A Hundred Gourds 5:2 March 2016

current issue : haiku : tanka : haiga : haibun : renku : expositions : feature : submissions : editors : search : archives

page 6    

Mostly Water — Rick Tarquinio

reviewed by Lorin Ford

book cover

Mostly Water – Rick Tarquinio
Illustrations by Kristopher Danna
Paperback: 82 pages
Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 4.4 x 0.3 inches
Publisher: Rick Tarquinio, New Jersey; first edition (July 8, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1631101587
ISBN-13: 978-1631101588
Price: $12 USD + shipping
Purchase from

“Whatever happened to Rick Tarquinio?” Allan Burns asked of Gene Murtha, seven years ago on a ‘Three Questions’ comments thread at Tobacco Road. Burns goes on to quote a Tarquinio haiku from memory. That haiku, I’ve recently found, won The Heron’s Nest Award in September, 2004:

weathered bridge
   everything but the moon
      drifting downstream

It is not included in Mostly Water, which is (somewhat surprisingly) Tarquinio’s first haiku book. Nor is his earlier Heron’s Nest Award winner from the February 2000 issue or his Third Prize haiku in the 2005 Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest. In fact, as he states on his introduction page, with one single exception all of the 120 haiku in Mostly Water have not been previously published. “Most were written between the summers of 2013 and 2014.” Each of the four sections in Mostly Water contain 30 haiku, attractively laid out two or three to a page with plenty of white space around them.

Mostly Water comes with whole-hearted endorsements by Christopher Herold, Ferris Gilli and John Stevenson. Perspicaciously, Herold writes: “Rick Tarquinio has mastered the art of implication, that essential ingredient found in the best haiku. Another notable strength is his skilful use of ambiguity.” We need go no further for proof of Herold’s claims than the first three haiku in the first of the four seasonally arranged sections of Mostly Water. At the same time we might observe that these haiku are sequenced in a way that implies a connecting undercurrent: a changing state of consciousness and emotional nuance rather than a theme. The first haiku indicates the season:

half ice half mud
the trail
into spring

Quietly, it’s implied that spring is not simply an annual season but a destination that might be journeyed towards, and not, it’s suggested, without some discomfort and changes. Here, we’re at an intersection point between winter and spring, a time of thawing in Tarquinio’s part of the world. From the outset of Mostly Water the reader is alerted to look beneath the surface to what is evoked. Consider the two haiku that follow the first:
over its bank
a memorial cross
parts the river

dead willow
birds still
sing there

At first glance, a reader new to haiku might find nothing but reports of observations, so light is Tarquinio’s touch. In “over its bank” a river has flooded. A memorial cross, possibly marking a grave, is surrounded by water and seems to divide the river into two. Or perhaps the river hasn’t flooded that far, and it’s the shadow the cross casts from the bank that seems to divide the river. Either way, the actual verb here is “parts”, and because it’s impossible for an object such as a memorial cross or its shadow to literally part a river, we might feel prompted to recall the bible story of Moses parting the Red Sea with a rod, making a way for the Israelites to begin their journey to the Promised Land. Thus, the journey into spring of the first haiku is subtly echoed by and resonates with the literary/cultural association implied in this second haiku; an example of the allusive possibilities of what Haruo Shirane termed “the vertical axis”1. The trail into spring and the way to the Promised Land are, it is subtly suggested by the arrangement of the two haiku in sequence, analogous, and both may be metaphors for something else: a journey of the psyche. Magic – the transformative magic of poetry – is afoot and here it involves a belief in a future (via “the trail into spring”) and memory (via “memorial”) as well as present time.

The subject of this second haiku in Mostly Water is “a memorial cross”. In the following haiku, the subject is a “dead willow”. In terms of Tarquinio’s sequencing, it could be said that pausing to observe a dead willow carries an association with the Christian ritual of observing the Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa. This adds further resonance to the journeying motif begun in “half ice half mud”.

Memory is implicit in the “dead willow” haiku. The tree is clearly being revisited after quite some time has elapsed. In contrast to the dead tree, birds sing there. Still sing there. The line break after “still” suggests a pause in which the birds may be still, unmoving, hushed, before it’s certain that they’re singing. These birds may not be the remembered birds, birds heard singing there previously. As time passes, like the waters flowing in Heraclitus’s river, other and yet other birds are singing. We spare a thought for birds who may not have survived this passing winter and previous winters while we appreciate that there are birds singing in the dead willow now. Death and life form two equal parts of a whole. Everything that lives dies, but life itself continues: birds are still singing. Below the seemingly straightforward, realistic surfaces of these haiku we’re in the realms of the symbolic and implied metaphor.

