Presents of Mind

First published in Woodnotes #28, Spring 1996, pages 51–52.

Presents of Mind by Jim Kacian. Katsura Press, 1996, 120 pages, paperback, 5 by 8 inches. $14.95 postpaid from the author at Red Moon Productions, Route 2, Box 3977, Berryville, Virginia 22611 [address no longer correct]. A dragonfly-like blue ribbon spans the cover of this gift of haiku. Presents of Mind, Jim Kacian’s first book, advances through the five traditional Japanese seasons, starting with New Year’s Day poems, then cycling through spring, summer, autumn, and winter—an arrangement that seems imitative and Japonesque rather than American. Seventeen poems appear in each section at one poem per page, for a total of 85 poems. The lines of each poem are centered down a vertical axis, which may at first seem to limit the variety of effective line arrangements, yet perhaps it suggests the “centeredness” of haiku presence. Kacian’s ponderous introduction tells readers that haiku do not attempt to oppose silence but point to it, and set an oscillation into motion in the silence between us. As you read these poems, you will sometimes feel the centeredness of silence, the presence necessary for the creation and appreciation of fine haiku. Yet some of the poems seem to be weaker than one might hope for in a book with such excellent production values. Some poems are more psychological or intellectual than I would prefer (such as “caterpillar / spins a mid- / life crisis”), and I’m distracted by such metaphors as a berry bush’s “fruit of dew” and a “wind’s waltz.” Some poems are not “in the moment” (such as “all winter long / smoke on the horizon / in the same place”) or suffer from inadequate specificity (such as “something dead, / something blooming / spring breeze”). These and other weaknesses suggest that this book’s text could have been improved. For example, “first page / of the new journal / untrammeled snow” seems derivative of and inferior to Nick Avis’s well-known “freshly fallen snow / opening a new package / of typing paper” (which shows rather than tells us that the snow is untrammeled). My feeling, too, is that the introduction detracts from more than it adds to the book because it seems grandiose and overly conceptual (at odds with the ordinary concreteness of most successful haiku). Nevertheless, some of the book’s poems are wonderful, and are intimate enough to connect writer and reader in the way that any carefully chosen gift bonds giver and receiver. The wordplay of the title may strike some readers as overly cutesy or merely clever, yet it captures in its homonym that fundamental element of this poetry—that haiku are not only gifts, but present moments for which one needs—or receives—presence of mind. Jim Kacian has shown us this gift, and for that spirit of giving we can be grateful. Despite the book’s weaknesses, you will certainly find some blue-ribbon poems here—poems that work (unlike some other poems in this collection) because they seem not to try too hard. Here are four favourite samples:

drifted snow

the welcome disappears

from the doormat

noiseless wind

icicles pend

from the bell clappers

drowned moth

the wax hardens

around it

swallow flight

looking out the window

long after