his poetry aims at simplicity of expression:

blind summit
the autumn mist
goes on and on

a fresh flush
of old man’s beard
the path narrows

These aren’t earth-shatteringly great haiku, but they have a pleasing understatement about them. Collins English Dictionary defines a ‘blind summit’ as “a point on a road where a vehicle approaching the top of a hill or incline cannot see vehicles approaching up the other side of the hill”, but in analysing this haiku, maybe one should substitute ‘walkers’ for ‘vehicles’; either way, all those ems seem somehow reflective of the surrounding mist and the poem hints at the inherent danger of the situation. The second haiku again uses the sounds of the words well: ‘a fresh flush’ is a delightful way of saying ‘a new bloom / flowering / efflorescence’. The specificity in the second line could refer to one of several plants (and a lichen), all of which have a whiteness that gives them their common name. The third line is, at first glance, rather throwaway; however, again, it may be hinting at the risks of clambering around the edges of the Peaks, to which I can readily testify.

The book would have benefited from the omission of a number of haiku which are merely descriptive (e.g. ‘laughing lovers / walk hand in hand / several paces ahead’ or ‘redundant water trough full of ferns’), and one could be for forgiven for not knowing whether the wording under some of the photographs is meant to be a haiku or a caption. Writing repeatedly about place or on a theme inevitably brings a tendency to straightforward depiction, and consequently the weaker haiku in On the Edge are perhaps more tolerable and excusable in such a context than, as is the case with Mark Gilfillan’s book, if they are more varied. Like Gilfillan’s, some of Gardiner’s fall into the trap of meta-commentary, e.g. how the third lines unnecessarily summarise or comment upon the first two lines in ‘dog wallowing / in cotton grass / happiness again’ and in ‘crimson petals / adorn the well dressing / old habits die hard’ (pun apparently intended), or project human characteristics onto nature (‘quiet clough / a lonely peregrine / hovers over me’). On the whole, though, the haiku convey the Peaks’ mystery and beauty, both macroscopic and microscopic, with more than a strong dose of yūgen:

rutting season
from the old coppice
a stag’s silence

dung fly
from wiry rushes
a lapwing calls

In the first of these, the two ‘-ce’ sounds at the ends of the second and third lines combine superbly to make a happy twist where the reader might, instead, have expected a bellowing. The precision of the second haiku is admirable and provides a fine example of deft use of an adjective.

The photographs fit very neatly with the prevailing, slightly melancholic moods of the haiku, and the overall book is very nicely produced by Brambleby Books, a small, generalist press.

*

Described as ‘an anthology of contemporary world haiku’ and ‘the first international haiku anthology to come from India’, naad anunaad serves its immediate aim of presenting contemporary haiku – 746 of them, by 231 poets from India and 25 other countries – to a readership (in India and beyond) unfamiliar, or largely so, with the form. Most of the poets, presented in alphabetical order by their forename, are well-known in the Anglophone haiku world, though the selections per poets are generally too small, mostly two or three per poet, to gain a real sense of their distinctiveness. For that reason, the anthology leans towards homogeneity and tantalises the reader with titbits. That a few poets – the likes of Jim Kacian, John Stevenson, Marlene Mountain and Kala Ramesh herself – are afforded a maximum selection of 12 (with the other two editors having eight each, which feels undeservedly high) only highlights the unjust fact that other notables – such as John Barlow, David Cobb, Cor van den Heuvel, Ferris Gilli, Lee Gurga, Martin Lucas and Lenard D. Moore – are afforded only a third or a quarter of that number, and others, like Tito and Billie Wilson, are each unsatisfactorily represented by just a token one. On the plus side, it’s good to see an anthology with a healthy gender balance, which no doubt wouldn’t have been the case had the three editors been men.

It’s interesting, though, to see so many – 81 – Indian poets represented, plus one from Bangladesh, most of whom might otherwise not get a look-in. Their best contributions reflect the geographical, socioeconomic, religious and other diversity within that great country, e.g. ‘temple tank— / near the stone bull / a real bull’ (Ajaya Mahala), ‘confused drunk . . . / not knowing when to zig / and when to zag’ (Gautam Nadkarni), ‘clear sky — / the vendor sells clouds / of cotton candy’ (Geethanjali Rajan), ‘drop by drop / it becomes a river — / sound of rain’ (Harleen Kaur Sona), and plenty of others besides.

As with any anthology, there are notable absences who spring readily to mind: from these shores, Frances Angela, Annie Bachini, Simon Chard, Keith Coleman, Caroline Gourlay, Matt Morden, Thomas Powell, Stuart Quine, Fred Schofield, Alison Williams and the late Ken Jones and Bill Wyatt are all at least as eminent as most of the 16 UK-based poets who are included; from the USA, Jack Barry, Mike Dillon, Garry Gay, Burnell Lippy, John Martone, Marian Olson, Wally Swist and Hilary Tann are all missing; etc., etc. Maybe some of these poets were invited but declined to participate. Whatever the reasons, these omissions are unfortunate, like the imbalance in the numbers of haiku per poets who are included, because readers who don’t know any better will presume that such an anthology as this provides the best work of the very best contemporary haiku poets. I don’t wish for a moment to trivialise the difficulties involved in putting together such an ambitiously wide-ranging anthology, but there’s an inherent flaw in trying to survey a field without first acquainting oneself with it thoroughly.

It closes with 33 passable haiku by children and young people, which rather undermines the point of the anthology, i.e. that haiku “resonate”, as the back-cover blurb puts it, because it shows that writing formulaic haiku to a decent level doesn’t even necessitate being an adult. But, crucially, becoming a consistently good haiku poet requires originality of perception and expression and a certain amount of flair born of experience and intense practice, i.e. that can’t be achieved overnight or even after just a year or two.

This book does have some good stuff in it, including some old favourites; ultimately, though, like most anthologies, it tries to please too many audiences and in so doing is a bit of mish-mash. That could, though, be perceived as a virtue, since its selections are somewhat eccentric.

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