In the fourth haiku, the transition/ journey from winter to spring continues. The last trace of snow is where it would be, in the deepest rut. This is a well-travelled road, with many ruts one could become stuck in (we are reminded of the psychological level of this journey) but winter has almost melted away now. In the fifth we arrive at “budding spring”, to be greeted by the delightfully funny figure of a stranger.
mud road
in the deepest rut
a trace of snow

budding spring
a stranger’s smile
earmuff to earmuff

It’s still cold, but that stranger’s undeniably wide smile is full of warmth. Those earmuffs might be humorously compared with buds on a tree, magnolia buds perhaps. This ordinary but congenial stranger becomes, upon reflection, enigmatic in context. Who is he? A smiling stranger, in folklore (but not always in real life) is often an auspicious figure to meet on a journey. In myth, folklore and dream, things as they are may be more or quite other than they seem to be: they have the potential to transform into something else. This same potential is also the ancient power of poetry, and metaphor is at its heart.

That we have been on a journey since the first haiku in Mostly Water is confirmed again by the next haiku, which contains a bridge with “violets blooming at both ends”, something that couldn’t be known unless the observer had crossed that bridge. With the senryu that follows the “bridge” haiku, we are back in the everyday world of human society, where the roles we adopt are often taken seriously:

before work
the Easter Bunny

Here is a man superficially transformed into the Easter Bunny. (Most likely a man, though women sometimes pace, too) Why is he pacing? What is his pacing an expression of? Is this Easter Bunny rehearsing his lines? Or is he impatient, anxious, worried or angry? What at first seems comical – someone in an Easter Bunny suit pacing, not yet behaving in character with the assumed identity – deepens into curiosity about this fellow human being. Who is he, beneath his costume? And so we have arrived home. We are returned to a complex, resurrected world of people, horses, tadpoles, insects and all the manifestations and activities of spring in rural New Jersey, including the mischievous blowing of dandelion seeds onto the property of a fussy neighbour. “Home”, it has been said by the author of ‘Four Quartets’, “is where one starts from.”

Rather than take haiku that I find particularly interesting from the four sections of Mostly Water to indicate the variety offered over the 120 haiku included in this book, I’ve focused on the first few haiku in the first section to demonstrate the depths of allusions that may be found beneath the surface of Tarquinio’s haiku. One of the strengths of Mostly Water is that great care has been taken with the craft of sequencing, so that resonance can occur between haiku and across several haiku as well as within individual haiku.

Variations of subject matter, mood and tone occur throughout the book. Motifs come and go, often to return in a different form. Allusions to other haiku poets’ work, from Basho and Issa to Jim Kacian, appear now and then in the flow, for instance, from the autumn section:

in a world of dew
men kneeling
among the cabbages

Tarquinio gives Issa’s familiar “world of dew” the weight of the literal without losing the metaphorical sense of “only a world of dew”: the transience of all things. These men could be farm labourers anywhere in the real world. The image of men’s heads bending so close to the dew-laden cabbage heads (that are quite likely being cut off for market) is disquieting , returning us to the gist of Issa’s plaintive cry from the heart, “and yet . . .”.

The haiku which lends its resonant third line to the book’s title appears in the fourth section:

the frozen lake
      I too
          am mostly water

Our physical bodies are, when it comes down to it, mostly water. But beyond that fact, here by the frozen lake we might be reminded of the water cycle: that water is always in movement and is always changing states, from snow and ice to liquid to vapour and around the cycle again and again. It’s always in transition, taking the forms of rivers and little streams, dew and rain, fog and mist, ice and snow, freezing, melting, vapourising, condensing, falling down to earth, soaking into, flowing . . . The poet acknowledges, beside the frozen lake, his own cycles and transitions by the implied analogy.

There is nothing overwrought, excessive or posturing in Mostly Water. Tarquinio writes haiku & senryu skilfully with an admirable light touch, demonstrating his understanding of Basho’s aesthetic of karumi: “A good poem is one in which the form of the verse and the joining of its parts seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed.”2 Basho is talking about craft, here, not content. The depths and layers of meaning in Tarquinio’s haiku are quietly and lightly suggested, implied, alluded to. Often they’re at an oblique angle, the angle of refraction. We’re invited, as readers, to look deeper and find them for ourselves.

After reading through Mostly Water, it comes as no surprise to learn that Rick Tarquinio is also a musician and composer, one well-practised in the art of listening, who includes ambient sounds in his compositions and who understands resonance in a way that transfers to his haiku. Switching from the Mostly Water page on his website via the ‘music’ link at the top of the page will allow you to sample some of Tarquinio’s music online.

Admirers of Rick Tarquinio’s haiku will be pleased to know that with the publication of Mostly Water he’s back in the centre of the EL haiku universe. Many will enjoy for the first time reading Tarquinio’s haiku in sequence, which allows further potentials to open than is possible for a haiku read in isolation. Those who are new to his haiku have some delightful discoveries to look forward to and learn from.


1 Haruo Shirane, ‘Beyond the Haiku Moment’

2Lucien Stryk, 'Modern Japanese Haiku', American Poetry Review 23/4, (July/ August 1994)


previous exposition : expositions contents