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Book Reviews

WHR March 2018


River’s Edge


Owen Bullock

River’s Edge, Owen Bullock, Recent Work Press, Canberra Australia, First Published 2016, ISBN: 9780994456526, Paperback, pp.88, AUD$12.95, $17.95 (international price), <recentworkpress.com>

As an editor, I always feel a sense of relief and warmth whenever I read haiku poems sent to me by the author of the collection under review, or those by him I happen to find in other publications, or internet. Relief, because I immediately detect something special and of quality. But, warmth, because I can feel humanity, empathy, gentleness and generosity of heart behind these few lines of words neatly displayed.

Reading the introduction of the collection, I now know my feelings have not been misplaced. The majority of haiku compiled in this fourth haiku collection by Bullock were composed during his period as a care worker for the elderly people in New Zealand. He visited them in their own homes. In the intimate and relaxed contacts with them, Bullock had precious opportunities of listening to their stories full of wisdom which impressed him deeply. The experiences and observations resulted in the haiku poems which are honest reflections and inspired thoughts. They do not hide negativities of old age, which would have been disingenuous. Instead, Bullock presents them but in a delicate and sympathetic way, and also in a way in which he seems to be saying that it would happen to me too tomorrow. Compassion’s literal meaning is: to suffer together. One such I like very much is:

    unable to remember
    what was in the dream
    what was in life

One of the mistakes carers tend to fall into is to have, even unconsciously, some sense of superiority over those who are frail, disabled and vulnerable, unable to defend themselves. This can lead to all sorts of undesirable things, including cruelty to them. Acceptance, tolerance and patience are all necessary to avoid the mistake, but a sense of humour and detachment would also be useful (both important part of the essence of haiku!). I have found the gem:

    old house bus
    indicates left
    goes right

Is the following haiku a form of self-mockery, implying the author too is losing his marbles a bit?

    winter light –
    how long have I been driving
    in the wrong gear?

It never ceases to amaze one that few visit the elderly, exacerbating their problem of loneliness. Sadly, this seems universal. Can you read the next haiku without shedding a tear or two?

    on the piano
    photos of the ones
    who don’t visit

There are, or ought to be, many moments when joy and happiness can be, and are, felt by elderly people. They are sharpened if the loved ones get into the picture. There is a lovely example:

    his voice younger
    as he talks about
    his wife

If you start repeating yourself, you are sure to be on a natural course of getting old all right. If people stop telling you that you are repeating yourself, you are in a serious stage of forgetfulness. Bullock found a kind and humane way of getting around it:

    nodding to her story
    as if
    for the first time

There are bound to be embarrassing moments. Bullock depicts one such example in a funny and, yes, a little bit embarrassing way:

    my male client’s back
    in a bloke-ish way

In Japan, getting old is often likened to progressively becoming a child again, i.e. less able to do things. Declining brain power is one sad example. Bullock’s dealing is again humorous as well as humanistic:

    my mentor rings me
    for advice

Whom will Bullock be ringing for advice then? He had better find his students or followers quick! The Japanese word kidoairaku is often used to symbolise life itself. It simply means joy-anger-sorrow-comfort. Bullock must have experienced all of them in his dealings with the elderly. And, the inevitable will visit every one of them…and in time every one of us:

    of the room
    first light

In addition to these poems about Bullock’s dealing with elderly people, the collection also has quite a few brilliant haiku, some examples of which are as follows:

    the zen garden
    with water

    I let go
    what I lost

(Generally speaking, non-Japanese haiku poems dealing with Zen have much to be desired, mainly because they fall directly into most tedious clichés or they are products of the stubbornly mistaken understanding that haiku equals Zen and Zen equals haiku. Bullock’s haiku here are rare exceptions).

    walking a road
    I drive daily
    nothing familiar

    if I don’t
    pick this flower it has
    a few days more

three blue beans in a blue bladder

another year in haiku


Hamish Ironside

three blue beans in a blue bladder - another year in haiku, Hamish Ironside, Iron Press, Northumberland, UK, First published 2018, ISBN 978-0-9954579-5, £6.00  <www.ironpress.co.uk>

This is not an ordinary haiku anthology. It is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it for the hypocrites in polite society. It contains many haiku poems which penetrate layers of our falsehood, pretence, pomposity and popular misconceptions, to reveal truths hidden underneath. They show up almost ruthlessly the realities of human life and behaviour which most people would rather avoid seeing.

