Joy in Me Still: Haiku, by George Swede (Edmonton, Alberta: Inkling Press, 2010). 82 pages; 5¼" x 8¼". Semigloss coloured card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-0-9810725-5-5. $18.00 in Canadian funds from the publisher at P.O. Box 52014, Edmonton, AB T6G 2T5, Canada or Inkling Press. +
In introducing his new book of haiku, Joy in Me Still, George Swede gives readers an entry into his poems by sharing a concise personal view on what constitutes a haiku. He states that they should be brief, one breath in length, and around twelve syllables in English. He says that haiku should be vivid and based in sense images rather than abstract thoughts. And he says that haiku should engage the reader’s experience in ways that evoke lingering resonances. What his introduction does not say is also telling. He doesn’t mention seasonal references, or kigo, a hallmark of traditional haiku in any language. He doesn’t mention the requisite two-part juxtapositional structure equivalent to using a kireji in Japanese haiku. Yet both of these traits are amply represented in his book, which marks yet another chapter in a storied haiku career.
Indeed, nearly all of the 127 poems in Joy in Me Still demonstrate these traits. One exception is the starting poem, which is “the answer we are / is the riddle / we search for.” Not a haiku at all, and entirely abstract, philosophical, and unvivid, at least in terms of sense images. What it really is, of course, is an epigraph, and I believe it would have been better to place it before the introduction, italicize it, put it in a different font, or capitalize and punctuate it differently from all of the poems that follow. However, other than this not-so-subtle misstep (and the cover design, whose nonsensical shapes looks amateurish), the book weaves together an intriguing tapestry of nature and human content, although with a heavy leaning towards human subjects, which is no surprise given that Swede is a psychology professor (now retired). Dozens of poems are specifically about the mind and thinking, or about talking and the human voice, not to mention a few about colleagues and work. The book also has a general stance of looking back, reminiscing about past days, which also isn’t surprising for an author in the late afternoon of life—or early evening.
I’d like to dig a little into three aspects of Swede’s book: reminiscing/aging, mental/conceptual content, and combinations of nature and human content.
the line cast after the burial
where the river flows I forego
things long forgotten my nap
These sorts of poems are common in this book (I count about forty of them), where the author is mindful of aging and all its challenges, or aware that he has more behind him than in front of him. The book’s poems about death are not necessarily filled with the darkness of Lorca’s duende, but are often more wistful and melancholy, as in “burial / all the birds singing / he could name” or perhaps even light, as in “at last in his coffin / depressed friend / is smiling.” And while many of these poems look back, at least one, near the end, looks forward: “into the future / as fast as all of us / this garden snail.” Except for a section of about two dozen poems spanning from page 35 to 47 (consistently about death and dying), poems with this theme are interspersed with other types of poems, which prevents them from overwhelming, but they do create a definite impression.
A second strong impression comes from poems with mental or conceptual content. Such poems may seem to recognize the growing influence of subjectivity in haiku from the gendai haiku movement in Japan, but I think it’s more accurate to say that they reflect simply on the author himself as a psychology professor who has also written books on psychology. Whatever the case, I notice about twenty poems with the theme of thinking or the mind, as in these examples:
this heat . . . new self knowledge
my thoughts moving slowly a sinkhole to the right
with the river of the path
That certain poems are about the mind is at times subtle, as in “on my back / in the freshly-cut grass . . . / a blue horse.” The author doesn’t quite tell us that, as I interpret this poem, he is idly looking up at clouds, seeing the shape of a blue horse. If we make this relatively easy leap of interpretation, we can partake in the poet’s leap of imagination. We again see the mind at work in the night question he ponders: “light in waves / or particles? . . . / a million stars.” Or the mental concept of self in “horizon moon / I recall / an earlier ego.” As a former psychology professor, he brings coworkers and work into these poems, but more with a sense of aging and change than a focus on the mind, as in “a colleague dies / his office plant / to the ceiling.” In some poems we see a melding of both a melancholy awareness of aging and the mind’s conceptualities, as in “the mountains lost in mist / yet I know they are there / like my prior life.”
