July 22, 2019

Review: Maeve O’Sullivan’s Elsewhere

Here is my review of Maeve O’Sullivan’s Elsewhere, as published in Presence last year.

The world is a vast and diverse place.  From the mountains of Peru to the coasts of Spain, from the beaches of San Diego to the shrines of Sri Lanka, a multitude of sights await.  A careful observer, with an artistic eye, will see the poetry around her - crafting verse that matches the essence of the place.
Maeve O’Sullivan’s excellent Elsewhere uses a variety of poetic forms to capture her experiences travelling the world.  Eschewing the practice of most haiku collections, which typically feature a smallish number of three-line poems, O’Sullivan has penned a wide, sprawling book of poetry that is as diverse in form as the localities of her travels.  Alongside haiku, she has included haibun, free verse, blank verse, sonnets, and even a villanelle.  
The opening section of Elsewhere is called “Home”.  Set in her native Ireland, “Home” is where O’Sullivan copes with the deaths of family members that preceded her world travels.  Observing the manners in which once familiar roles change, O’Sullivan gently describes the decline of her mother.  From the poem “Manicure”:

now it’s my turn to try and mother
you, my role to heal and cure.

Likewise, in a haiku from the haibun “Closure”, O’Sullivan touches on her mother’s frailty that has come with old age:

her boney back
against my palm -
Mother’s Day

Yet even in loss and endings, there are opportunities for people to gather, respect and appreciate the times and love they had.  The sale of O’Sullivan’s parents’ house leads to a “‘house-cooling’ party”, which is “a celebration rather than a mourning”.  In a similar vein, the following haiku:

Sandymount Strand -
birds that haven’t flown south
huddling together

metaphorically demonstrates the manner in which those who are left behind will gather and take solace in each other, their love and shared experiences.
Despite the gravity of “Home”, O’Sullivan is not without humour and a keen eye for the unexpected.  Indeed, her wit and observations create many funny moments here and throughout Elsewhere.  Even at a funeral she notices:

aunt’s funeral Mass -
a monk reaches inside his robes
to silence his phone

The majority of Elsewhere, in sections called “West” and “East”, contain the poems from O’Sullivan’s travels through “thirteen countries across four continents.”  Here, O’Sullivan details the places she has seen and her experiences within their natural environments.  She describes the majesty of the sites she visits:

the mist finally lifts 
revealing its grandeur - 
Machu Picchu

But she also exhibits playfulness, especially with the small creatures she encounters:

mine’s a slow Camino ...
your’s is even slower
stripy caterpillar

However, O’Sullivan is not a naive vacationer.  While she is open to the beauty of the countries she visits, she is honest enough to recognize their shortcomings and, in some cases, poverty.  In tempering the joy of travel with the harsher realities she encounters, O’Sullivan provides a richer picture of the world than had she simply written a travel log.  Consider:

new year     the peacock struts through a junkyard

And, from “Buddhas of Asia”, her observation of how religion can be hawked, like any other ware:

... big Buddhas mean big business -
everyone wants a piece of His calm.

O’Sullivan’s candour endears her to the reader and increases trust.  The world she depicts is far more believable than that which is encountered in advertisements or travel brochures.
Similar in variety to the locales she visited is O’Sullivan’s encounters with the people she met. The haibun “A Slice of Autumn”, is about meeting “an elderly gent named Paul” and their decision to “do some sight-seeing together” in Japan.  Likewise, the haibun “Resettled” recalls her reunion with her cousin in Melbourne, Australia.  “Resettled” is a family focused poem, recounting not only the details of their meeting but the character of their family and its history.  A particularly poignant moment came in one of its haiku:

growing wild here
both our mothers’ favourite -
freesias

Not all of O’Sullivan’s interactions were so easy.  In Peru, she discovered the awkwardness and uncertainty of being an outsider in another land.  “A Morning In Yacango” describes her experience attending Mass alone amongst a group of Peruvian citizens.  She speaks of feeling “conspicuous as the only gringa, and a little disrespectful in shorts.”  O’Sullivan’s self-consciousness resonates.  Shuttered off through language and uncertain of her attire, she captures the alienation of one immersed and alone in a foreign culture.
“West” and “East” also contain many poems that show how O’Sullivan’s expectations conflicted with the reality she discovered.  Many haiku explore the interruption of moments of serenity by technology:

ten miles to go     birdsong eclipsed by jet engines

On the other hand, there are instances where the experience of technology is enjoyed more than the setting.

boat tour of the port -
a drone generates
the most excitement

Her observations here are not limited to other people.  In a good natured manner, she examines her own relationship with her phone:

hand-bag free
no iPhone to count my steps -
beach walk

And, of course, in the day and age of widespread social media, a vacation is not complete without a selfie:

Plaza de Armas
under the jacaranda -
a selfied couple

The final section of Elsewhere, “Envoi: Back Home”, is short and, unlike the rest of the book, composed exclusively of haiku.  Most of the haiku here are humorous.  O’Sullivan is witty in reflecting upon her return from her journey and how certain things never seem to change:

after this world trip
my aunt cautions me
crossing her road

Elsewhere is an excellent poetic account of Maeve O’Sullivan’s “life-changing world trip”.  Diverse in both theme and poetic form, honest and humorous, and vast as the expanse of her travels, Elsewhere is a book to be enjoyed by readers of haiku and poetry alike.