These realities include human frailty (especially one’s own), vanity, death, lust, inferiority complex, inadequacy, paranoia, insanity, violence, irony, grudge, hatred and anger. Truth speaks. Truth reveals. Truth hurts. Truth punishes. Truth, therefore, is feared and abhorred.

The impact of such haiku is strong. It is the kind of power of the pen which reminds me immediately of a Japanese haiku giant who has died recently: Tota Kaneko (1919-2018). Love him or loathe him, Kaneko left a huge legacy which no serious haiku poets will be able to ignore. As it happens I have written an article on him, which is published in the present issue of World Haiku Review (see One Hundred Haijin after Shiki). Is it far-fetched to compare Ironside to Kaneko? Even if it is, he has the promise to grow into the stature comparable to the legendary haijin who was at the time of death more than twice this Englishman’s age. For that to happen, however, he has to work hard, as Kaneko did in an inimitable way. Ironside was born in Reading, Berkshire and now lives in Twickenham, south-west of London with his wife and daughter. It is heartening to see the birth in England of a haiku poet with a distinct style and original ideas. Not another one of the kind who constitutes the majority of contemporary world haiku population. Long may it last, and far and wide may his influence spread (i.e. to the rest of the world)! Where shall we begin? The following haiku may be a good place to start:

    magpies in a trap –
    and us in our own cage
    of craven politeness

I love the look of magpies, but they are widely disliked because they take shiny objects from your garden, are too noisy and are scavengers, jacks of all trades, predators and cheeky thieves. They are vain because they can recognise themselves in the mirror (all in all, a little bit too similar to us for comfort). They are also feared as they are believed to spell ill omen. In paintings of the Holy Family, a magpie is seen to perch on something, as if to say ‘two for sorrow’. But they are one of the most intelligent nonmammal animals in the world. Perhaps humans are a bit jealous of them. In the English countryside one encounters magpies captured in cages to attract other magpies. At any zoo, we humans are in captivity from the animals’ point of view. For the freest-spirited, his/her home is a cage. So are the neighbours, community, society, any organisations, cities, counties, the nation, the world, and above all him-/herself and life itself. Before trapping magpies, we should free our mind first.

    elusive thoughts
    quicksilver through my mind
    pursued by words

The author is brainy. He is also sensitive. Perhaps, hypersensitive, but that is what a poet is all about. Words are very much of his occupational tools as he works as a freelance editor and typesetter for prestigious publishers. They include Routledge, Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber. He might have done the typesetting for Kazuo Ishiguro. This haiku is a little bit like some experiment of brain science: where are our thoughts; what is mind; which bit is responsible for linguistic functions. He also seems to be blessed with keen intuitive capability and flashes of sharp insight. An idea comes to his mind like a thunderbolt without warning. The next moment, it’s gone. Within that split second, he has to grasp it so that he can put pen to paper afterwards. Quicksilver is an old-fashioned word for mercury which is poisonous. Ironside had better be warned!

    intending ‘future’
    I see my hand
    has written ‘failure’

The sentiment behind this haiku appears in many others too. Despite his apparent talent, steady job and family life, all of which are testimony to his success in life, he confesses to feeling inferior, inadequate or a failure. Is he a perfectionist? Is he not too hard on himself? The same sentiment surfaces in many lines of his haiku as self-mockery, grudge or jealousy. They are excellent haiku, and therefore one is tempted to say, “That’s all right, then”, and be done with it. However, they also look as if they could give us a key to the very heart of his art, life and philosophy. Let us see some of them:

    schoolgirl laughter –
    I still think
    it must be at me

    the river and I
    both running
    on empty

    a child stares at me
    consulting the OED
    like I’m up to no good

    in a bookshop
    I make myself find
    the typo I missed

    running up a muddy hill
    still nursing
    an ancient grievance

    brooding on money;
    I shorten the swingball rope
    to fit the garden

    around midnight
    the moon shows up
    looking lost and gaunt

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

So, what is going on here? For an answer, we have to dig deep.

