A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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Nest Feathers – Selected Haiku from the First 15 Years of The Heron’s Nest

reviewed by Rodney Williams

book cover
Nest Feathers – Managing Editor: John Stevenson
Published in 2015 by The Heron’s Nest Press, USA
176 pages, ISBN: 978-1-4951-6794-2
Print book, 15.5 cm x 23.5 cm
Perfect bound
Artwork by Ron C. Moss
(covers, title page and annual chapters)
Prices – $23.00 US; $28 Canada and Mexico;
$33 other locations

Nest Feathers – Selected Haiku from the First 15 Years of The Heron’s Nest proves to be every bit as impressive as would be expected with a representative anthology from such a flagship journal of English Language Haiku. This collection spans the years 1999-2013, involving 248 haiku from 145 poets. As the book’s blurb attests, these poems have been selected by the current editors – under the leadership of Managing Editor John Stevenson – from more than 8,000 haiku published by the journal in its first 15 years.

Striking artwork from noted Australian haiku poet and artist Ron C Moss is featured throughout, in colour on both back and front covers, yet in black and white otherwise. Always focusing upon the titular theme of birds’ feathers, some of Ron’s eye-catching imagery has clearly been sourced from both exotic peacocks and Australian parrots, ornithologically in keeping with the internationalism of this anthology.

The text for Nest Feathers commences with an introduction from The Heron’s Nest’s founding editor Christopher Herold that adopts the device of swapping into the third person (using a fairytale-style opening) to describe his own life leading up to the founding of the journal: “Once upon a time there was a middle-aged man who lived by himself in a tiny, ramshackle cabin …” Central to this narrative is the haiku moment when the journal’s title itself occurred to him: “With a gulp the heron swallowed the fish and then flew up to a nearby tree where it had built a huge nest.”

This reminiscence is followed by a preface from John Stevenson, outlining practicalities involved in the selection process which governed the choices of haiku made by himself and by the current team of Associate Editors – Ferris Gilli, Paul MacNeil, Fay Aoyagi, Billie Wilson and Scott Mason. All six editors were required to select forty-five poems each, involving no more than one haiku per poet (with their own work excluded by unstated consensus), yet there was no stipulation that each year should be “represented equally, or at all.” John Stevenson goes on to note his lack of surprise – firstly – at “a slightly higher representation of poems from the more recent volumes”, and then at the fact that there was “little overlap in the selections”. In representing any one year – as John Stevenson adds – the chosen haiku have been sequenced “in an order that we hope will make for good reading”.

Certainly one of several strengths to be identified in Nest Feathers is its capacity to offer groupings of haiku which complement each other within the sample of poems chosen from any twelve-month period. Yet linkages can likewise be found between annual volumes of The Heron’s Nest, often imagistically-speaking, as well as thematically. Without knowing whether the same member of the editorial team may have selected any corresponding pair of haiku, albeit published years apart, one can only guess as to whether this sense of internal dialogue gives a degree of cohesion by design, at best; at worst, an occasional feeling of déjà vu; or whether such correlations are simply fortuitous. Be that as it may, a range of recurring themes make individual poems within Nest Feathers all the more resonant upon re-reading, once given the chance to bounce – in a complementary manner – off another poem/ voice/ gender/ time period/ approach/ national perspective.

Notwithstanding that diversity, it is still no surprise – of course – that the vast majority of contributors happen to be American, with a significant proportion of poems likewise living up to expectations, richly embracing traditional structures, and seasonally based elements, within nature-based haiku:

sea mist
the scent of the night
it spent in the pines

           - Michael McClintock (Volume 2, Number 4, 2000)

Appealing to a range of bodily senses in a way true to many a resonant haiku, this poem finds its element of surprise – its haiku moment – in the unexpected role that smell plays here, alongside other senses of sight and coldness which ‘sea mist’ automatically connotes. That unmistakably coniferous fragrance has been transported down to sea level this morning by a light fog which is still redolent of pine trees growing in the higher country above, from whence this mist has drifted overnight. Sensual through and through, this evocative poem appeals to the reader’s ear too, through its use of internal rhyme ( scent/ spent) and assonance ( night/ pines), not to forget its sibilant alliteration across a series of s sounds.