June 27, 2019

breathing in
sharp, shallow breaths—
my ribs
just another
cage to escape


Atlas Poetica 32

June 24, 2019

Otata issue 35: Haiku

sapling
the forest sticks
to my lungs

inhaling as the tree exhales a sparrow

trying to be someone I’m not evergreen

speaking past me
her words become
another woman

a sudden gust
carries the wasp
into my mouth

an envelope by the time it reached me empty

the rain hardens
for a moment
the face of a ghost

with care dressing
the dolls he keeps
from guests

bear prints
a comma where
I catch my breath

stuck on my tongue
the peach fuzz
of your anagram

my words carry
across the lake
quicker than fish

after the rain
I guess at the letter
the worm tried to make

the ant disappears
into a hole
I thought the ant was

dragonfly. of course it does.

June 23, 2019

Crossing the Ice: The Lost Journal of the Franklin Expedition

Foreword

On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and crew boarded the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on their ill-fated quest to discover the Northwest Passage.  Nearly three years later, trapped in the ice off King William Island, the ships were abandoned. With many men, including Franklin, having already succumbed to death, the decision was made to seek salvation afoot.

Very little contemporaneous reporting is available of the time between the crew’s departure and their deaths.  A great deal of what is known has been provided by search crews and the oral history of the Inuit. The consensus is that, after leaving the ships, the men plunged into madness and cannibalism.  The events that lead to that end remained, until now, largely undocumented.

Over one hundred years after the skeleton of an officer buried on King William Island was identified as Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte, that same skeleton was, through the modern study of forensics, re-identified as Harry Goodsir - the assistant surgeon and scientist of the Erebus.  More recently, however, there was a new discovery. Near the site of Goodsir’s grave a journal, believed to have belonged to the scientist, was found. The document, reprinted here, provides insight into the journey, the struggles, and, ultimately, the failure of the crew in their quest to reach civilization again.

Arctic sun …
the glare of winter
darkness

April 22, 1848

Crozier directed us to abandon ship.  A part of me does not agree with the order.  The cabins provide cover and a reasonable place to cook and sleep.  The sick, increasing in number and plagued with scurvy, will not get healthy trekking through an Arctic desert of snow.  

Yet the thought of another winter here is hard to bear.  It appears that the ice will not loosen, and many have died already.  Perhaps the decision to leave for Back River is for the best.

I am glum with little hope.  Civilization, however, will not to be found in the hull of the Erebus.  I must accept the Captain’s decision, and prepare to brave this godforsaken land of ice and wind.  Surely, more shall perish, but we have no alternatives in seeking our salvation.

Let God-Almighty help us now!

remaining
lodged in ice
our fortunes

April 24, 1848

With disappointment bordering on despair we stop to rest tonight.  Our lack of progress has been disheartening. Fresh falling snow reduced visibility and weakened our foothold on the ice.  We fought the winds, bitter and strong, in struggling to pull the sledges. It is difficult to gauge how far we travelled, but my guess is we’ve made no more than 9 miles.

The tent is cold but provides solace from the wind.  I peel off my gloves, examine my bluish fingertips. Reaching Back River seems like an impossible task.  Even if we do, our journey will have only begun. Fort Resolution, the closest site of English men, is another 1000 miles away.

A gust of wind pulls back the flap of the tent.  I peek out at the whiteness of the ground, the air, and the sky.  The enormous world grows bigger set against our isolation.

falling snow
poor men gather
their remains

April 25, 1848

Crozier reassigned the men into smaller groups.  While we will continue to travel as one unit, each of the groups will be responsible for a sledge along with the welfare of its members.  The eight men to whom I am bound are second master Collins, Reddington, Watson, Rigden, Hoar, Aylmore, Pocock, and Murray. While none of the men are well, Reddington, Pocock and Murray are especially sick.  Each has begun to suffer the delusions that are attendant in the later stages of scurvy.

Collins assumes the lead of our group and assigns each man his tasks.  Among other things, he places me in service of the very ill. However, without proper medicines or the opportunity for the sick to stay warm and rest, there is little I can do to help.  The demands of the journey will prove too much for them to bear.

As we start out for the day, I gaze inland across the ice.  In the distance, through the morning mist, are two Esquimaux men.  I watch them with interest, and more than a little envy. How easily these savages manage this impossible land.

snowblind …
I shade my eyes
to my fate

April 27, 1848

We traced the shore for any sign of geese, duck, or ptarmigan.  The wind was cool - stirring the light snow and disrupting our vision.

