Reviews in Presence #62

Below are the last reviews I wrote in my stint as Reviews Editor (and Co-Editor) for Presence.

Stuart Quine, Sour Pickle
Alba Publishing, PO Box 266, Uxbridge, UB9 5NX, UK;
£12/€14/$16; ISBN 9781910185957; http://www.albapublishing.com

Hamish Ironside, Three Blue Beans in a Blue Bladder
Iron Press, 5 Marden Terrace, Cullercoats, North Shields, NE30 4PD, UK; £6; ISBN 9780995457935; http://www.ironpress.co.uk

I have to declare my interests in reviewing these books – both authors are friends of mine, Quine is also a former Presence colleague and I was one of three people who read and commented on Ironside’s draft manuscript; but nonetheless these are very good, unmissable books.

Quine is widely recognised as a pioneer and master of the one-line haiku. He has been writing haiku and having them published, mainly in Presence, for well over 20 years, so it may come as a surprise to those who’ve long admired his work that Sour Pickle is his first collection, which is a considerable contrast to the increasingly prevalent tendency of neophyte haiku poets to rush to getting a collection out, often with no filter or sense of how a collection should be edited and cohere. Dedicated to Martin Lucas, the book is divided into the four seasons, starting with spring.

The one-liner as a form gives the haiku poet opportunities which the three-line form doesn’t; it can be used to create ambiguity, by not making explicit where the cuts/breaks should be, thereby lending the haiku multiple interpretations. Quine’s one-liners tend not to do that, however, and it is usually obvious where the reader should mentally insert the breaks, to the point where the reader may wonder why he doesn’t just write them as three-liners, e.g. ‘sushi carousel the blush on the salmon coming round again’ or ‘millstone weir a downy feather slips downstream’. But as with both of these, a case could be made that the form can add another, ‘concrete’ dimension: in the first, the form could be seen as representative of the horizontal nature of the carousel, and in the second it allows the words to gush forth in imitation of the weir.

The form also enables haiku which would look unbalanced if they were set out as three-liners and would really be divided into two parts instead of three, e.g. Quine’s ‘defiant in thin rain the toad on the garden path’ or ‘waiting at the departure gate a discussion of the bardos’, which by any standard are excellent haiku and senryu respectively.

As I’ve noted previously in Presence, Quine has a gift for writing haiku with an air of wabi sabi, such as his echo of William Carlos Williams’s trailblazing Imagist classic ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’: ‘everything depends on this old bucket left out in the rain’. One could argue here, though, that the form doesn’t bring out the best of the haiku; as in Williams’s poem the words need to unfold more slowly than the one-liner permits, and inserting breaks after ‘depends’ and ‘bucket’ would have naturally allowed that to happen.

I especially like this wabi sabi example too: ‘gone to seed in the coupling yard grey beards of willowherb’. It exemplifies Quine’s talent at spotting and celebrating the small things in life, and rendering them into poems which may use simple language but still sound wonderful on the ear. Furthermore, the reader could additionally interpret the image as a kind of self-portrait by its writer.

Quine also uses the form to write haiku which have a beautiful, musical sense of movement, to the point of being tongue-twisters:

                                the windbell’s streamer wildly spinning March winds

                        along the strandline seaspray and sunshimmer in knotted kelp

In the first of these, ‘March winds’ look as those they are wrongly positioned, i.e. that they should come at the beginning, but Quine’s ordering facilitates a reading worthy of Existential philosophy, that it is only by their impact on physical objects that one becomes aware of the winds. In the second, Quine sets before us an array of natural phenomena concentrated within the visual alliteration of ‘knotted kelp’.

Presence readers have regularly voted Quine’s quietly observational and sometimes more personal, and even self-deprecating, haiku at the top of their ‘best-of-issue’ choices and I won’t set them out here, but readers of this essential collection will come across many old favourites and classics. The prevailing mood of Quine’s haiku is predominantly downbeat and autumnal whatever the season, and occasionally to the point of despair; but that is no bad thing, because what they do so well is set out eternal truths in a clear and frankly marvellous way that so few English-language haiku poets can match:

                                        deep in the hills the ruffled moon silvers the tarn

*

Ironside’s collection is a sequel of sorts to his first collection, Our Sweet Little Time, and, like that book, sets out the best of a calendar year’s worth of haiku, with each month featuring a delightful black-and-white linocut by the artist Mungo McCosh. At only £6, this A6 150-page collection is an attractively designed bargain.

The atmosphere of Ironside’s poems provides a sharp contrast to Quine’s, being more outward-facing and largely concerned with the often comical ups and downs of marriage, family and the general absurdities of middle-aged existence in 21st Century London suburbia. If writing resonant haiku is a difficult art, a case could be made that writing a resonant senryu is harder still. Many senryu have an immediate ‘punchline effect and nothing more, especially those which tread well-worn themes such as jealousy of, or schadenfreude at the misfortune of, a neighbour. Explaining how senryu work may well be as pointless an exercise as explaining how jokes work – not that all senryu are comic, of course. It’s a generalisation, but, on average, I contend that senryu tend to be more immediate in ‘meaning’, and less slow-burningly resonant than, haiku. It therefore takes considerable skill to write senryu which defy that tendency by succeeding in having both an instantly graspable ‘a-ha’ appeal and a deeper layer of meaning or suggestion. I would suggest that, among British haiku poets, only the two Davids, Cobb and Jacobs, can compete with Ironside when it comes to writing wry, resonant senryu:

                for good measure                                          anti-war march—
                the cash machine delivers                           we join it for a few steps
                an electric shock                                            to get to the shop

Ironside is particularly good at wittily capturing the loving rivalry between family members, between he and his wife and as the butt of his daughter’s incisive observations, but usually (as with all the best humour) with a hint of an underlying seriousness, e.g. ‘mental health ward— /my wife asks how they’ll know / I’m not a patient’ or ‘sunlit rain— / my daughter figures / how long I’ve got left’. Ironside manages to balance the comedy with the darker side of life in a manner which is perceptive and finely nuanced.

Several of the poems feature Ironside’s day-job as a freelance editor, typesetter and proof-reader, e.g. ‘working weekend— / the Oxford Spelling Dictionary / shouts asshole at me’. Indeed, Ironside’s ability to laugh at himself and point out his own weaknesses is a characteristic he shares with Quine. There the comparison ends, though, because Ironside’s use of language and subject-matter is much more varied, sometimes to the point of nearing the boundaries of the homogenous consensus of what a haiku looks like: ‘the myth of pleasure . . . / Saturday night vomit / in Sunday morning rain’ and ‘a spider snares a wasp / with the overelaboration / of a Bond villain). I’m not sure that the first line of the first of these adds anything to what the reader could have deduced from the rest of the haiku; it almost acts as a metacommentary or maybe as a Hogarthian warning. But no-one could deny that it’s a haiku of sorts. In the second, I like the fact that the poem itself is elaborate, and I don’t think it really matters if it’s a haiku or not because it succeeds as an amusing, if dark, observation. There are several other examples which are more extreme (or ‘experimental’ as the back-cover blurb puts it), but they are almost always intelligible, and they make up a small minority within the overall context of Ironside’s rich and varied collection.

Ironside can also write traditional haiku on classical themes, e.g. the simple but lovely ‘autumn— / an old woman / twirling her pigtails’; overall, though, his trademark reflective humour shines brightest, as in this, which features that trope I mentioned earlier:

                                                                    our nervous cat
                                                                    seems so relaxed
                                                                    in the neighbour’s garden

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