Flamingo Shapes

First published in Modern Haiku 33:3, Autumn 2002. First written in June of 2002. See also “Fuji Over the Clouds: The Dangers of Travel Haiku.”

John Barlow, Flamingo Shapes, Snapshot Press, 2001, 8 by 3½ inches, 32 poems, 24 pages, saddle-stitched with full-colour cover. Contains four photographs by Wendy Farrell. ISBN 1-903543-04-5, $10.00 postpaid from the publisher at P.O. Box 132, Crosby, Liverpool, L23 8XS, U.K. Please make checks payable to “Snapshot Press.”

The flamingo is an exotic bird we know to frequent the tropics. John Barlow is from England. I doubt he likes plastic flamingos on his front steps, so the title of this book, Flamingo Shapes, is the first clue that this is a book of travel haiku. The gorgeous cover of an orange beach sunset suggests the Mediterranean, and this turns out to be correct. Even the book’s dramatically horizontal shape, which doubles in width when you open the cover, suggests the wide horizons of the sea between the islands and the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle. Yes, this is Greece, poems from a trip to Lesvos, to be exact, taken in July of 2001. We know this from the cheeky credits on the book’s last page, where Barlow also acknowledges the sort of beer he consumed (Amstel), the scooter he rode (Piaggio Liberty), music he listened to, and even his taxi driver (Jimmy). Before this, though, the reader gains a sensory feeling for the sun-drenched island, beginning with “4 a.m. / first the cockerel / now the donkey.” We wake up right in the Greek village, and are spared the details of a tiring plane flight. The book’s haiku and senryu are populated with local flora and fauna—cicadas, squid, topless beaches, olives, cafés, and a creaking postcard carousel—and readers are given hints at the vacation activities of an unabashed tourist.

Indeed, John Barlow is in Greece to have fun, yet the poems also show spritzes of keen haiku observation. For example, one wonders if his drinks are free in his hotel or in a bar so long as he’s paying to play backgammon, or if he’s losing the game because he’s getting happily drunk:

another free drink

I lose again

at backgammon

And then we have this, which is more of an insightful comment about himself than his surroundings:

topless beach

I watch for the cormorant

to resurface

Some poems aren’t so insightful, and are more observational, as in “skinning squid / the deep-tanned hands / of the fisherman,” though we can deduce from this “local colour” that the fishermen work outside. One or two poems are a little plain, as in “fresh lobster catch / the community descends / on the roadside café,” where the cause and effect needs something more to elevate the poem as a haiku or senryu (these poems seldom contain season words), and “community” seems a bit too indefinite to visualize. Thus, with a few of the poems here, one may wonder, as Paul O. Williams does in The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics (Press Here, 2001), if “the delight of discovery . . . is so intense as to fool one,” and conclude that “even clear delight in new perceptions tends to create images, not haiku” (page 21). Many books of travel haiku have this problem to some degree, sometimes to the point of misunderstanding what is perceived.

Flamingo Shapes, however, is not a book of travel haiku, but vacation haiku. There’s a difference. Even the back-cover picture of the author on his Piaggio Liberty makes this clear. He is not here as a haiku anthropologist—he is not on Lesvos to pretend to fully absorb and understand this foreign culture, but to enjoy himself, see the sights, take some snapshots, and accumulate a few souvenirs. I am grateful, as a reader, for this lack of pretense.

pine woods

each cone she collects

a little better

And there’s more. One aspect of this book that bears particular emphasis is the quality of design and excellent production values. The high visual and tactile standards and pleasing overall effect result from the author’s effective choices as a professional graphic designer. We can easily see similar production standards in Barlow’s haiku and tanka journals, Snapshots and Tangled Hair, as well as in other Snapshot Press publications—all superbly produced. We can’t all be graphic design professionals, but too many haiku books look amateurish in their typography and design, often relying on software defaults rather than any informed and unified choices regarding dozens of design possibilities. This is not one of those books. From the stylish font choices, creative folios, and unusual trim size, to the carefully paced and placed internal photographs, the book is a pleasure to behold. Poems appear side by side, two to a page in silver ink on white paper, and the photos have a similar silver look, perhaps suggesting the ocean haze of a lazy Mediterranean afternoon. More haiku books should aspire to this level of visual quality and learn how to harmonize design with content and tone.

Indeed, Flamingo Shapes is a recommended book whose design features pull together stylishly, yet the focus is still the poetry. The book is not only well designed, but presents a buoyant vacation tone through the poems, shared with the same joy that one might share one’s holiday pictures with relatives. As readers, we are left with an infectious sense of place—of enjoying that place, even when things go a little wrong—and with an unpretentious sense of the author’s temporary place in the exotic locale.

crawling out of service

from crumpled sheets the bus picks us up

a five-legged spider anyway

power failure— as we get closer

running a wire between villas to the flamingo shapes—

a brown rat flamingos!

In the end, we know we are just tourists on such a vacation, but we are content. In Flamingo Shapes, John Barlow takes us on a brief haiku vacation that we can thoroughly enjoy.