A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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A Train Hurtles West – Maeve O'Sullivan

reviewed by Glenda Cimino

book cover
A Train Hurtles West by Maeve O'Sullivan
Alba Publishing, 2014
54 pages,ISBN: 978-1-910185-12-4
Print book, 6 x 8.5 inches,
paperback, black and white, colour cover
Price €12, UK£10, US $15.00 plus shipping,
available on Amazon, or from the publisher at:
P.O.Box 266, Uxbridge UB9 5NX, U.K. or

A Train Hurtles West is a beautiful and well-designed book. The cover depicts an empty railroad track heading toward the sunset in the west, an apt thematic image. In various cultural traditions and mythologies the west and the setting sun are associated with death, the afterlife, the presence of God, or liberation. The verb 'hurtles' reminds us that we are moved quickly through our life's journey, perhaps faster toward the end. This book was partly inspired and informed by the death of Maeve's mother in 2014, and partly by other events in Maeve's life.

Maeve writes that she has been increasingly drawn to the one-line haiku, also called a monostich.

mother dying       a train hurtles west

The haiku above connects two separate but simultaneous events, yet also gives us the sense of a life rapidly heading towards its inevitable close. There is an element of naturalism in the simple objectivity of its statement, reminding one of Yeats' epitaph, 'Cast a cold eye/ on life, on death'.

But the book is about life perhaps more than death. It is organised into 22 sections by themes. We have the traditional winter, spring, summer, and autumn, interspersed with headings like music, interiors, birds, flowers, yoga, and finally, the section bearing the title of the book. However, the layout of three haiku to a page (except for one-liners) makes it easy to read. We follow where Maeve's experiences have inspired her, and she seems to find inspiration in almost everything.

Maeve has been writing haiku, senryu, haibun, and more traditional poetry, as in her 2014 book, Vocal Chords, for over 20 years, and she is steadily perfecting her art. Most of these haiku have appeared in a variety of journals. She has also written a short blog, ‘Why Haiku?’ explaining why she is drawn to the haiku form.

In the best examples of her work, we are caught as we should be in the immediacy of experience, as in her dedication page haiku,

her umbrella blows
inside out again -
mother laughing

Although it is not stated, we can almost see mother and daughter, sense the closeness between them, feel the wind, hear the mother's laughter. (That we know the mother is now deceased adds to the poignancy of this captured moment) There is another haiku for her father, who is also deceased:

removing the red rose bush
from my garden to your grave –
Father's Day

The last lines surprise us, undermine our expectation. Often it is the counterpoint between what is said, and not said that gives the haiku its meaning, as in the following:

death certificate incomplete granny's maiden name

and in this one line we are reminded of all of the things we might have asked the deceased, in this case our mothers, and that it is now too late.
You might think that this book is depressing; it is not. In fact, sometimes Maeve's keen observation reveals a droll sense of humour as well, as in

frantic Mingus riff
trying to fit the shelf
back into the fridge

or the following, which might arise from her own practice of Buddhism:

reject samsara?
this still summer river
this wild path

or again,

cloudy afternoon.....
my sweetpea flowers
becoming peas

I am less fond of the senryu:

April afternoon
we talk about everything
under the sun

I see how she is trying to turn the cliche into a felt experience (the April sun) but if I find myself stopping to notice that something is clever, I feel distanced from the actual experience.
But what shines throughout is Maeve's keen sense of observation and empathy, and her ability to express both in a few simple, well-chosen words.


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