Listening to the Rain: An Anthology of Christchurch Haiku and Haibun, edited by Cyril Childs and Joanna Preston. 72 pages, 2002, 5.75 by 8 inches, perfectbound, ISBN 0-473-08339-6. $9.50 (in U.S. funds) postpaid from the Small White Teapot Haiku Group, c/o 6 Ballantyne Avenue, Christchurch 4, New Zealand.
Listening to the Rain: An Anthology of Christchurch Haiku and Haibun, edited by Cyril Childs and Joanna Preston, is a pleasing collection of nearly a hundred haiku and senryu plus five haibun by thirteen poets who live in or near Christchurch, New Zealand. The book is attractively designed with a light-blue cover (sporting a charming little white teapot at the bottom), and presents usually three poems per page, interspersed with the haibun (one of which, by Joanna Preston, won the WinterSpin 2000 haibun contest). As a book that might also introduce some New Zealanders to haiku, it also has an educational component, indicated by Cyril Childs’ foreword that provides some historical context for the poets whose work is selected, by a list of haiku resources and a glossary at the end, and by John O’Connor’s afterword, “The Haiku Moment.” With these accouterments and a wide-ranging selection of poems, Listening to the Rain provides a grounded and filled-out reading experience.
As O’Connor notes in his afterword, “To write a haiku or senryu well you must access the most humble, the most elemental, the least intellectual part of your nature.” This book’s poems frequently rely on the power of modesty, on the elemental reference to nouns and images rather than abstractions or intellectualizations, starting with Jeffrey Harpeng’s opening poem:
the collection plate
It seems that some poems might have been written about shared experiences, perhaps on group haiku walks, for we find the following poems, separated by a few pages (the first again by Harpeng, the second by Nicholas Williamson):
the burnt hill above a burnt hill—
a glider’s shadow a black butterfly
Other threads occur unobtrusively in the book, as in these following two divorce poems, both by Barbara Strang, and in the second pair, by Lynn Tara Austin and then Jonathan Fisher:
you speak of divorce after the divorce
the morning sun gaps in the bookshelf
in your face
cell phone Xmas day—
in public she gets across we exchange new
her side of the story cellphone numbers
A variety of forms appear in the book, including one-liners and more visual presentations, as in these examples by Helen Bascand and then Joanna Preston:
the abbey ruins
shadow hospice visit he still beats me at chess
We also find allusion, as in the following poem, also by Joanna Preston, that brings to mind James Hackett’s famous “bitter morning” poem:
the cow sticks her foot
in the milking bucket
As Childs notes in his foreword, “It is a pleasure to see the high degree of New Zealand flavour in these poems.” The book’s glossary, though, defines many foreign terms used in the poems or haibun, such as saying that “Ganneta Maryam” is a church in Ethiopia. Only occasionally are New Zealand terms defined, such as the explanation that “New World” is a supermarket chain. I was puzzled that certain other terms weren’t defined, such as “kiblah” and “haka.” Other words, such as “sporraned,” “raddled,” “pizzle line,” and “littoral,” sent me to my dictionary (rewardingly). Perhaps some of these terms are more common in New Zealand speech than they are in North America. Whether certain terms are defined or not, the variety of language struck me as pleasing and fresh, reminding me that I was reading a haiku collection from another country.
If anything in the book distracted me, it was that, after each poem, authors are identified only by initials, which sent me back and forth to the brief biographies at the end of the book. I quickly decided to write out a little key to the names for myself so I wouldn’t have to keep flipping pages, but even checking this key was distracting. It was important to me to know who wrote each poem, and I wasn’t familiar enough with all the names to know them from the initials. I would have been undistracted had the full names appeared after each poem, though perhaps mere initials might not bother other readers.
Let me end by quoting two standout poems, both by Joanna Preston, with the urge that you order yourself a copy of this finely produced book that gives a solid taste of the work of an active and promising New Zealand haiku group:
alone at night— stillborn calf—
a tendril of honeysuckle the heifer’s tongue
taps at my window rasps my face