I had the pleasure to edit the 2013 Haiku North America conference anthology with California poet William Hart. When I fished out a few of Bill’s books from my library so I might take them to the conference and have him sign them, I discovered that I had written a review of his 1991 letterpress haiku book, Monsoon. My handwritten draft was tucked into the back of my copy of Bill’s book, and had “June (?) 1991” written at the top in pencil. I believe I had written it for the Haiku Canada Newsletter, then edited by Ruby Spriggs, but I can’t find evidence that it was ever published, most likely because my draft seems to be unfinished, failing to come to a conclusion or to fully explore the issue I raised regarding regionalism in haiku. In any event, I am interested in sharing this review now, including some additional notes I also found with the review, plus a new postscript at the end. Please be sure to read the postscript, because it takes a different stance than the review itself.
Monsoon by William Hart. Timberline Press, Route 1, Box 1621, Fulton, Missouri, 65251. Illustrations by Jayasri Majumdar. Letterpress, 1991, 36 pages, $7.50, 13.5 x 21 cm, paperback, 61 haiku.
Imagine, if you will, that the myriad shapes of the alphabet meant nothing, that the printed words of English or any other language held no meaning whatsoever. If this were true, then a book like William Hart’s Monsoon would still be a treat. A fine, hand-printed volume lovingly caressed into print by Timberline Press, Monsoon is at once a tactile and visual stimulus. Your fingers will thrill to the indent of letterpress type upon the richly textured paper. Your eyes will bathe in the warm browns and blues, the fine proportions of the book’s typography and design, and enjoy the understated yet evocative illustrations by Jayasri Majumdar. Clarence Wolfshohl and Timberline Press should be proud of their most recent publishing accomplishment.
It is hard to criticize a book so fine in its first impressions. It is difficult to question the value of the content of a book whose form reveals such keen attention to the oft-neglected arts of typography, design, and printing. Yet, I regret that of the poems alone, I must be critical. Quite unlike Virginia Brady Young’s Waterfall, a Timberline Press publication of 1982, which succeeded brilliantly in content as well as form, Hart’s Monsoon will appeal to a narrower, regionally tilted audience. Furthermore, the book will appeal most to those who have had the privilege of visiting or living in the regions of Nepal and India that inspired these poems.
Poems of place—the category to which Mr. Hart has limited himself—can too easily suffer from being neither universal nor specific enough. Consider, for example, Hart’s first poem:
below rice fields
hawks hitch the wind
A poem such as this could easily be recast in any of a hundred locales. To wit—Wengen, Switzerland:
below snow fields
hawks hitch the wind
Or perhaps as follows:
below [type of field] fields
[type of birds] hitch the wind
[favourite mountainous location] valley
In Japanese haiku, a tradition of some strength exists for simply naming a place to evoke images of that locale’s history or beauty or mystery [called utamakura], but in most cases these evocations are elitist and exclusive. This is unfortunately true for Monsoon, even for me, having visiting India in my childhood. My scant memories, as they fade, have become increasingly academic, and although I too have seen a leper’s stub palm and a carcass floating in a Calcutta river, Hart’s images may work only as images, perhaps as journalistic details in a diary of travel snapshots. More to the point, they don’t always work as haiku, and if haiku is strictly what you are looking for, you may want to keep looking.
Perhaps my tendency to dislike a regional poem that leans so heavily on place-name-dropping for its success is a subjective reaction entirely distant from the point of Hart’s book. I do not wish to use his work solely as a leaping-off point to vent some steam regarding regional haiku. But I must say while I can that any haiku that needs explanation, or that uses jargon or slang, or that emanates from a specific locale, can suffer from elitism, which can prevent it from being universal.
Here the review ends, not fully exploring the issue of regionalism. While place names can be evocative, it seems to me that the poem must do more in addition to relying on the evocativeness of the place name in order to succeed as haiku. Here are additional notes, dated June 1991:
Sections of the book:
Kathmandu 13 poems
Calcutta 17 poems
Hyderabad 20 poems
Bombay 11 poems
Poem on p. 4 (“litmus test for monks / janitor’s girl / shampoos in the sun”) uses metaphor.
Poem on p. 5 (“yielding its flower / to the bee / gentle butterfly”) could be written anywhere (same with “mountain vistas / still in mind / we find a leech” [also on p. 5]).
In the Kathmandu section you look high at the mountains, look low on a flower and a leech, and feel the omnipresence of religious icons and beliefs. You also feel the reality of third-world dysentery and dirt in the midst of majestic nature.
In the Calcutta section you feel the smells and tensions of overpopulation, you see the flies, the haze, the heat, poverty, and death.
In the Hyderabad section you see humanity in the humour of a parade’s late tuba, the life of trains, and the distance between death in the towns and the life of nature on the hillsides above.
Page 24 (top): “son of a gun” doesn’t work in “one hardworking / son of gun / dung beetle” [feels culturally jarring].
Page 26 (top): “from his lighthouse of the soul” doesn’t work in “dusk / from his lighthouse of the soul / muezzin calls.”
