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A Hundred Gourds 1:4 September 2012
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A Review of Jack Galmitz's yards & lots
by Chen-ou Liu


yards & lots by Jack Galmitz, Middle Island Press, 68 pages, semi-gloss cover, and unpriced.
Available to purchase from http://middleislandpress.com, ISBN: 978-1-4675-1236-7

In this beautifully produced little book whose cover is designed by Chris Gordon, Jack Galmitz, award-winning poet and contributing editor at Roadrunner, demonstrates divergent yet engaging writing styles in 56 haiku. These gemlike poems are grouped into six sections, titled "memorial stones," "marginalia," "lots," "outside the lines," "yards," "she," and "minimus" respectively, and they are written in the form of a one-liner, two-liner, or three-liner. Each poem is placed horizontally or vertically on one page. It functions like a pebble being thrown by the author into the still pond of the reader's mind, and the ripples reflect the reader's understanding of haiku aesthetics and his/her encounters with and receptivity to Galmitz's poetic expressions.

Of the six sections of haiku, I like the opening section, titled "memorial stones," the most in terms of formal, stylistic, and thematic elements. It starts with the following heartfelt haiku beautifully crafted in the traditional style – three lines, 5-7-5 syllables, with a caesura/cutting after the second line emphasized by a dash.

two light beams shining
where there were once twin towers –
my son, my daughter

The first two lines delineate the most significant memory-scape in the first decade of the 21st century, where the present encounters the past and both reflect upon each other. In L3, the thematic focus is shifted from the socio-cultural/public to the personal-relational/private. It indicates that redeeming hope of the future begins with the generational basis of remembrance of things past. And the psycho-sociopolitical significance of number two stirs the reader to further ponder past trauma, present reflection, and future hope.

To continue exploring the theme of remembering, the second poem, written in the contemporary style with syllabic asymmetry, begins by evoking the horrific image of United Airlines Flight 93 crashing in an open field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania ("in a field somewhere/a plane went down"), and it concludes with a heartfelt plea – "remember us"– from the deceased passengers who fought fearlessly to take back their plane in an effort to stop a 9-11 terrorist attack. Out of the four hijacked planes, Flight 93 was the only one not to reach its target.

Turning to the third haiku, I am surprised to find that there is no human figure or voice, and that there are two blank lines used to separate the two parts of the poem.

in Bryant Park
2,753 empty chairs


not a breath of air

The first two lines refer to a sea of empty seats, 2,753 in all, flooding the lawn of Bryant Park in surging waves of loss and grief on Friday, September 9, 2011, two days before the 10th Anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. This unforgettably poignant exhibition used one empty chair to represent one 9/11 victim at the World Trade Center, and 35 rows of empty chairs completely covering the lawn faced south towards the fallen Twin Towers. The third line in the poem painfully evokes a persistent absence, indicating that this haunting exhibit was a visual reminder of the loss. Galmitz's thematically effective use of blank space adds emotional weight and psychological depth to the poem.

Further exploring the theme of loss and remembrance, the fourth poem, written in the shasei style, keenly captures the most moving moment in the annual 9/11 memorial ceremony: each and every one of the names of the dead read aloud at Ground Zero by fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, siblings, and coworkers, some choked with emotion ("the names of the dead/ read at ground zero"). The opening line ("the end of summer") successfully sets the scenic and emotional context for the poem, signifying the beginning of the process of decline that is initiated by Mother Nature.

In the rest of the section, the thematic focus becomes darker, dealing mainly with the inevitable human issue - death. In the following haiku written from a religio-politically gendered perspective:

the Day of the Dead
is celebrated everyday –
Ciudad Juarez

The northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez that borders with the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas is notoriously known for its unspeakable phenomenon of female homicides. The opening lines reveal an authorial commentary in the form of a religious satire.

Meanwhile, there is a movement in the rest of the section toward the inner world painted with psychologically striking imagery, such as the following two haiku:

my inner world –
a relief sculpture
of a civil war


a mass grave covered my torso

The opening section ends with a haiku written in the gendai style.

the sparrow's young mouth
opens
the underworld's well

This poem, in some way, indirectly responds to a folk belief: sparrows carry the souls of the dead.

In reviewing this book, I am reminded of Haruo Shirane's insightful essay, titled "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths." In the essay, he points out that "the emphasis on the 'haiku moment' in North American haiku has meant that most of the poetry does not have another major characteristic of Japanese haikai and haiku: its allusive character, the ability of the poem to speak to other literary or poetic texts." ¹ This is not the case with Galmitz's haiku, a lot of which are thematically allusive and formally self-reflexive as I've pointed out in the passages above. These allusive haiku, small "memorial stones," in the first section reveal his thematic concerns that resonate with those explored in the nascent field of memory studies, one that has been influenced by academic theories of Holocaust memory and trauma. ²

In the same essay, Professor Shirane also suggests that since most of haiku poets now live in cities, they should "[write] serious poetry on the immediate urban environment or broader social issues. Topics such as subways, commuter driving, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc., while falling outside of the traditional notion of nature, in fact provide some of the richest sources for modern haiku." ³ One of the most exciting aspects of reviewing this book is that there are two sections, "yards" and "lots" from which the title is drawn, dealing mainly with everyday urban space.

Structurally speaking, the one-line haiku with opening words "the yard" are divided into two parts by the use of a colon. The first part, "the yard," sets up an urban social space upon which the second part acts/performs. The second one is further divided into two subparts by the use of a comma. Through the juxtaposition/collocation of these two subparts, the possible meanings/connotations emerge from the reader's observations of/reflections on daily encounters with his/her urban surroundings. The haiku regarding "lots" are similarly structured, except that they are two-lined with "an abandoned lot:" as the first line. Below are my favorites:

the yard: a pile of tires, a baseball


the yard: a birdbath, a chainsaw


an abandoned lot:
weeds tall as men, a shopping cart


an abandoned lot:
Trees of Heaven, auto parts


Of the rest of the haiku in the book, I am impressed by Galmitz's thematically and emotionally effective use of cutting and by his psychologically striking imagery in the following four haiku:

alone                              floating bones


in tenement rooms
the saxophone you hear
when the moon is full


I
join
the moon
to
the snow


opposite leaves sing on to me


yards & lots is indeed an "uncommonly imaginative haiku presentation (a sophisticated weaving of the traditional and the iconoclastic)" 4 that takes the reader beyond the haiku moment and on a journey of discovering what makes a haiku illuminating and beautiful.

Notes:

1 Haruo Shirane, "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths", Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000). Its online version can be accessed at http://bit.ly/CckuN
2 For further information on this topic, please see Richard Crownshaw, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature and Culture, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. This book offers an in-depth analysis of the way in which representations of the Holocaust in literature, memorials, and monuments are transmitters of trauma.
3 Haruo Shirane.
4 http://middleislandpress.com/?page_id=1717

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