Reviews in Presence 60

Below are my reviews of two haiku books in Presence #60.


Chuck Brickley, earthshine
Snapshot Press, Orchard House, High Lane, Ormskirk, L40 7SL; £11.99; ISBN 978-1-903543-43-6.

Paul Chambers, Latitudes
Alba Publishing, PO Box 266, Uxbridge, UB9 5NX; £10/€14/US$15; ISBN 978-1-910185-74-2.

Sometimes reading and reviewing two books in parallel can be very rewarding; especially if they’re both darn good. Chuck Brickley is a veteran of the American haiku scene who started writing before Paul Chambers was born, but both poets possess an inherent ability to notice the microcosmic matter which is largely the subject of haiku:

predawn hush                                    pre-dawn frost . . .
the forest                                             a flicker of light
still dripping                                       in the bull’s nostril
(Brickley)                                             (Chambers)

The synchronicity of haiku poets who are deeply in tune with their surroundings is, I suppose, to be expected and welcomed. These two poems start from the same time-point yet diverge into two beautiful scenes. Both haiku zoom in from the macrocosmic to close quarters, yet at first glance you could say that Brickley’s haiku is the more affecting because of its active verb use and its timelessness which could be as prehistoric as it is modern; but Chambers, by using a verbal noun (‘flicker’), creates a lovely, sharper focus which sounds gorgeous on the ear – abetted by the rhyme of ‘frost’ with the first syllable of ‘nostril’. Chambers, it seems, is very adept at writing excellent verbless haiku, such as this beauty:

moonless night
the weight of the corners
of my mother’s mouth

One might argue that the repeat of ‘of’ is a little clumsy and avoidable; on the other hand, it gives each of the nouns extra emphasis and importance. As an example of how heavy stresses can be used effectively in haiku, you wouldn’t really have to look beyond this one. Chambers’s verbless haiku don’t quite always hit the mark – ‘headland mist / a curlew at the tip / of a cry’ strives for a romanticism which the weak third line undermines – and if there is any general constructive criticism I could make of Latitudes, it is that his haiku need active verbs more often than he uses them.

As his helpful preface notes, Brickley’s book collects haiku from two distinct periods, 1973–1984 and 2007–2017, which are “sequenced as a single year”. It quickly becomes obvious that Brickley, who was an associate editor of Modern Haiku when the legendary Robert Spiess was editor, deserves to be appraised among the foremost American haiku poets. His haiku have that quality, which characterised the first few decades of the American haiku scene, of not having been over-edited; consequently they tend to be simpler yet richer than the more minimalist oeuvres of many more recent haiku poets, which often feel that they’ve had the poetry wrung out of them. To consider a couple of examples:

spring breeze                                                to and from
the barber knocks his pushbroom                  my mailbox
against the curb                                           bear tracks in the mud

I don’t know about you, but I love these; they feel like haiku I’ve read before, even though they aren’t. They each have a superficial simplicity of expression which covers a multiple of readings. In the first, we hear the wind and then the knocking of the (I imagine) wooden broom. Presumably, the protagonist would have swept up the bulk of the hair within his shop, so one assumes that the hairs which are being carried off by that breeze aren’t great in number – though they could conceivably have come from several or many customers’ heads. Nothing much is happening, one may think. It could be a lull between customers or just a routine break. Equally, though, custom may be slow to the point of non-existent. Sonically, the haiku works well too, with nice alliteration and balance between the lines. In all, it’s a pretty much universal scene, well captured. The second haiku has perhaps a more deliberate ambiguity to it, in that the first line could belong to either the bear or the unseen poet–persona, who might either be outside following the tracks or viewing them from the safety of his residence. However it’s viewed, this haiku looks good on the page and again sounds pleasing, with three pairs of repeated consonants and the near-rhyme of ‘box’ and ‘tracks’. Brickley writes very fine nature haiku in the Spiess tradition, e.g. ‘a hummingbird /stuck on a burdock burr / the shimmering breeze’, in which the reader may find her/his sympathy with the bird’s predicament turn into empathy. But he’s also an acute observer of humankind: ‘slow harmonica / the glow of the fireplace /on his closed eyes’. Brickley also tries various experiments in form, with mixed results: of two concrete poems, one vertical, right-justified haiku is excellent, but one in the shape of a blackberry is less successful because the subject-matter is less compelling. In summary, though, earthshine deserves a place on any discerning haiku reader’s shelf.

Chambers’s haiku are also largely good, but, in contrast with Brickley’s, lack a bit of variety of expression and form. Comparisons can be invidious of course, particularly when a book which is to all intents a ‘selected haiku’ of a longstanding poet (albeit that he took a long break from haiku) is contrasted with the second collection by a less experienced poet. As we all know, however, the ability to write haiku well, and consistently so, is not always related to age and/or experience. Chambers has much more than mastered the basics of haiku and, on the evidence of his best work in Latitudes, I’m sure he will blossom into a consistently fine poet: 

mist after rain                                                evening shadows
the river unreeling                                        a skipping girl’s plait
warbler song                                                  falling loose

The first of these has a marvellous poetic element to it – much because of the original, apposite verb use and the half-rhymes of ‘after’, ‘river’ and ‘warbler’ – which Chambers’s haiku don’t always contain. (A little regrettably, the power of the haiku is weakened by the repetition of the opening line in another haiku in the book, although that haiku is rather good too.) The second is all the better for being a simple formulation of the naturally poetic scene which the poet is witnessing – sometimes all it takes is to write what you see.


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