A Hundred Gourds 3:3 June 2014

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The Window That Closes – Graham High

reviewed by Matthew Paul

book cover

The Window That Closes, haiku by Graham High
Turtle Light Press:
P.O. Box 50162, Arlington, VA 22205, USA
ISBN: 978-0-9748147-4-2
Pages: 32
Price: $11.95, plus p&p for shipping outside USA

Graham High has had a long creative career, as sculptor, painter, animatronic model designer for many feature films, and as a poet, both of ‘mainstream’ poems and of haiku and haibun. As the current President of the British Haiku Society, High has played a prominent role in seeking to further the popularity of haiku and its related forms within the UK. This, his latest haiku collection, won the Turtle Light Press haiku chapbook competition 2012 and it’s easy to see why, as its thematic unity, as an impressionistic study of the last few months of High’s mother’s life, is unusually cohesive and powerful. That unity is wrought not just by the subject-matter but also because nine of the book’s 40 poems contain the word ‘window’, simultaneously symbolic of his largely housebound’s mother entrapment and enabling of her view out on the world; and because nearly all 40 run counter to the prevailing trend of contemporary English-language haiku by being 5-7-5, or close variants thereof. With such a subject it would be entirely understandable if the haiku were over-emotional and/or sentimental; somehow, though, High steers clear of such pitfalls by writing from tangential angles that record intensely moving moments:

         out to see the spring,
she notes the coldness of wind
      through thinning hair

  Mum in the May breeze—
the straw in a blue-tit’s beak
         becomes unwieldy

In ‘out to see the spring’, High uses the 5-7-5(ish) form to good effect, to create a run-on haiku that somehow echoes the force and freshness of the wind. The first line is expansive and neatly sets up his mother’s observation in the second line, before the subtle detail of the third line – subtle because High eschews a pronoun which enables a delightful ambiguity: whilst the reader may initially presume that the hair that is referred to belongs to his mother, it could equally refer to High himself or to another person, or people, that his mother can see. Sonically, the poem is threaded, as if by the wind, by the rhyme of ‘spring’, ‘wind’ and ‘thin’. The use of ‘thinning’ is key too, as it carries overtones of physical frailty not just of hair but per se. In summary, this poem effects a quiet but wry meditation on the aging process, and on early spring, when the bitter chill of winter can linger or return with a vengeance.

Equally fine, ‘Mum in the May breeze’ works well thanks to a superb comparison between the frailty of High’s mother and the straw in the bird’s beak. As in ‘out to see the spring’, though, the longer-than-average lines allow High to use expressive language that some English-language haiku taste-makers might frown upon as being too ‘poetic’. The third line especially appears, well, unwieldy, but the adjective works beautifully with the verb to round off a perfect, sonically and rhythmically balanced poem.

High has a tendency to use an adjective in nearly all his haiku, and sometimes to use several; which is, again, against the grain of, and refreshingly different from, the dominant, more minimalist format of the English-language haiku mainstream. For example, ‘a seat in the park— / now she can hardly manage / that awkward ice cream’ contains an adjective that others might have either omitted or replaced with, say, the specific flavour of the ice-cream. One could argue that ‘awkward’ is superfluous since High has already written that she ‘can hardly manage’, and that it might be there simply to pad out the poem ton 5-7-5; yet the counter-argument is stronger: that the adjective here provides an emphasis that augments the power of the poem.

High’s powers of observation of small details are also remarkable: Take this haiku:

 hand on his headstone
the rosettes of dry lichen
      and her liver spots

Like ‘Mum in the May breeze’, the haiku is structured around an obvious comparison, here between the patination of the lichen and that of High’s mother’s liver spots. What makes the poem so outstanding is the inclusion of ‘rosettes’, which presumably indicates the botanical term which often appears within the name of species of lichen, but also refers to both the lichen and the liver spots. The first line effectively makes the poem a multi-sensory one and helps to render the whole a kind of memento mori, like a vanitas still life painting.

Another poem subtly conveys the loneliness of elderly widowhood and the fear and insecurity which that can induce:

       veiled in thin mist,
the walker outside her door
   just her son’s footsteps

As in ‘Mum in the May breeze’, the reference to ‘thin’ brings a sense of more than just the mist being thin, but of High’s mother herself. High carefully pulls back the ‘veil’ of the first line with that well-judged ‘just’. Having been employed for many years within the film industry, it’s probably no surprise that High can write cinematic haiku at times, and in this one the setting up and removal of suspense is positively Hitchcockian. That (presumably) he himself is the ‘walker’ within the poem does not detract from it, but instead adds an element of pathos.

A quiet, gentle humour pervades High’s poems, even when they overtly or latently address matters of age, mortality and sadness, and he gets the balance right between seriousness and comedy throughout the book, in a manner reminiscent of the master of black humour, Samuel Beckett:

            on her windowsill
a line of last week’s tea bags—
        prospect of dry hills

Aside from the lovely comparison between the foreground tea bags and the background hills, High neatly captures another common facet of old age, the wish to save money, to a penny-pinching degree; in this instance born, maybe, from having been part of the generation that grew up through the long period of rationing and austerity during and after the Second World War, when the British Government urged its citizens to make the most of all resources, especially food. The ‘line of last week’s tea bags’ takes that tendency to a comic extreme. The fact that the tea bags are no doubt bone dry, having been re-used several, or even many, times each, is cleverly underscored by High’s description of the distant view of the hills. Like so many of the haiku in this collection, it’s one to savour on the ear as well as on the page, with the em-dash providing a kireji that slows the poem down to a perfect pace.

There are many more fine haiku in this short collection. It oozes quality and deserves a wide readership.

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