The Measure of Emptiness Review

First published in Woodnotes #13, Summer 1992, pages 26–27. See the Measure of Emptiness page.

review by Ebba Story

The Measure of Emptiness, haiku by Lee Gurga. Press Here, P.O. Box 4014, Foster City, California, 94404. 1991, 88 pages, perfect-bound paperback, 8½ by 5½ inches (horizontal). $8.25 postpaid (please make checks payable to Michael D. Welch). [address no longer correct]

The landscape of the Midwest permeates Lee Gurga’s recent book, The Measure of Emptiness. The vast, open space of the Illinois farmland is delineated by the natural and human elements in the poems. Rather than a collection of haiku moments, The Measure of Emptiness is largely a careful selection of “haiku places.” The cover, a striking black and white photograph of a barn, silo, and a large, bare tree silhouetted against the distant, low horizon typifies many of the poems. Beautifully produced, the book contains an introduction by Jerry Kilbride, 71 haiku (one per page), and a conversation between the author and Michael Dylan Welch, the editor.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, “Scattered on the Pond,” is comprised of strictly nature poems. One is given a clear sense of the openness of the landscape. The forces of nature are expressed in the minute and simple.

bales of hay

dot the bluestem meadow—

morning breeze

The geometrical regularity of the bales in the meadow gives form and definition to the open space-like points on a grid. Although not mentioned, the scent of the hay is carried to us on the morning breeze. The ineffable and concrete are brought together; shapes and form measure the emptiness.

In the second section, “Class Reunion,” Gurga narrows his topic to the humans who inhabit the landscape. Some of the poems convey a sense of belonging to the farming community while others express a wistful loneliness of personal isolation. Gurga deftly combines Midwestern experience with Japanese sensibility. On facing pages:

Christmas Eve—

a patient workman

lowers the casket

rural interstate—

all the other drivers

exit together

In the first haiku, someone is given back to the land by a “patient workman,” perhaps even a neighbor, on a holiday that celebrates birth with the exchange of gifts. In the second haiku, everyone else on the freeway has an immediate destination. The unspecified, solitary driver continues alone. The complementary themes deepen the feelings in both poems. Unfortunately, three other poems in this section (about someone in prison) are of such personal concern they are not only distracting but confusing.

“Heart-shaped Leaves,” the third portion, narrows the focus still further to the interaction of a couple. Gurga successfully conveys a delicate tenderness in these haiku. Although most are written in the first person or are addressed to a second person, the landscape is still subtly evident.

ceiling fan

holds us down

under summer sheets

The spreading out under air stirred from above echoes the expansive, ripening fields outside.

In the last part, “Shadows on the Wall,” the book’s vision is once more expanded to take in the future and a sense of distance. Most of the poems concern young children and the relationships between generations.

summer sunset—

the baby finds its shadow

on the kitchen wall

not speaking:

my son and I

on the sandstone bluff

The baby’s encounter with its shadow, with its self as something other than its subjective needs, gives another meaning to the measuring of emptiness. According to the Buddhist Prajna Paramita Sutra, form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself is form. Until the mind divides self from world, all is “empty” or void. When the mind ceases to measure and name, once again the world becomes one or “empty” and whole. Or, as Emerson writes in the first chapter of Nature, “I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” In the silence, the emptiness, above the sandstone bluffs, is there communion or isolation? So much Gurga properly leaves for the reader to infer.

The Measure of Emptiness is a delightful journey into the haiku world of Lee Gurga. And I, with Jerry Kilbride, invite you “to come along with Lee into a place that Jack Kerouac called sweet green Illinois.”