Likewise focusing upon pine trees, the following haiku is one of many found in Nest Feathers which is preoccupied by winter as a season: this poem’s sense of philosophical acceptance of difference has larger implications on a human level, in calmly acknowledging that times of adversity might be tackled just as well in contrasting ways, as they are by snow-capped trees so different as evergreen pines, reliant upon the thinness of their needles to let snow fall before its weight becomes overwhelming, compared to a deciduous birch, which opts to shed its leaves in autumn so as to avoid the same pressure:

their different ways
birch and pine

           - Hilary Tann (Volume 12, Number 1, 2010)

Moving to a focus on human nature – rather than the natural world as such – one of the most charming strands to be found in the fabric of work featured in Nest Feathers involves poems inspired by children’s perspectives of the world, as evidenced here in this delightful haiku by a British poet, referencing an iconic figure from his national literature for younger readers: Peter Pan, a mischievous boy rightly legendary for inhabiting a mythical land where he never grows up:

crayon map
my son shows me the way
to Neverland

           - John McManus (Volume 14, Number 1, 2012)

Bound to make readers smile in its portrayal of a son who ‘shows’ his father how to stay young, indeed mapping the joy inherent in ingenuous creativity, this poem is rightly so admired as to be denoted for having been chosen by half the members of the six-person editorial team: no other haiku is shown as having received three votes – only one other poem received more.

Altogether poignant is that most admired of all haiku in Nest Feathers, again showing a father’s perspective, yet this time devastated by grief:

hot afternoon
the squeak of my hands
on my daughter’s coffin

           - Lenard D. Moore (Volume 6, Number 9, 2004)

Suggestive of a cry in anguish, it is this unexpected emphasis upon the squeaking sound made by the father’s hands – rendered sweaty by his depth of sorrow as much as by the hot weather – which takes this haiku to an exceptionally emotive level. It is no surprise that this poem was selected by as many of four editors from the team of six at The Heron’s Nest – no other haiku among all 248 individual pieces chosen for inclusion in this anthology received such widespread endorsement.

Arguably every bit as heart-breaking, however, is an earlier treatment of parental grief in the face of the death of a child. Indeed, it is surprising to see that this most delicate of haiku received only a single nomination: there can be no more poignantly ironic treatment of the kigo element of spring, typically representing a time of re-birth and renewal, yet clouded here instead by a ‘mist’ of tears provoked by the need to scatter the cremated remains of a baby lost at birth, whereas a duck blithely swims right through all the same, oblivious to the sense of violation which its webbed feet provoke in the process:

spring mist –
a mallard paddles
through our newborn’s ashes

           - H. Gene Murtha (Volume 4, Number 11, 2002)

As an uplifting contrast, the possibilities of conception, birth and motherhood are explored within a range of haiku in this book, especially from a female perspective, as exemplified by this elemental study of rainfall as kigo that promotes growth in plants, juxtaposed against human dreams, suggestive of shared fertility, gentle love-making and the hope of procreation itself:

slow rain
a night
of seed dreams

           - Ann K. Schwader (Volume 7, Number 3, 2005)

Deceptively simple, this fine haiku from New Zealand – potentially linked – regards seasonal rain less positively:

one egg
rattling in the pot
autumn rain

           - Sandra Simpson (Volume 9, Number 2, 2007)

Taken literally, this is a stark portrait of domestic loneliness, symbolised by a single hen’s egg boiling noisily against metal surfaces within a saucepan: likewise loud on a tin roof overhead, ‘autumn rain’ might hint at a tearful break-up with a partner; certainly, it suggests a bleak winter ahead. Yet it may not be too big a stretch for us to see this ‘one egg’ as also representing a human ovum, with the lack of a partner ‘rattling’ against a wish to give birth to children on the part of a woman, if her “biological clock is ticking”: such a reading would make ‘autumn rain’ all the more resonant, inferring ageing along with sorrow.

At the opposite end of this continuum, readers of Nest Feathers will find various haiku about dementia in elderly parents, not least in this daughter’s troubling evocation of her mother’s diminished capacity in old age, necessitating a curtailment of freedom for safety’s sake, bitterly ironic on a day meant to be celebrating motherhood:

mother’s day
a nurse unties
the restraints

           - Roberta Beary (Volume 8, Number 2, 2006)

Separated by more than a decade, both of the following haiku involve snow as a kigo element, yet they share a good deal more than this coincidental use of seasonal imagery:

snow mixes with rain –
my mother keeps calling me
by my brother’s name

           - Paul David Mena (Volume 3, Number 4, 2001)

snow erasing
the garden’s features –
teaching my dad to shave

           - Mathew Spano (Volume 14, Number 2, 2012)

As a symbol of loss, snow operates on various shared levels here, as a motif that signifies inter-related themes: the loss of capability in dementia; the sense of grief felt by a middle-aged child – even prior to the passing of a mother or father – when forced to experience an unwanted rite-of-passage as a role reversal, needing to act like a parent towards a parent; a chilling sense of foreboding in anticipation of the snowy coldness of death itself.