    the walk home from school –
    I try to recall
    how life began

I assume that the author was coming home after taking his daughter to school. Seeing all those youngsters, he must have suddenly been seized by a strange feeling about how he got where he was in life. Something must have been on his mind and he realised that in order to get to the bottom of it he needed to go right back how it all began: his parents and relatives, family history, his upbringing and schooling, his bachelor days, job hunt, career-building, love, marriage etc. I don’t think he was doing David Attenborough…how life on earth started.

    cleaning my pen –
    the ink of my youth
    won’t stop bleeding

This is an astonishing haiku. Though I do not get the full meaning of it, it strikes me as powerful and profound. The keyword of course is ‘bleeding’. Let us begin by giving it the safest but most boring interpretation: the letters written get blurred as the ink bleeds into surrounding areas of paper. It is a physical phenomenon through which the author is saying something symbolic. Namely, the ink making the smudge is symbolic of his inability to write clearly and lucidly as a youth, which continues to be the case to this day.

However, I would rather opt for a more audacious but somewhat sinister interpretation. That is to say, what is bleeding is blood itself, but of course in a figurative sense. The pen represents his writing activity. The ink represents his thoughts. He was writing these thoughts down on paper with the ink of blood. Whatever he wrote nowadays or however new things he had discovered during his career as a writer and poet, the agonising but fresh, free and youthful thoughts in his teens and twenty’s still seep through and bleed into his current works.

The third interpretation is that the ink keeps coming out of the fountain pen like magic or a curse, however much he tries to wash it clean with water, a very familiar thing for anyone who has cleaned a fountain pen in the sink. And this has been going on since he was a young man. A bit humorous but not much literary merit there unless one would go so far as to compare this phenomenon to the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands.

    children’s playground
    flanked by gravestones
    waiting like parents

This haiku is about life and death, or about death itself with life as a backdrop. It is a graphic summing up of the stages of our life and a reminder that even if one is only a young child one’s inevitable death arrives in no time. It is almost the only truth that everybody knows but lives in denial. Ironside struggles to understand what it’s all about and the struggle has fallen down on paper like raindrops to form moving haiku:

    sunlit rain –
    my daughter figures
    how long I’ve got left

    shorten the stalks
    so they can live longer
    a dying friend said

    mouths of fish
    gulping at the surface
    as if drowning

    crossing the cemetery
    light sent by stars
    before the dead were born

    the last light lost,
    the green gone grey –
    what am I waiting for?

The author is only 47. Live, and write plenty more haiku. The anthology is illustrated with powerful lithographs from the linocuts by Mungo McCosh. It is a good book worth keeping for frequent revisits.




Gérard Krebs

THE SOUNDLESS DANCE  Haiku, Gérard Krebs, Hub Editions, Lincolnshire UK, First published 2017, ISBN 978-0-9576460-8-7, Paperback, pp.66, £6.50,

If haiku poems arrive at your door from Finland, you might assume they are all about ice, aurora borealis, sauna and Nordic mythology, mightn’t you? You might also assume that the author would be tall, blue-eyed and blonde.

    frozen landscape
    the soundless dance
    of northern lights

Even if one expects a stereotype, one still cannot help admiring the beautiful scene depicted in this haiku. So, there comes an interesting question for anybody here: how should we deal with stereotypes? Should we dismiss them outright, or at least ‘look down upon’ them? Then, we would be missing out on Fuji-yama, Geisha, Machu Picchu, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Grand Canyon, Aberdeen Angus, 1982 Petrus, Pomerol, Sushi, Henri Matisse, and 99% of the best things in this world. There is a good reason why something (even if revolutionary at first) becomes a stereotype. In most cases, it is because that something is good…very good in the eyes of a countless number of people.

Haiku is in a sense a stereotype. So, this question is not for the exceptional few who love asking questions but is indeed a real and very serious one for each and every one of us. To paraphrase the question: how can we bring newness, originality, individuality, singularity à la Stephen Hawking, innovation etc. to what is already a stereotype? It would take thousands of words to discuss this subject. So, I shall not do it here. But please remember the question itself and keep it at least at the back of your mind. It will not harm you. One more lovely haiku before moving on to other seasons:

