Saturday, June 06, 2009

Haiku, Hokku, Renga, Tanka, Haibun ... And Single Island Press

Four lovely books framed around the Japanese poem/prose forms have been released by Single Island Press of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Each invites long-term exploration, a passage into relationship with both meaning and shape.

The press itself emerged from this contrast of ancient and new poetic forms and from modern explorations of them:
Single Island Press was founded in 2006 by Madeleine Findlay to publish contemporary work inspired by the haiku masters Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni. Today it is a multi-purpose facility serving the Portsmouth community and beyond.
It would take a persistent student of these forms to adequately explore the four books. Since I'm rarely involved with them -- a bit of correspondence with Cid Corman and a liking for David Budbill's poems have encouraged me to appreciate brevity, but I am limited to saying "I like what I've read" -- I'll give a simple description of each of the four books as I see them. The press descriptions are at

The first book offered by Single Island (the press name comes from a poem by Bashō) is SHAPED WATER: A HAIKU YEAR by Madeleine Findlay. A spare and serene format -- the book fits neatly into the hand, and each page contains one nature-bound poem placed carefully amid ample "white space" -- the collection lends itself to gradual reading, a page here, another there. Don't try to count syllables; look instead for the "cut" word of each poem, parallel to the volta of a sonnet, the turning place that links two segments into a comparison or a gesture. Here's a poem from near the center of the book of unnumbered pages:
branch low
over the worn trail
how many know you?

Many of the poems hint at a fragility of moments and of life itself.

Single Island offers another Findlay volume: EMPTY BOATHOUSE, ADIRONDACK HAIKU. Again the collection extends over the passage of a year, but this time there are graphics, especially tender and moody images of earlier times: women in graceful Victorian garb, boats, old pine trees, quiet lakes, and an occasional teasing view of men and families as well. The words here play against a sense of place-bound history. This volume is larger, about six by eight inches, and elegantly laid out. A sense of haiku as combined of mountains and rivers adds to its impact.

Haiku is a relatively modern form, an expression of the older hokku. Bashō combined the poem with prose. In Raymond Oliver's hands, the short poem undergoes another metamorphosis, into "triads": a pair of longer lines separated by a shorter one. The triads in RAYMOND OLIVER HIS BOOK OF HOURS also bear titles, each initiated by an ornate displayed capital letter (hinting at the sense of an illustrated manuscript, despite the book's black-ink-on-ivory format. I like especially "Sacramento Valley. Summer":
AUREATE peach and blue of mellow dusk!
Fit lid for such a platter,
Whose fruit is no less fragrant than its dust.

Tom D'Evelyn's ACCIDENTAL PILGRIM is the only narrative volume among these four offerings. Designed in an intriguing accordion-folded sequence of pages, the book is a single poem with roughly page-length portions, each ending with a three-line haiku-type stanza that savors the contrast of ancient Rome and the current city with all its history and personages. The title is drawn from a part of the third segment of narrative: "Sometimes a tourist becomes an / accidental pilgrim, catches a view of / the making of his soul." I found the combinations delicious, and paused several times to read more about the topics and individuals, such as Margaret Fuller and the Trastevere.

I think the ultimate summer indulgence would be the purchase of all four of these (directly from the press web site) and carrying them around from hammock to beach to shady solitudes, until a decision of which ones to keep and which ones to give to dear friends coalesces. Why not?

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