Poetry for Southern California
highway of sleeping towns: Haiku and senryu
By Deborah P Kolodji
Shabda Press (www.shabdapress.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
Most of us think we know what haiku is: a Japanese form of poetry, with three lines and seventeen syllables, usually written in a 5 – 7 – 5 pattern. But there is a lot more to haiku than that. In fact, most scholars of haiku point out that because of linguistic differences between Japanese and English, there is no direct correlation between language units, so the syllable count is meaningless in English. (Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing a poem in 5 – 7 – 5 form. It just isn't a traditional haiku.)
Traditionally, a haiku should capture a moment of time. It is an observation of an instant, an instant that has meaning beyond a simple occurrence. It includes an observation of nature, a reference to the seasons, and what is known as a “cutting line.” Of the three lines, one (usually the third, but sometimes the first) should be, or seem to be, unconnected to the other two. That gap, or leap, is where the poetry of the haiku often lies; that is, our mind, in finding a connection between the lines, creates the poetry.
As I said, there is an emphasis on the natural world. If a poem follows the haiku structure, but concentrates on human society, it is called a senryu.
Deborah P. Kolodji writes haiku according to these rules, often scrupulously. She is consistent in her use of the cutting line. Very few of these poems have three lines which are clearly about the same topic. But they usually do fit poetically.
Take the title poem:
of sleeping towns
the milky way
This haiku conjures several images. First, for me, was the sight of a night highway from a plane, which could easily look like the Milky Way. I also pictured driving said highway; “sleeping towns” implies a road away from the city, a place where you could actually see the Milky Way. Either way, the reader gets a concrete image, and a notion of travel, and distance.
Here are several other haiku from the collection which strike me as perfect use of the cutting line:
loading his bicycle
on the bus
a dozen roses
through stained glass
his favorite hymn
on a broken stem
Other poems in the collection present a more unified three lines, in which the connection is obvious:
at the nursing station
tissue paper roses
Christmas light test
trying to untangle
dozen red roses
she examines the bruise
in the mirror
On the other hand, there are also poems in which the cutting line seems arbitrary, unrelated to the other two. These haiku come off as forced; they don't create the expected poetic resonance.
one suitcase circling
the bridesmaid dress
her old cd
on the long drive
This problem is not helped by the fact that certain images repeat throughout the book. You probably noticed the repeated use of “roses” in the above examples. “The Milky Way” comes up several times as well, none as effectively as in the title poem. Other flowers, especially jacaranda, appear quite often, as do other astronomical objects, and certain mathematical concepts. Some of these, such as flowers, probably recur because of their usefulness as seasonal cues. Others – astronomy – seem related to Kolodji's personal interests.
Not surprisingly, there are also repeated themes; these do strengthen the book rather than weaken it. Many of the haiku mention travel; many others are concerned with various forms of personal loss, especially death and divorce. Again, you may notice these themes in the haiku already quoted above.
Here are a few more examples:
a caterpillar’s progress
across the fallen leaf
as the moon’s dark side
his untouched pillow
the world so big
without you in it
the family reunion
And one which covers both travel and divorce:
a plane takes off
into the cloudless sky
The various themed poems are scattered through the book, rather than clumped together, as is often the temptation when organizing a book. This allows the themes to develop organically, to slowly build in the reader's mind. In fact, the reader may never notice them, or never notice them consciously. This is in no way a detriment, the themes work their way into your awareness anyway. One of the pleasures of poetry is that you don't have to grasp all of its subtleties to enjoy it.
There is a great degree of subtlety in these poems. In most of the examples I have given the various connections are pretty obvious, or at least easy to discern. But others require a period of contemplation to fully appreciate. In fact, some of the haiku that I first perceived as arbitrary reveal hidden connections.
Here are a couple which I needed to study and ponder before I realized how much they had going on in them:
she never finished
brown pine needles
Actually, in the first of these, the connection may seem too obvious: she's writing about footsteps in the sand. But then the question is, where's the poetry in that? On one hand, it conjures the most stereotypically romantic image of all time – the walk on the beach. The key, however, is “morning sand.” Morning is the beginning, so it conjures the beginning of a relationship. But sand is also a smbol of impermanence. So the poem becomes about the fleeting nature of a relationship.
The second also has a seemingly obvious connection – pine needles/ knitting needles. At first very superficial, but when I dig deeper, it again strikes me as being about a failed relationship. A scarf is a common gift; was it “never finished” because the reason for giving ended? Further, “brown pine needles” are dead pine needles – a hint at endings.
These poems are just a sample of how highway of sleeping towns demonstrates the power of haiku, reveals the artistic and emotional potential in such a seemingly simple form.
Response to the review of highway of sleeping towns
by Michael Dylan Welch
The review by G. Murray Thomas of Deborah P Kolodji’s Highway of Sleeping Towns gets many things right about haiku, especially regarding misunderstandings of syllable count and the value of the two-part juxtaposition.
However, in haiku parlance, there’s no such term as the “cutting line.” What he means is the kireji, or “cutting word,” which is manifested in English by a two-part juxtapositional structure. In Japanese it’s an actual word with one or two syllables that functions as a sort of spoken punctuation, dividing the poem into two parts. It has never been a “line.” In three-line haiku in English, one line is indeed often a separate grammatical and imagistic unit from the rest of the poem, but the cut itself happens between the lines, thus there is a “cut,” but not a “cutting line.”
Another misstep is where he says three haiku in particular “come off as forced; they don’t create the expected poetic resonance.” Haiku appreciation is always subjective to be sure, but I would suggest that these poems do resonate, and very well. Near the end of his review, Thomas says “Here are a couple [of haiku] which I needed to study and ponder before I realized how much they had going on in them.” I would suggest that he needed to apply that same study and sensitivity to the three examples that he says feel “forced”—because they too have a lot more going on in them than he seems to have realized.
To focus on the first example, “cold summer / one suitcase circling / baggage claim” speaks of loss and absence and distance. This is actually one of the book’s best poems, rich with nuance. Why is the one suitcase circling and abandoned? Who has been forgotten or never made it on the plane? And why? Travelling in the summer is normally a pleasurable thing to do in warm months, so the situation here makes it perfect to say that this must be a cold summer, both literally and figuratively. Furthermore, especially when haiku is a poetry of the seasons, the endless circling of abandoned or unclaimed luggage resonates with the cycle of the seasons invoked by the mention of summer. And don’t all of us sometimes wish we could be rid of some of our baggage? The poem has much sadness and irony.
The other two examples have their own virtues to offer as well. Indeed, the book’s poems offer much resonance to sensitive and patient readers, as well as more immediate gratification. Some of the haiku in Kolodji’s book may offer more of a challenge than others, but a greater challenge leads to greater rewards.
Reviews 12 /15