One Leaf Detaches, by Margaret Chula (Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2019), 54 pages, 6" x 8¼". Glossy four-color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-912773-24-4. $15:00 from www.albapublishing.com.
the sway of bamboo
one leaf detaches
Western haiku focusing on stereotypical Japanese subjects such as bamboo or kimonos are sometimes overly imitative—or “Japanesey,” which rhymes with cheesy. It’s a rare poet who can pull off these subjects in English, to suggest Zen detachment in this case, and it helps if the poet has lived in Japan, which aids them in presenting authentic personal encounters—true heartwood rather than the veneer of imagined or borrowed experiences. Indeed, tourist experiences (my own included) may not measure up to the lived-in sort of poems that have earned their authenticity, being like old slippers worn about the house.
Margaret Chula is a poet who has earned the authenticity in her haiku about Japan. She and her husband lived in Kyoto for a dozen years, and her first haiku book, Grinding My Ink (Katsura Press, 1993), testifies to that experience. One Leaf Detaches, published in 2019 by Alba Publishing (with a striking cover photo by John Einarsen, of Kyoto Journal notoriety) extends her prior experience to a more recent month-long visit to Kyoto. As a result, the poems drink deeply of her Japanese immersion, and readers can visit Japan vicariously through her poems.
It’s not generalizations of Japan we visit, however, but specific details, as if zoomed in on, like the face of a roadside Buddha, a woman chanting lines from a Noh drama, a specific number of rocks in a Zen garden (clearly Ryōan-ji), or details such as the following:
a caterpillar makes its way
up the scroll painting
We can feel that Chula is at Buson’s hut when she shares this poem, and revel in her close attention, connecting both the human and natural, the past and present. Other poems take on the aura or setting of Japan, even if not specifically Japanese, as in
sound of the wind
through dead leaves
bird song at dusk
and in references such as a tolling bell or “after the typhoon.”
The book’s poems unfold gracefully at one per page, occasionally with a note of explanation, such as a sentence about lespedeza, or bush clover, being a traditional autumn flower of Japan. Yet no explanation is offered for Raikyū Temple, for example, no doubt because we can easily imagine any Buddhist temple we might know. In this way, readers are both guided and trusted at the same time.
Not to be overlooked in this restrained collection of 47 poems is their underlying connection to nature (and sometimes to the seasons—with autumn prevailing). As John Stevenson observes of Chula on the back cover, “she imbues her work with a sense of continuity with the deeper roots of the [haiku] genre.” These roots are not just Japan and its heritage but also nature in all its grand and subtle variations. It is significant, too, that the book begins with an epigraph from potter Bernard Leach: “There is a wild and untamable beauty in man when he is in harmony with nature.” That’s the ultimate theme of One Leaf Detaches. It’s not just the Japanese settings and subjects that matter, but their connection—and the poet’s connection—to nature at almost every turn. Indeed, most poems combine human and natural elements to create an inviting engagement:
ancient pine tree
propped up with bamboo
I unfold my legs
Poems, too, are at times deftly paired, as with the following:
end of autumn at Murasaki’s grave
our vacant house birds chitter from trees
strangled by kudzu roar of traffic
The first poem focuses on the home where the poet once lived in Kyoto, and how it has been affected by change. The second poem offers a similar theme, and both haiku, in a way, are about graves and all that remains, connecting the timely to the timeless.
Perhaps jarring, however, is the occasional poem that seems not innately relevant to Japan, as in the references to coyotes (a North American species) and a hunter’s moon (which I believe to be a Native American term). And one or two poems have no nature in them, but that exclusion is the point, in this case creating humor:
his cell phone rings
Here and there a poem reports Japanese experience, to be sure, but perhaps not as successfully for seeming to be slight—although even these few poems add to the appreciation and color of Japan and its culture:
the Heart Sutra
crackle of incense
Another poem hides an unexplained allusion:
holding the water
held by it
The allusion, which I imagine not every reader would pick up on, is to a 1970 poem by William J. Higginson:
Holding the water
held by it—
the dark mud.
Chula’s poem is transformative, moving from the mud of reality to the enlightenment of the lotus. Speaking of allusion, we also cannot help but think of Bashō in the following:
from the pampas grass
a fright of sparrows
In this, as in most of her poems, we feel a reverence and love for nature as seen through the lens of her love of Japan. To close, here is one more favorite poem, about the art of noticing, this haiku offering an allusion to Anita Virgil’s “not seeing / the room is white / until that red apple,” from this recommended and suitably understated volume:
not seeing it
till darkness fills the pond
the white carp
After I shared this review with Maggie Chula in September 2020, more than three months after publication, she mentioned that “fright” in the “pampas grass” poem was actually a typo, and that she meant “flight.” But she called it “a serendipitous error, which delighted me.” I agree, and I hope she’ll keep “fright.” It feels perfect. As it turned out, I had omitted the “pampas grass” poem and the sentence introducing it in what I submitted to Modern Haiku, but I include it here because of the serendipitous typo.
—26 September 2020, 15 March 2021