First published in Modern Haiku 39:1, Spring 2008.
Matthew Paul. The Regulars. Foreword by Katherine Gallagher. Liverpool, England: Snapshot Press, 2007. 80 pages. 1-903543-18-5. John Barlow. Waiting for the Seventh Wave. Foreword by Ferris Gilli. Liverpool, England: Snapshot Press, 2007. 80 pages. 1-903543-11-8. Visit Snapshot Press for information on pricing.
Let me state this at the outset: With Snapshot Press, publisher John Barlow sets the platinum standard for design and production values among haiku and tanka books. Their quality is unsurpassed. Every physical aspect of these books is top notch, including paper choices, photography, typography, and graphic design. With such a high expectation set by the production values, it would seem understandably difficult for the poems to also reach the same high rank, but read them conscientiously and you will see that nearly always the poems, too, reach a fine standard of excellence while they speak clearly of each poet’s personal experience. Indeed, books from Snapshot Press are always a tactile and poetic delight.
In particular, two new Snapshot Press books that are no exception to these observations are Matthew Paul’s The Regulars and John Barlow’s own book, Waiting for the Seventh Wave. Most other books in the recent Snapshot Press crop of new publications are by American authors, but these two are British. One may immediately wonder what makes this work differ from the books by the American authors, and whether any identifiable Britishness arises in the poems.
I would say yes, but moreso in Matthew Paul’s collection. We encounter poems that readers living in England would likely interpret with distinct local images, as in Matthew’s one-liner “in the coot’s wake river police.” It can immediately bring to mind the River Thames in London or Henley or elsewhere nearby. I’m British and grew up in England, so this is natural enough for me to see, although perhaps some American readers will see something else. Yet that doesn’t matter, as haiku routinely relies on our own experiences, whatever they may be, to “finish” the poem, to round it off in our lives.
Also in Matthew’s book we see the British spellings of “kerb,” “spilt,” and “centre” in different poems, and cultural differences such as butter melting “on a hot cross bun” in another poem, a “pram” in another, and a reference to a “fete” in yet another—a term as common in England as “street fair” or “block party” is in America. A “winger’s” shadow, of course, is that of a soccer player. In one haiku that also mentions “Michaelmas,” we see a “bus queue” (not a “line”), and another poem invokes “Punch and Judy.” A reference to a “towpath” is hardly just British, but, for those who know the quaint British canals and their colourful canal barges (still sometimes horse-drawn), the word brings to mind an image very distinct from the much less common canals of the eastern United States. A couple of poems may completely stump some North Americans (the second haiku here being the title poem of Matthew’s book):
the weir’s fizz . . . in the lounge bar
tilling his allotment a money moth circles
on the tiny ait the regulars
Are these poems puzzling to Americans for geographical reasons, or is their challenge just a matter of vocabulary that has nothing to do with culture or location? It may be hard to say, yet when we know that an “ait” is a little river island, the first poem becomes clearer. Yet what of the “money moth”? Is it a metaphor for a sort of beggar, or is it a type of insect that is attracted to paper? Is seeing a money moth an omen that one will soon come into money? Whatever the case, we get a sense of character and place from Matthew’s poems, and that place is primarily England. In contrast, another poem describes “sugar maples turning,” which feels conspicuously North American, as is, of course, a reference to “West Coast jazz” (or I can’t help myself but think so). But a significant number of the poems in The Regulars do feel British in their content, even while most of its poems are “neutral” (or universal) regarding location, as in this pair:
somebody’s breath the faintest rain—
in the rush-hour train market traders
sunlit river arranging their sprouts
I confess that a few poems do still puzzle me, such as the following. In apprehending them, having a British upbringing seem not to give me any advantage:
heat haze the fishpond
a tangerine milk float chocker with bindweed—
jumping the lights thinking of her again
For presumably cultural reasons, these poems don’t connect with me, yet I am not bothered by this, trusting that they will make sense to the right audience. Rather than feel alienated by them, I feel intrigued by the challenge of discovering something beyond my comfort zone. A number of other poems confront me where the poet has risked not being understood, yet the gamble seems worthwhile for the poet to be true to himself and his surroundings. Again and again with his haiku, Matthew Paul refrains from the sin of saying too much. I must presume, in “tucking a roll-up / behind his ear / the harvest sun,” that the “roll-up” is a hand-rolled cigarette. It is not too much of a leap to understand, in “blue dragonflies / a boy with a Hula Hoop / on every finger,” that a child has playfully placed ring-shaped snack food items on his fingers. The poet shouldn’t have to do all the work.
Notice the juxtapositions in the poems I’ve quoted (in the foreword, Katherine Gallagher rightly refers to them as “daring associations”). What a leap from blue dragonflies to Hula Hoop snacks. By such a pairing, we are carried to a lazy summer day, transported back to our childhoods (a dragonfly is traditionally an autumn season word, but I get a summer feeling from the child’s idle playfulness). Matthew Paul excels at such effective juxtapositions that take us with him on his intuitive leaps:
the forward lean a stone shaken
as she pushes the pram— from the heel of my shoe
passion flowers apple blossom
Is the woman eager to see the flowers, or is the passion that the flowers represent the cause for her having a child to push in a pram? And what does apple blossom have to do with a stone shaken from one’s heel? We don’t need to figure out the reason for the juxtapositions. At the very least, their mystery holds us in each image until we feel the rightness, the wholeness, of what is described.
Think, too, of what is left out:
the breath between
appeal and decision—
I see this as a game of tennis (I imagine Wimbledon). But perhaps it’s some other sport, or perhaps not even a sport at all, and that’s okay because we can still dwell in the space created by the leap of juxtaposition. We are kept in a moment of indecision, and made aware of it by the chance timing of departing pigeons. And how quickly this dynamic instant happens and is gone.
