One Leaf Detaches

First published in Modern Haiku 51:2, Summer 2020, pages 108–111, but without the “pampas grass” poem and the postscript about that poem. Originally written in March of 2020.

One Leaf Detaches, by Margaret Chula (Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2019), 54 pages, 6" x 8¼". Glossy four-color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-912773-24-4. $15:00 from www.albapublishing.com.

        sudden gust
        the sway of bamboo
        one leaf detaches

Western haiku focusing on stereotypical Japanese subjects such as bamboo or kimonos are sometimes overly imitative—or “Japanesey,” which rhymes with cheesy. It’s a rare poet who can pull off these subjects in English, to suggest Zen detachment in this case, and it helps if the poet has lived in Japan, which aids them in presenting authentic personal encounters—true heartwood rather than the veneer of imagined or borrowed experiences. Indeed, tourist experiences (my own included) may not measure up to the lived-in sort of poems that have earned their authenticity, being like old slippers worn about the house.
        Margaret Chula is a poet who has earned the authenticity in her haiku about Japan. She and her husband lived in Kyoto for a dozen years, and her first haiku book, Grinding My Ink (Katsura Press, 1993), testifies to that experience. One Leaf Detaches, published in 2019 by Alba Publishing (with a striking cover photo by John Einarsen, of Kyoto Journal notoriety) extends her prior experience to a more recent month-long visit to Kyoto. As a result, the poems drink deeply of her Japanese immersion, and readers can visit Japan vicariously through her poems.
        It’s not generalizations of Japan we visit, however, but specific details, as if zoomed in on, like the face of a roadside Buddha, a woman chanting lines from a Noh drama, a specific number of rocks in a Zen garden (clearly Ryōan-ji), or details such as the following:

        Buson’s hut
        a caterpillar makes its way
        up the scroll painting

We can feel that Chula is at Buson’s hut when she shares this poem, and revel in her close attention, connecting both the human and natural, the past and present. Other poems take on the aura or setting of Japan, even if not specifically Japanese, as in

        sound of the wind
        through dead leaves
        bird song at dusk

and in references such as a tolling bell or “after the typhoon.”
        The book’s poems unfold gracefully at one per page, occasionally with a note of explanation, such as a sentence about lespedeza, or bush clover, being a traditional autumn flower of Japan. Yet no explanation is offered for Raikyū Temple, for example, no doubt because we can easily imagine any Buddhist temple we might know. In this way, readers are both guided and trusted at the same time.
        Not to be overlooked in this restrained collection of 47 poems is their underlying connection to nature (and sometimes to the seasons—with autumn prevailing). As John Stevenson observes of Chula on the back cover, “she imbues her work with a sense of continuity with the deeper roots of the [haiku] genre.” These roots are not just Japan and its heritage but also nature in all its grand and subtle variations. It is significant, too, that the book begins with an epigraph from potter Bernard Leach: “There is a wild and untamable beauty in man when he is in harmony with nature.” That’s the ultimate theme of One Leaf Detaches. It’s not just the Japanese settings and subjects that matter, but their connection—and the poet’s connection—to nature at almost every turn. Indeed, most poems combine human and natural elements to create an inviting engagement:

        ancient pine tree
        propped up with bamboo
        I unfold my legs

Poems, too, are at times deftly paired, as with the following:

        end of autumn                                   at Murasaki’s grave
        our vacant house     
                          birds chitter from trees
        strangled by kudzu                            roar of traffic

The first poem focuses on the home where the poet once lived in Kyoto, and how it has been affected by change. The second poem offers a similar theme, and both haiku, in a way, are about graves and all that remains, connecting the timely to the timeless.
        Perhaps jarring, however, is the occasional poem that seems not innately relevant to Japan, as in the references to coyotes (a North American species) and a hunter’s moon (which I believe to be a Native American term). And one or two poems have no nature in them, but that exclusion is the point, in this case creating humor:

        while meditating
        at Ryōan-ji
        his cell phone rings

Here and there a poem reports Japanese experience, to be sure, but perhaps not as successfully for seeming to be slight—although even these few poems add to the appreciation and color of Japan and its culture:

        chanting
        the Heart Sutra
        crackle of incense

Another poem hides an unexplained allusion:

        holding the water
        held by it
        lotus

The allusion, which I imagine not every reader would pick up on, is to a 1970 poem by William J. Higginson:

        Holding the water
              held by it—
                    the dark mud.

Chula’s poem is transformative, moving from the mud of reality to the enlightenment of the lotus. Speaking of allusion, we also cannot help but think of Bashō in the following:

        from the pampas grass
        a fright of sparrows
        water sound

In this, as in most of her poems, we feel a reverence and love for nature as seen through the lens of her love of Japan. To close, here is one more favorite poem, about the art of noticing, from this recommended and suitably understated volume:

        not seeing it
        till darkness fills the pond
        the white carp

Postscript

After I shared this review with Maggie Chula in September 2020, more than three months after publication, she mentioned that “fright” in the “pampas grass” poem was actually a typo, and that she meant “flight.” But she called it “a serendipitous error, which delighted me.” I agree, and I hope she’ll keep “fright.” It feels perfect. As it turned out, I had omitted the “pampas grass” poem and the sentence introducing it in what I submitted to Modern Haiku, but I include it here because of the serendipitous typo.
—26 September 2020, 15 March 2021