Thankfully snow can alternatively be seen as being far less bleak and much more affirmative, when connected with childhood, producing a positive, fun-filled sense of liberation in play:

school closings –
the snowmen arrive
flake by flake

           - Curtis Dunlap (Volume 12, Number 2, 2010)

Yet other haiku in Nest Feathers of course explore a non-human perspective regarding this same challenging season of winter, all the more threatening in a Northern Hemisphere context:

winter nears –
in the dog’s eyes
the wolf

           - Billie Wilson (Volume 4, Number 12, 2002)

This haiku finds its power in evoking instinctual links between types of canines, both domesticated and wild: dogs are still to be acknowledged as being as potentially predatory as their close cousins – wolves – especially when seasonally-linked forces bring forth the motivating prospect of hunger, locked into their canine DNA.

Moving well southward from Alaska, down here to Australia, we encounter a technically striking one-line haiku that strongly reaffirms this sense of threat inherent in endemic species of dog:

dingo call by dingo call the terrain takes shape

           - Lorin Ford (Volume 15, Number 3, 2013)

One of only five monostichs included in Nest Feathers (none of which appeared prior to 2012), this poem makes compelling use not only of repetition for emphasis, but also of synesthesia. The latter is achieved through showing repeated noises – those threatening calls from wild dogs, echoing across the Australian desert – as unexpectedly prompting an emerging sense of vision, apparently defining the visual appearance of this challenging landscape through sound and hearing, not through light and sight. It is as if the dingo calls act as the dawn would, revealing the outback ‘terrain’ in such a manner that the land itself ‘takes shape’ – if not literally in human vision, then more in understanding. In a way we might not have predicted, this powerful one-liner warns us that so harsh an environment is indeed as alien and dangerous to humans as it both looks and sounds.

Moving our focus back up to Canada, we likewise find a shift in theme, again discerning a sense of charm in response to children – offset by a bleak humour – this time in relation to Halloween:

no way out
Death’s at the door
demanding candy

           - LeRoy Gorman (Volume 12, Number 1, 2010)

While the inevitability of mortality is ironically seen as being just as inescapable (‘no way out’) as the obligation to provide candy to children trick-or-treating ‘at the door’, other Halloween-based imagery does not seek to induce the reader to smile:

the uncarved faces
in the pumpkin fields
diagnosis day

           - Alice Frampton (Volume 13, Number 3, 2011)

Here the question of mortality is dourly ominous rather than playfully ironic, bringing with it reminders of All Saints’ Eve, traditionally dedicated to remembering the dead. After the potential for ceremonial expressiveness is acknowledged in this haiku’s opening, it is the real possibility of dying which is suggested as a shock in the final line: ‘diagnosis day’ brings to mind the chance of cancer, still to take full shape, just like the Halloween pumpkins which wait on the vine, akin to a malignancy yet to be confirmed. Whether a large hollow vegetable waiting to be sculpted into a Halloween mask, or a tumour needing to be excised by a surgeon’s scalpel, each remains ‘uncarved’. . .

Creativity itself is a theme explored across a range of haiku within Nest Feathers, including this further treatment of the bleakest of seasons, symbolised by forebodings of death seen as traditionally inherent in ravens, with this very darkness ironically proving to be inspiring, resulting in the miracle of flight up from the page, not solely with a visual image, as painted, but a literary one too, as written:

winter landscape
one more raven flaps out
of her paintbrush

           - Marian Olson (Volume 4, Number 3, 2002)

Along with Halloween and Mother’s Day, another date traditionally celebrated likewise finds itself acknowledged within Nest Feathers, this time with a far more buoyant mood:

Valentine’s Day –
a cyclist signals
with a long-stemmed rose

           - Robert Gilliland (Volume 6, Number 3, 2004)

A genuine sense of romance emerges from this charmingly urban poem – affirmative in spirit, yet not merely light-hearted as an observation about fellow humanity, it is calculated to convey a sense of joy. Like many a good haiku, however, it rewards closer reading. Certainly it captures the idea of a ‘signal’ to the cyclist’s lover, emotionally speaking, as much as an indication to fellow road-users, alerting them of an intention to change direction on the bicycle. Even more than that, though, there is also the sense of the rose having quite a lengthy reach as a means by which to proclaim one’s affections, elegantly ‘long-stemmed’, as singular in commitment as in number.