An extension of the theme of the mind and thinking is that about twenty of the book’s poems are about words themselves, or talking. Half a dozen poems, too, are about haiku as a subject, most of which don’t work for me, but most of the poems about talking and the human voice work very nicely, and it’s pleasing to see this common thread running through this collection.
we talk . . . the things I regret
most of the rose petals not having said
on the table gravestone icicles
For all the value the author places on words, he is aware that he and his words are ephemeral, as in “wilderness canyon / my shout and its echo / quickly lost in time.” Indeed, the author’s journey and the passing of time might be the central theme of this book. Haiku is sometimes said to capture time, so it is uniquely poised to look back at past moments and to help the author celebrate his history. And while we have seen understandable doses of melancholy, the pleasing lightness of some of the poems tells readers that the poet isn’t down in the dumps. In fact, we know from the title poem that he is grateful and joyous:
in first full bloom
the apricot tree—joy
in me still
A third prominent aspect of the book is one that doesn’t announce itself the way the poems on aging and reminiscing or the mind and thinking do. That is its mix of nature and human content. Some haiku adepts proselytize for haiku purely as a nature poem. Such a stance would seem to ignore the fact that Japanese saijiki are collections of haiku arranged according to seasonal words, not strictly nature words, but because of the requisite seasonal content of haiku, nature makes a frequent appearance. And that’s certainly the case here, too. Out of curiosity, though, I decided to go through all the poems and see how they divided up. Of the 127 poems, I found nine that I would consider pure nature poems, or seven percent, a relatively small number. These poems all appear towards the end of the book, as in these examples:
creek bed last light
as if it were water a toad melds
the dust into grass
I find the pure nature poems to be less satisfying and less engaging than the poems with human or nature/human content, but the inclusion of pure-nature poems exemplifies the author’s range. And of course some poems fall into a grey area. Is “Niagara Falls / at the edge a cloud / has stopped” a pure nature poem? Well, yes. But also no, because anyone who has visited this famous “natural” area will tell you how commercialized it is, and surely that human intrusion is an overtone to any mention of “Niagara.”
Some poems, in contrast, might be called “pure human” (I count twenty-six of these—20.5 percent).
dating again paper pickup day
my sister opens the fridge the unfinished poem
then closes it sticks out
I see the first of these two examples as a senryu, and the second as a haiku. I believe it’s a mistake to automatically think of a poem as a senryu because of human content (I recall Buson’s famous haiku, not senryu, about himself stepping on his dead wife’s comb). Rather, the distinction is also a matter of tone, as these two poems demonstrate.
The majority of this book’s poems have a clear combination of both natural and human content (I count ninety such poems, or 70.1 percent), and their preponderance suggests that the author is not of the narrow persuasion that a poem has to be purely about nature to be a “haiku.” Yet of course, some of these poems are senryu, and that’s perfectly fine. I could quote many example poems that have both natural and human content, but here are the first and last such poems from the book:
fresh snowfall wildflowers
I take my virus I cannot name
for a walk most of me
Again, I consider the first of these to be a senryu, the second a haiku, even though both have season words and a two-part juxtapositional structure. The differentiator, again, is tone.
Two of the book’s “poems” defy categorization as either human on natural, or a combination—the aforementioned “the answer we are / is the riddle / we search for” and “the words rise / in the solar wind / line breaks,” which I don’t understand at all. I can’t take “solar wind” to be natural (it could just be a metaphor) because it has no physical relationship to words or line breaks. The poem simply baffles me, and it’s one of the few poems I would have left out.
Three other poems I’d like to comment on briefly contain allusions. The poem “blazing heat / my long shadow / useless” brings to mind, at least for me, Jack Kerouac’s “Useless! Useless! / —heavy rain driving / into the sea.” The next poem is not so much an allusion but a wholesale usage of Ezra Pound: “an apparition / in the crowd of white petals / the wet black bough.” It was T. S. Eliot who said “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”; we hardly need to be told how mature the author is in his art. And finally, “horizon moon / the snowman headless / no longer” is a deft invocation of the author’s own haiku, the title poem of his 1979 book: “in the howling wind / under the full moon / the snowman, headless.” There is redemption in Swede’s updated haiku. Yes, the moon has fallen from its zenith, and is now at the horizon, echoing the author’s life progression, but the snowman, at least, is no longer headless. No wonder the author has joy in him still. The human figure joins the natural image in its right mind, the mind of a psychology professor who has also had a remarkable career as a haiku raconteur—a career, and lasting influence, for which all haiku poets should be grateful.