In other cases, the juxtaposition is less of a leap but still engaging:
the window wiped
with the back of a glove
Are the lights merely a discovery after the window is wiped, or is it the joy of the holiday season that motivates someone to wipe a window (I imagine a bus window) to unblur and enjoy the holiday lights?
A measure of humour pervades this collection also, as in these poems:
sweltering zoo: my son asks
a boy shows his lion if he can help with the haiku—
the real thing his missing tooth
One of the seventy poems featured in Matthew Paul’s The Regulars is not only an example of the visual and aural quality of his work, but finds an echo in John Barlow’s Waiting for the Seventh Wave. Here’s Matthew’s poem:
the postman’s path
Notice how each line has some sort of repetition—the repeated “cr” and “ss” sounds in the first line, the repeated “p” sounds in the second, and the rhyme in the third. John’s book offers the following similar poem, also about work and snails, with the added humourous awareness of being slow and late:
late for work—
snail trails glisten
on the pavement
In John’s book, too, we can see the effectiveness of what’s left out, where we fill in the missing guitar and butterfly at the ends of “midday silence / sun-highlighted fingerprints / on the acoustic” and “between shade / and sunlight— / cabbage white.” John effectively seems to remove a verb, too, from the last line of “train delayed / I watch the giant hogweed / over the tracks.” Somehow we know just what is meant by “chiffchaff / in and out in and out / of the pine’s shadows.” And we understand the sexual intimacy that has taken place just before “winter evening . . . / the arc of her body / in the afterglow.” These poems strike a fine balance between saying too much and too little, and by withholding at least something, they engage readers so they supply not just implied words, but implied meanings and overtones as well.
Occasionally, maybe too much is left out. For example, I find myself unable to figure out the following poem. Nor can I begin to know what I’m supposed to feel in response, because so many of the words can be interpreted in multiple ways (especially “light,” “burn,” and “dipper”), creating an unhelpful ambiguity. If the first line is an idiom, it’s one that escapes me:
light on the burn—
Britishisms are much less common in John’s book than Matthew’s. We see a “flat” (apartment) and a reference to a “crisp packet” (potato chip bag) in two poems, and a “loch” in another, but that’s about it. Perhaps one may conclude that John has spent more time than Matthew with American haiku, for better or worse, and the vocabulary, by accident or design, seems less uniquely British to American readers. Some may consider this a strength, others a loss. As with some of Matthew Paul’s poems, some of the vocabulary in John Barlow’s book does nevertheless still challenge readers on occasion (but not because of being British). This is true in words such as “pipistrelles” and “rosebay willowherb” in a few poems, and in “early June— / the chack of a ring ouzel / and tormentil everywhere” (even if some of these words are unfamiliar, listen to their wonderful sounds!). We know that the “winger” in Matthew’s poem was a soccer player (or “football,” as the British would say), but in John’s “kickoff / gulls squawk / from the crossbar,” the poem could easily be about American football, even if it’s most likely soccer.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, John’s poems seem to have made more of an effort to cross the Atlantic, or to find a universality that’s less geocentric. One could ask if this takes the colour out of them, or if they have traded one colour for another. Americans may find much pleasure in the British content and unique vocabulary in Matthew’s poems, and there’s less of that local distinctiveness in John’s poems. Instead, John provides what may be a broader accessibility in a number of standout haiku:
train delays banks of cloud
for the fifth day now wind ruffles white patches
the dead fieldmouse on the tree-top crow
dripping oars— kissing
the merganser’s wing tips with eyes wide open
leave the water shooting stars
I love the humour of some of the poems, too:
early morning— night silence . . .
the cat’s tail beneath her head
circles the bed my pins and needles
I find less startling (yet still effective) juxtapositional leaps in John’s poems, but instead, many of them demonstrate a refined sensitivity for rhythm and sound. Listen to the “l” sounds and the staccato beat in the first of the following poems, the “b,” “d,” and “n” sounds in the second one, and more “l” sounds in the third and fourth poems:
March squall spring dawn sun
the yolk sac spills behind the blind
from a song thrush egg buzz of a bluebottle
failing light this morning
the last angler the squashed blackbird’s tail
leans into his cast a little lower
Notice how John doesn’t explain why the bird is squashed in the blackbird poem. He trusts us to figure out why, that it has been hit by a car or killed in some other traumatic fashion. It seems that the last life of the bird is slowly draining out of it as its tail lowers—both literally and figuratively. Since first noticing it the day before, the poet is still sympathetic towards the bird in the morning, and feels pathos in its lowering tail. It takes a fine sensitivity to notice this, and thus it is no wonder that Ferris Gilli affirms in her foreword that John Barlow “continues to make a significant contribution to the haiku movement,” which I think is true not just as a publisher, but as a poet also. And this is true not just in England, where Matthew Paul also shines, but in North America as well.
In the end, all you can do with fine haiku poems is to be silent and let them wash over you, or to wait for the poem’s moment of stillness if you are attuned to know it is coming—as is often the case with the work in John Barlow’s Waiting for the Seventh Wave.
we fall silent evening surf . . .
the winter-grey river sandpipers waiting
swollen with rain for the seventh wave
Again, the production values in Snapshot Press books are truly stellar. Don’t let that fool you into assuming that the poems they feature are equally good. Rather, read them carefully to discover their character and freshness, so you can find for yourself that the poems are frequently as fine as the packages they come in. You will find this to be the case for Matthew Paul’s The Regulars and John Barlow’s Waiting for the Seventh Wave—each with distinctive poems that reward multiple readings.