In the Bombay section you see lovers on a seawall, a delivery boy on a scooter, a snake charmer, and the blue of a curved sari.
Since none of these notes, some positive, some descriptive, some negative, were not incorporated into the review, it seems clear that I never finished writing the review, which was surely why I can’t find evidence of its publication anywhere. The following, though, are some new thoughts on the book.
On picking up Monsoon 22 years later, the book itself is still every bit the tactile and typographic sensation it was when it was first published. But do I still feel the same way about the poems? Had I spent enough time with them, and would I have gone somewhere different with my review if I’d dug into them more deeply in the process of finishing my review? I don’t know what I would have done two decades ago, but now I think I would have been a little more embracing. Even if the opening poem could have been recast in different locations, the poet chose to set the poem in Kathmandu, and it sets the scene for us, especially if one apprehends poems in terms of their sequential placement instead of just as individual haiku. In “below rice fields / hawks hitch the wind / Kathmandu valley,” we immediately get a sense of place, the domesticity of rice harvests coupled with the highs and lows of soaring mountains and plunging valleys. This verse will also find a later echo.
These poems, of course, are more in the vein of “travel” haiku than “regional” haiku as I originally described them as, and they do a good job of taking us to each location, giving readers a feel for the place. The poem “little face / through the hole in god’s temple / mugs for us” might at first seem to be just a report, or just a description, but I think a more sensitive reading could pick up on a shared experience that crosses cultural lines—what’s true in the author’s American home is also true in faraway Nepal. A child poses for a photograph, the same way children do at home, a little shyly behind some object that makes them feel at least a little protected. But this time it’s “god’s temple” rather than, say, a playground slide. Many other poems do an effective job of giving us this sense of place, as in “cafe back door / cookie slings goat tripe / at the strutting cock” from the Kathmandu section, which ends with a narrative transition poem about eating a meal in a jet as the author flies away from the “shifting Himalayas.” The author is not just recording impressions, but telling us a brief sort of story about his travels.
Monsoon was, I believe, Hart’s first book of haiku, and we can see that he’s feeling his way with haiku in poems such as “in the old paintings / Shiva’s upthrust phallus / sustains existence.” For me the final line feels like too much of an explanation, telling readers what to think rather than enabling them to discover this idea. Yet he’s also bold—one might say confident—in using place names, even if they might be beyond some readers. We see this in “rain on the Hooghly / bouys [sic] in the current / a carcass passes.” It’s easy to believe that the Hooghly is a river, as indeed it is (the poem begins the book’s Calcutta section). In my 1991 review draft I referred to this use of place names as potentially elitist, and there’s some risk of that impression among some readers, but I now think that this is not nearly the risk that I previously thought. Rather, the place names in Monsoon are first of all facts. The author isn’t showing off. His wife is from Calcutta, and he has visited often. Considering such place references to be elitist is simply my own problem as a reader.
Hart uses phrases effectively in some of his poems, as in “afternoon shade / a body on the sidewalk / swats itself.” When we first read the middle line, we imagine a corpse. Thus the third line comes as a relief when we realize that the person is still alive—albeit so exhausted by the heat and humidity as to be unmoving, as if corpse. But this body is not so lifeless as to be unaware of the omnipresent flies, and thus it swats itself. And then, perhaps, we notice that this person is not in the sun but in the shade, also a conscious act of seeking relief from the region’s harsh elements. Thus we witness a trace of humanity and perhaps even beauty of Indian life as it is. We also see images of beauty in other poems, as in “a hilltop city / shimmers under stars / night train.”
In the Hyderabad section, we read “dim minaret stairs / up a pantleg / panicked gecko.” We may immediately wonder why the gecko is startled, which reveals another example of subtlety in these poems. Why would the gecko be panicked? It’s easy to imagine that a muezzin has just issued a call to prayer, which must always startle the gecko no matter how many times the creature has heard it. And in “spice pedlar / rolls seeds in a jar / to stop baby crying” we witness a cultural detail that would scarcely occur in North America or most of Europe, and thus we feel the foreignness of this culture even when it faces baby challenges that are similar to our own. The word “pedlar” is the British spelling for “peddler,” so even in the diction we find a subtlety that reflects India’s colonial past. And again the section ends with a narrative travel poem, this time referring to a train that “passes / from mountain tunnel / into cloud.”
In the final section, Bombay, we are first presented with “sunset / lovers on the seawall / in the rain,” and thus feel the universality of Hart’s experiences in India. We see this again, in a seamier vein, in “cologne and aglow / Arab businessman / trolls for a hooker.” In “blue sari turns / water jar balanced / all curves,” we get a sense of the author’s love for the land he is visiting. He appreciates not just the woman’s beauty, but the beauty of the water jar, and how it echoes the woman’s curves. And then the book ends with “filling the sky / hawks in slowglide / first stars.” This poem brings us full circle back to the hawks that hitched the wind in Kathmandu. William Hart’s Monsoon is a carefully wrought book of travel haiku, yet many of the poems move beyond merely recording foreign impressions to have a deeper appreciation for everything the poet sees and senses.
—23, 24, 26 August 2013, Sammamish, Washington