Wanting the Mouth of a Lover by Charles Gramlich. Columbia, Louisiana: Spec House of Poetry, 2008.
If it wasn’t for this short book’s introduction, there’s nothing in novelist Charles Gramlich’s Wanting the Mouth of a Lover (Columbia, Louisiana: Spec House of Poetry, 2008) to suggest its poems are haiku. Yet that’s the presumption of the introduction, which describes haiku as a one-breath poem with a season word and a connection between two images. All well and good—although, in 1991, when Gramlich says he first heard haiku being defined as a “one-breath poem,” the English-language haiku tradition was long past what the author believed to be “emerging.” What is useful about the introduction, though, is the extension of haiku to the speculation that it might be not just a one-breath poem but a last-breath poem. Lorca would recognize the concept of duende in such a stance—the intensity of poetic emotion in the face of death (what Edward Hirsch has called a “joyful darkness”). But of course such a tradition has existed in Japanese haiku in the form of jisei, or death poems, for centuries (see Yoel Hoffmann’s Japanese Death Poems, Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1986). Gramlich’s collection of 23 short poems (I hesitate to call them haiku) dwell in neither duende or jisei, but do present the possible context of death—by vampire.
Vampirism as a metaphor for sexual conquest is a well-established trope. In the realm of speculative poetry, it’s just as welcome as a possible subject as is scifaiku. We see the trope borne out by a pair of fanged lips greeting us on the book’s cover, as well as in several poems inside. Indeed, many of these poems play the vampire or horror card, and on that score they work well enough, if you’re into such things. Vampirism is an acquired taste, vampire-haiku even more so.
Where the book goes astray, though, is with the claim—or implication—that these poems are haiku (the preceding poem, for example, is overly abstract with the word “life” and thus at odds with the concrete imagism of traditional haiku). The vertical presentation of the poems (one word per line), as a way to mimic the Japanese, has nothing to do with whether the book goes astray or not, however. Haiku poets have employed such a presentation style for several decades. I did a short book of them myself in 1986, and poets such as John Martone have excelled at this approach for years. Lee Gurga has recently been doing them, and the late and much-revered William J. Higginson (among others I could mention) has done them too. One argument for this form, which Gramlich makes, is that it matches the “traditional” presentation of haiku in Japan. That claim ignores the fact that Japanese characters can usually be placed in any direction and still be equally readable. But English isn’t the same. Easily it read can you if see and English of line a reversing try! A vertical presentation isn’t as painful to read as a reversed English sentence, but as Hiroaki Sato has long advocated, the real equivalent to the vertical presentation of haiku in Japanese is a single horizontal line in English. So the vertical presentation of haiku, if it’s trying to imitate Japan, is not really equivalent, but a mixed-up hybrid. As an influence or justification, Gramlich cites translator David Lanoue, whose first book of Issa translations, Issa: Cup of Tea Poems (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991) used the vertical form (Lanoue, Gramlich says, taught him “all I know about haiku,” and they both teach at Xavier University in New Orleans). Lanoue, quoted in the introduction, says that “Presented vertically, the haiku forces the reader to dwell, ever-so-briefly, on each word.” That can be true, yes. Yet Lanoue has abandoned that approach, and seemingly for good reason—because the form starts getting in the way, especially when used for many poems in a row. As Ted Kooser would say, the form eventually drops sunglasses on the floor of a glass-bottomed boat and makes the reader aware of the glass instead of seeing the fish and coral below. The words of a good haiku, as Alan Watts has asserted, should be as invisible as possible, to the point of being “wordless.” Basically, although the book is very short, Gramlich’s gimmick is too loud. It becomes a mind game, even if slight, to parse the vertically presented poem. That soon makes the reader aware of the form, and thus takes the reader out of the image itself—or intellectual abstraction, as is the case with some of these poems.
Indeed, these poems lack chiefly objective imagery, as well as the juxtaposition and seasonality of haiku. While the author cites prior publication in Modern Haiku, that seems to have been a rarity; indeed, it seems he was dabbling and it shows in these poems, at least in terms of haiku. On the other hand, haiku be damned. The poems could work just fine as short vertical poems. The problem, though, is the invocation of haiku in the introduction, although far worse sins than this have been committed in the name of haiku.
But this is not the only misstep. The Japanese characters on the cover mean something like “saké [rice wine] picture,” which doesn’t really make any sense with the rest of the book, matching neither the book’s title nor any particular poem. Perhaps the intent was to give the collection a Japanese look, but it’s an example of the book’s seemingly bold naiveté—dwelling in Japanese forms without really knowing enough to do it well or speak about it with sufficient authority. Why try to look Japanese at all? And if one insists on doing so, why not use relevant Japanese characters? Of course, haiku will survive unsophisticated assaults, and poets of any stripe will endlessly play with and challenge expectations. Sure, the author claims not to be a traditionalist, but what’s odd here is his stance of creative originality in doing something (vertical haiku) that’s already been done for ages, and his belief that these poems are somehow still haiku. Poets will play, and perhaps you can still enjoy these poems for trying something a little different. Fine, enjoy them, but skip the introduction, or read it last if you must. It’s actually a fine introduction, and says good things about haiku, but it’s disconnected from the virtues or characteristics of the book’s poems themselves—which are really perfectly fine, especially in the horror and vampire vein, except that they’re not haiku, or only barely haiku at best.
I’m writing these words on the Day of the Dead—just after Halloween, a day of horrors. This book’s poems are meant to be horror poems, and they work well enough as minimalist poems. But to me, the greater horror (albeit just a small one) is how the book misunderstands and co-opts haiku for its own selfish purposes. How much better the book could have been if it had said nothing about haiku in the introduction at all.