Noddy: A Book Review

First published in Tundra #1, 1999, pages 108 to 111. For a detailed examination of all of Robert Spiesss books (starting in 1966), including Noddy, visit A Tumbly Life of Haiku: Reading Robert Spiess by Randy Brooks (Modern Haiku 42:2, Summer 2011).
 
Noddy by Robert Spiess. Modern Haiku Press, 1997; 72 pages, 5½ by 8½ inches, paperback. $9.00 postpaid from the author at P.O. Box 1752, Madison, Wisconsin 53701 USA.

 

From the pen of Modern Haiku editor Robert Spiess comes a quirky collection of haiku, senryu, and other short poetry called Noddy. This is not the Noddy character popularized in England by children’s book writer Enid Blyton, although the whimsy of Blyton’s character may add overtones to Spiess’s book. Rather, these poems are autobiographical, with “noddy” being a name for the poet himself, his “digs” being Spiess’s own “small, very basic dwelling,” all “tumbly” with a pleasant clutter of books.

        Spiess says in his introduction that “The ‘noddy’ who appears in many of the poems seems to some to be an eccentric, even a sort of booby,” so Spiess is being self-deprecating—or speculating on a perception some people may have of him. He adds, however, with hopefully greater accuracy if we see the “noddy” character as Spiess himself, that “others wonder if he [noddy] is not fulfilling his life by according with the two sides of his nature: that of the student of both the manifest and the transcendent, and the humorist.” Perhaps both perceptions of “noddy” as Spiess are true (the yin/yang symbol on the book’s cover is a clue). Certainly Spiess is a humorist, and in this often wry collection the “noddy” poems (although they make up only a portion of the book) are a crazy sort of wisdom, most fully apprehended as humor—as part, it would seem, of an elaborate comedy.

        Adding further elaborateness to Spiess’s private yet usually accessible domain is his serendipitous arrangement of the book’s poems in conjunction with the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. He explains that all sixty-four poems matched up naturally with the names of the hexagrams. Many pairings are remarkably appropriate, as with the following haiku assigned to the “earth” hexagram:

 

        mud in their bills,

a pair of swallows glide through

        the shed’s broken pane                            (p. 2)

 

One poem appears per page, along with the corresponding hexagram and its name. In citing further poems, I’ll include the hexagram’s name.

        As with Spiess’s previous book of poetry The Cottage of Wild Plum (1991), most poems in Noddy follow what are usually symmetrical syllabic “architectures,” such as the following (listed by increasing length and complexity): 3-6-3, 5-5-5, 5-6-5, 5-7-5, 3-4-3-4, 3-5-3-5, 4-4-4-4, 8-8-8-8, 2-5-2-5-2, 3-3-3-3-3, 3-3-4-3-4, 3-4-3-3-4, 3-4-3-4-3, 3-4-4-3-3, 3-6-3-6-6, 5-5-5-5-5, 1-4-1-4-1-4, 2-3-2-3-2-3-2, 6-6-6-6-6-6-6, 2-2-1-1-2-1-3-1, 2-1-1-1-1-2-2-2-1, 2-2-2-1-1-1-2-3-1, and other patterns (some of them rhyme, although not obtrusively). A few of the three-line poems are irregular in syllable structure, but most fit particular patterns, in contrast to the great variety of patterns of free-form and organic poems Spiess publishes in Modern Haiku. Perhaps Spiess sets himself the formalist challenge of arbitrary yet usually symmetrical patterns for his own poems as a way of deepening his interest in haiku after five decades of reading and writing in the genre. Yet pleasingly, none of his syllabic forms ever seems forced or padded in sacrifice to the chosen form’s rigidity. Here are two favorite selections—the first syllabic, the second nonsyllabic (note the slant rhyme in the first example, and indeed, note all of its mellifluous sounds):

 

        the day’s haying done—

in silence we watch fireflies                            “fellowship”

        glide over the lawn                                     (p. 13)

 

a cicada rasps again—

      and again the baby                    “accord”

            shakes her rattle                  (p. 8)

 

And here are four examples of longer syllabic forms, these being wonderfully delicate, rich, and perceptive:

 

field

      of stunted hay

sharp

      grasshopper feet

crawl                                                                         “treading”

      my sweaty back                                              (p. 10)

 

so light

      only the kitten’s

pawprints

      allow the snowfall                     “influence”

to count                                               (p. 31)

 

moonlit stream

      here the mayflies

lived the day                                                          “the marrying maiden”

      for love alone                                                  (p. 54)

 

a willow

      beside the marsh

the fragrance

      of its catkins                                 “dispersed”

fills the skiff                                        (p. 59)

 

        Back to the topic of autobiography. While the preceding examples are surely faithful vignettes from Spiess’s personal experience, they are not strictly about himself—not as are his self-aware noddy poems. The noddy poems, once the reader perceives the autobiographical thrust, seem to work on a different level, like an inside joke. Through the device of the “noddy” character, perhaps we see Spiess himself in ways we have not seen before:

 

        cicada’s evensong

the noddy being cleansed            “folly”

        of sin and folly                           (p. 4)

 

someone

      wants the digs

picked up—

      the noddy

replies

      it’s home when                                              “standstill”

tumbly                                                                      (p. 12)

 

        snail on a sedge—

so closely noddy peers                  “withdrawal”

        it pulls in its horns                    (p. 33)

 

winterizing

      the tumbly digs

sisyphean                                                                “exhaustion”

      the noddy’s work                                          (p. 47)

 

ten

years’

zazen

yet

noddy’s

monkey-mind

ever                                                       “discipline”

leaping                                                 (p. 60)

 

        ninety-five degrees—

noddy’s silent words of grace                         “inner truth”

        before a cold beer                                       (p. 61)

 

        There’s something of Han-Shan in “noddy,” and perhaps Spiess’s Wisconsin cabin is like Cold Mountain. Maybe Spiess is a haiku lunatic, and happy to proclaim it:

 

gathered to feed

      and tipping down

the mallards are                                   “gathering together”

      mooning noddy                              (p. 45)

 

ha! ha!

tumbly

yard’s

now

become

all

moneywort                        “richness”

gold                                       (p. 55)

 

        Perhaps “ha! ha!” is the last word on noddy—the way to revel in these poems, poems from a crazy cabin, whose chortling Zen humor serves up a carefree, humble enlightenment. We should all wish for this lightness, this understanding, to see what “noddy” sees.

 

       we are not apart—

your land’s haiku poets                     “tranquillity through harmony”

       sing within my heart                    (p. 11)