Another striking haiku from this book also pays tribute to roses, while appealing much more to both the season and the senses involved:

a curtain billows
before the rain
scent of roses

           - Ferris Gilli (Volume 2, Number 8, 2000)

This poem finds resonance in its eye for delicacy indoors – its nose for sweet scents – in the face of an impending threat from the weather outside. Structurally, this haiku employs a pivot effectively, such that the central line reads just as well through being connected in meaning to either the first line or the last: immediately prior to the onset of rainfall, wind has blown through an open window, such that ‘a curtain billows’ inwards – likewise ‘before the rain’, the beautiful fragrance of roses blooming in the garden has also been blown inside, again by that same gust of wind. This simultaneity of events makes using the hinged structure – without a break – all the more apposite.

Another haiku in Nest Feathers likewise considers the breeze to be a phenomenon worthy of respect, this time in an altogether more sombre context:

buffalo bones
a wind less than a whisper
in the summer grass

           - Chad Lee Robinson (Volume 9, Number 3, 2007)

Subtly layered meanings emerge through this poet’s boldness in referencing Basho’s iconic anti-war haiku, ‘summer grasses’. First off here, by contrast, we detect a profound sense of grief at bison having almost been driven to extinction from the Great Plains of North America. Consequently, ‘a wind less than a whisper’ is all that can be heard when a light breeze passes through ‘summer grass’ above ‘buffalo bones’. In the course of reading reflectively, we can detect a deft usage of karumi here: while this poem implies outrage at that premeditated plan to exterminate the bison, it does so with a “lightness of touch” which Basho himself might have admired, as the poet speaks here with ‘less than a whisper’, not a bellow.

Even more restrained and subtle is an unstated parallel charge of a grievous crime against humanity, hidden beneath the surface of this haiku, just as human bones have been left buried beside those of the buffalo. With this realisation, we are prompted to reflect once more upon war, in terms of the genocidal campaign waged by whites against the traditional owners of those plains. By implication, this reworking of Basho gives every bit as strong a condemnation of human genocide, as it does of the slaughter of bison which had provided the Indians with their primary source of food.

timber train
a thought about

           - Johan Bergstad (Volume 10, Number 3, 2008)

Altogether European, this haiku provides a contrast in another way as well, avowedly acknowledging a full-scale attempt at genocide instead this time, with that gut-wrenching chapter in modern history in no way left simply implicit. Yet again we see symbolism as being central to the poet’s approach, all the same. Rather than having bison in part represent Indians, here we see freight cars carrying timber as symbols of the traumatization of victims of the Holocaust, at the hands of a self-styled war machine, cramming victims together in appalling conditions, only to dehumanize them altogether, treating Jews no more as people than as felled trees sawn into lifeless lengths of lumber.

The perennial issue of international conflict provokes other powerful and suggestive haiku in Nest Feathers:

war news
the underbelly of a moth
pressed to my window

           - Carolyn Hall (Volume 5, Number 11, 2003)

Compelling in its sense of empathy, here we see a rich sense of both juxtaposition and linkage at work between the opening line of this haiku and the longer statement which follows it. The soft, vulnerable abdomen of the moth is at risk in being ‘pressed’, just as combatants are too, as shown in the war report. The television set and the window in question each involve rectangular pieces of glass – both conduit yet barrier – through which light and imagery each can pass, if not some being at risk, searching for safety.

Arising from an Eastern context, this last haiku provides yet another thought-provoking snapshot, underpinned this time by a profound sense of cultural difference, while once again exploring that most troubling of recurrent themes – the dispensability of life:

the rooster for sacrifice
calls in the temple

           - K. Ramesh (Volume 9, Number 3, 2007)

Confronting as a portrayal of ceremonial sacrifice intrinsic to Hindu beliefs in India, this haiku has a sensory appeal – in focusing on the rooster’s crowing – which is multi-faceted and complex, making the bird’s call as much a harbinger of day as it might be a cry of alarm or a call to worship.

While predictably it does include one or two haiku about cherry blossom, along with just a few poems that are less striking, Nest Feathers can rightly boast that it is brave enough to embrace confronting and emotive issues, while likewise featuring charming affirmations of human life. Yet haiku traditionalists will still no doubt relish the opportunity to savour many powerful nature-based poems; seasonal in their reference; suggestive in their minimalism; resonant in their impact.

Attractively designed and thoughtfully compiled, Nest Feathers does justice to the first fifteen years of The Heron’s Nest. This fine selection should be essential reading for all lovers of English Language Haiku.


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