    winter wood –
    a twig’s snow load
    drops into silence

A similar concept in Japanese haiku is ‘yuki-ore’ (snow/breaking) which is a winter kigo. Tree branches and bamboo trees break under the weight of accumulating snow and make tearing or breaking noises followed by the thud. It is interesting that the author concentrates on the silence while the Japanese focus on the noises. Of course, he uses a single ‘twig’ here, implying a small quantity of snow on only one twig, and no breakage and therefore no sound, or inaudible one if that. The Japanese are always conscious of silence which is the basis, background or undercurrent of all things Japanese. Sound, noise, cry, chirp, tweet, twitter or whatever else you hear in your ears are therefore the main actors on the stage. Remember the frog-jumps-into-old-pond haiku?   Silence – SOUND – silence. On the other hand, sound is the basis of everything in the West and silence is a special actor on the stage. Sound – silence – sound. Think of Western films or TV debate, should any silence occur (i.e. nobody is speaking) everyone jumps in and fills the gap. In Japanese films, actors speak between silence. Yes, everything is reversed in Japan.

    do you hear
    the drainpipe’s drumming?
    Spring thaw at last

Anything which heralds the arrival of spring would be welcomed by anyone anywhere in the world. But the joy must be special in cold countries like Finland. In my case the choice is rather limited in south-east England. Snowdrops are one of them. When the meadow feels boggy under your feet even if it is sunny, that is another sure sign that spring has come, or is soon to arrive. To me it is the wind. When it doesn’t feel cold for the first time, I feel that the season has changed. The sound of drumming drainpipe is an excellent choice! Another haiku of spring delight:

        temple visitors –
        all gather around a tree
        first cherry blossom

This haiku the author wrote in Japan where he encountered haiku for the first time in 1979. He did not, however, start writing haiku himself until over 30 years later, which is less than 10 years ago. I assume Krebs is a Swiss, having been born in Berne, writing haiku in German and English (significantly, not in Finnish) and bearing a German surname. He began to live in Finland in 1970s. He loves travelling, as Basho did, an itch he has been ‘afflicted’ with since childhood.

    after the fireworks
    locusts shooting up
    along the footpath

Now, it’s summer. I feel very nostalgic reading this haiku. It is because I used to have the same experience in Japan as a boy. The place was the seafront of Omura in Nagasaki Prefecture. The country was still recovering from the devastation of war and entertainments were scarce. The annual firework display was a special treat all citizens looked forward to for twelve long months. I remember how dark it all looked to us the moment the display ended. There were no street lights. And in the dim light of our lanterns we saw locusts jump forward and land, and then do the same again, and again.

    sharing my pie
    with wasps

Autumn has arrived. ‘Wasps’ is actually a kigo for spring but no matter. When there are two kigo in a single haiku (kigasanari), the dominating kigo becomes the main one and the other kigo is ‘pardoned’ to stay. If they are both dominant, then it is a problem and the haiku had better be rewritten. An interesting point is to wonder whether the author loves all living things and therefore he is positively taking pleasure in feeding the wasps, or the wasps just keep coming back to steal his pie and he is now resigned to letting them do whatever they want? One last intriguing haiku:

    little red crab
    what are you looking for
    on the pilgrim’s path?

This haiku is about the popular Shikoku Pilgrimage (Shikoku-henro) Krebs undertook in Japan. There are 88 sacred places to visit. Depending on how you proceed (on foot, by car, motorway, different routes) you cover between 1100 to 1400 kilometres from start to finish and you take between 5days to 40 days to do so. Those who are too frail or too busy can take only part (any part and any route) of the whole journey. Did Krebs complete the pilgrimage, or was he too engrossed in conversation with the red crab to leave that spot?

The Shikoku Pilgrimage used to be a very serious (and perilous) religious practice of Buddhism. It still is in many ways. But nowadays laymen and laywomen also join the pilgrimage for all sorts of individual purposes. One thing in common to all participants, though, is that it is for them to seek something, i.e. a spiritual journey in search of whatever one wishes to seek. It is obvious that the author is a spiritual person, which led him to joining the Shikoku Pilgrimage. During the whole journey, he must have had many different experiences, encounters and discoveries along the way. This one was a very special, sweet and humorous encounter. The meaning of the haiku seems obvious. Or, does it? Answer me, then, “Who is asking the question of the second line and to whom, the crab, or the author?” My punchline is “both”. Why? Because the author is also a crab (or Krebs in German).