A Hundred Gourds 4:2 March 2015

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Duncan Richardson, Mountains Plains Sea

reviewed by Cynthia Rowe

book cover

Mountains Plains Sea
by Duncan Richardson
Printed by Pula! Press 2013
Approx. 44 pages
ISBN 978-1-291-23214-1
Print book: 14.81x20.98 perfect bound paperback
Price $A10 from

Mountains Plains Sea is a haiku journey through eastern Australia, illustrated with photos and sketches, taking in the wide open spaces behind the Great Divide, the alpine country of the Snowy Mountains and the great expanses of the beach, with many curiosities along the way.

The cover of Duncan Richardson’s book is elegant, glossy and a pleasure to hold. The depth of colour, the richness of the image and its mysteriousness invite the reader to explore further, to accompany the poet on his travels.

The approximately 66 haiku are presented in seven parts, laid out in sequence as in a diary. The poems are grouped into morsels of his experience, giving a taste of Richardson’s stopover in each place before moving on. He lightly touches on what he saw and felt, using the five senses. The whole is imbued with a wry sense of humour intertwined with a love of his homeland and its quirks, respect for its nature. The writing is nuanced and sentient, the gaze of the poet unflinching, accepting, sometimes with a weary resignation, the challenges of this rugged countryside. Throughout, the poet embraces the beauty of the Australian landscape for all its flaws and challenges.

Mountains Plains Sea commences at the Western Plains with a beguiling sketch of windblown sunflowers.

by the road      sunflowers
                           the endless plain

The haiku describing the town is perceptive. There are some things we can control but the ravages of time are inexorable.

tidy town ...
but the sign
can't stop peeling

In the section titled Dubbo, a charming naïf illustration of the local gaol greets the reader. The poet’s laconic humour is a delight; he uses it to good effect.

old gaol             but
the gallows still
                 draw a crowd

The insightful:

thirteen steps
                  to the noose
                  how bright the paint

presupposes that the poet’s sensibilities are heightened by his experience, as if he can imagine what it would have been like all those years ago when the death penalty was still in force. We can tell he has a keen understanding of the way the accused’s faculties would have been amplified as he was about to face his mortality at the end of a rope.

The next section Cowra, a Central West region of New South Wales, inspires us to recall that here was the site of a prisoner of war camp. On the 5th August 1944 approximately 545 Japanese prisoners of war attempted a breakout from the camp, hence the haiku:

p.o.w. camp
suddenly we are

During the breakout other Japanese soldiers committed suicide, or were killed by their compatriots. He evokes this historical event with the gritty:

tourist signs
            all that remains
            of soldiers' nightmares

The reader is introduced to the Jenolan section by a wonderful sketch of the caves. I particularly like the quirkiness of:

eight tons
of cave roof debris
wondering when it fell

and the tactile quality of:

in the thick dark
crystals grow
and touch

We can feel the poet reaching out, also, in the cool darkness with a growing sense of wonderment that these marvels of nature burgeon in such a somber and secretive place. We can imagine him exploring with his eyes and his hands, perhaps pulling a torch from his pocket to examine the crystals more closely.

He continues on his way, manifesting the frustration of touring, the occasional weariness. The map is becoming worn, the lines less clear as he moves on.

refolding the map
how I hate

When we arrive at the Snowy Mountains section we are privileged to view a photo in which rocks are heaped like an ancient sculpture.

The introductory haiku:

what did they do
before I came
all these flies?

vividly outlines the discomforts of the journey as though the poet is wondering whether the flies have turned up to welcome him – what did they do before he came, who and what did they torment prior to his arrival?

We are briefly distracted by the harmony of:

mountain mist
turns trees
into shadows

before Richardson vents his frustration once more with:

ah this view to the earth's end
seen through a mist
of flies

followed by the atmospheric:

chairlift poles
hold wires
and silence

which implies how desolate the place can feel between ski seasons. The conciseness of ‘chairlift poles’ is illustrated with a sumi-e style painting, stunning in its simplicity.

The Lithgow section boasts a sketch of the old steel works/arms factory, immediately followed by:

old steel works
piles of slag
and butterflies

where industrial ugliness is juxtaposed with the ephemeral beauty of butterflies flitting among the slag heaps.

We are drawn to the haiku:

where the riot was
                                    wild fennel

with its unusual layout, and again the poet contrasts the violence and despair with the freedom of aromatic wild fennel, which grows in coastal soil and may have greeted the first settlers who landed on these shores.

The blight of industry on the landscape, and the consequences for humanity are evoked.

ruined blast furnace
still casts a shadow
over workers' cottages

The Coast section repeats the same image as that used for the cover of the book. The lyrical haiku that follows conveys the poet’s sleepy wellbeing.

behind my eyes
waves still curl

The haiku:

three flashes in ten seconds
the lighthouse keeps me safe
from sleep

is accompanied by a whimsical sketch of the lighthouse, delicate and prescient.

The final haiku in the book summarises the poet’s experiences. The travails and wonders pass in a flash, as if in a dream.

back home
watching the video
in an afternoon

Duncan Richardson has a keen sense of the seductiveness and provocativeness of his native land. He revels in nature, and does not shrink from confronting the complexity of this country’s past. He never wallows in sentimentality; affection and humour infuse his work. He communes with the natural world and its enigmas with intelligence while demonstrating a flair for revealing the incongruities and paradoxes of this ‘wide brown land’.

Mountains Plains Sea diarises the poet’s journey, much as Bashō did when he wandered through the countryside of Japan. The reader will dip into this book time and again, only to discover something new, to find a different take, to elicit a fresh view of this country, its intricacies and its contrariness. In this collection we are privy to a feast of haiku, of intertwining words and illustrations, dedicated to place. This compact volume makes a valuable contribution to the canon of Australian-themed haiku.

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