At one point, I approached Pocock and asked him to check the bay ahead. He burst into tears, sobbing loud enough for the other men to turn and look.  I tried to console him. Although I cradled his head in my arms, he continued to wail like I wasn’t there at all.

sliding
into frostbite
leather boots

May 5, 1848

Tragedy struck today.  While hiking south along the shoreline, Murray claimed to hear a duck.  He started walking towards the sea. Others called after him but he would not listen.  Pursuing the sound, he marched out further on the thinning ice.

A handful of men and I followed him.  He kept a surprisingly brisk pace. There was a crack as Murray’s step punctured the ice and his right leg slipped thigh deep in freezing water.  

Tossing a rope, we were able to pull him back to the thicker ice and return to the waiting crew.  Murray, unfortunately, was unable to get warm. He died of hypothermia early in the evening.

peeling
away from the group
north wind

May 12, 1848

The sledge was full.  Lifeboats, pickaxes, cooking stoves, ironworks, slippers, shower curtains, china, and scented soaps were included amongst its wares.  Many of these objects should have been left on the Erebus. As it were, teams of men were left to pull loads that weighed north of a thousand pounds.

Hauling the sledge wore on the men.  As we trudged through the snow into the wind, Pocock could barely remain upright.  I told him to lie on the sledge. With fewer men left to pull a heavier load, our progress slowed considerably.  We completed the day's journey, but Pocock died along the way. The men, already exhausted, set about digging an icy grave.

with little
room for hope
our sledge

May 17, 1848

Wild game continues to be scarce and our tins are running low.  The men, with nothing else to eat, pick at their meals. Every bite is taken reluctantly. It’s as though the food, mouthful by mouthful, is pulling its consumers closer to death.

I, likewise, no longer relish my meals.  Dipping my spoon into the tin, I stir its cold beef and feel the utensil scrape the lead soldering.  I remember formal dinners, the gaiety and celebration with which food was attended. Melancholia overwhelms me.

hollowed out
the wind becomes
my breath

May 20, 1848

When Collins called for our group to stop, Reddington slumped exhausted on the sledge.  I melted snow for him to drink. Setting the cup to his lips, the water trickled onto his cheeks and over his beard.  He looked with empty eyes to the nothing in the distance.

Preparing to feed him, I opened a can but was shocked by its contents.  There, instead of food, was a human hand! Crooked and arthritic, the fingers had been twisted and broken to fit inside.  What cruelty! Could it be expected we would eat our own kind?

I looked away and back again.  The can had nothing but tomatoes.  Feeding Reddington, I shuddered at the strength of my delusion.

Northwest Passage
a seaman slips through
thought

May 27, 1848

The winds blew strong and the weight of our sledges was burdensome and crippling.  We were not far into the day’s journey when our progress was halted by Franklin’s reappearance. Resurrected, he was a large and looming figure.  He stood at least 10 feet tall, and looked down upon us with anger. Glaring at the men, he pointed back at our northern route. “The ships!” he bellowed.  Before speaking again, he became a cloud and started to snow. When the weather cleared, an Esquimaux was standing in Franklin’s place. Looking through us, the native examined something distant on the sea.  His interest waned and he hiked away - gradually disappearing into morning mist.

Startled from sleep, I was sweating and breathing heavily.  Restless and feverish, Franklin remained strong on my mind. While dreams, I know, are but imaginative tricks, some do not easily pass.  Throughout the day, I kept my eyes peeled - certain our former captain would join us again.

wind-blown snow
the men drift away
from themselves

May 29, 1848

The last of the food was eaten today.  I am very concerned. This sparse environment has provided almost nothing by way of game.  Increasingly debilitated, we have even less strength with which to try and hunt.

A silence has fallen over the men.  As long as there were provisions, there was hope.  Even more than the environment, hopelessness crushes the spirit.  There is little on our minds but death.

Quietly, I think of the prayers I haven’t said in years.  I wonder if the Arctic is too desolate for God. I vaguely remember the parable of the landowner and the payment he provided to those who signed on late.

hunter moon
a ptarmigan flies
out of sight

June 2, 1848

Our daily treks have become exceptionally difficult.  Our numbers have dwindled. All of the men, including myself, are starving and weakened by scurvy.  Ploughing on as best we can, we are lucky to cover a few miles a day.

Crossing the ice, I see an Esquimaux man in the distance.  He stands at ease, the wind ruffling the fur of his parka. Had we their strength, I am certain we would reach Back River.  Instead, one by one, the English silently perish.

Lost in my thoughts, I also lose my footing.  I fall face first, hard onto the ice. It takes me a long time to recover, to stand and support myself.  I look to the spot the Esquimaux stood, but he is there no longer. Following our crew, I place one heavy foot before the other.

rolling thunder
the Arctic howl
of my stomach

June 6, 1848

The wind and snow blew strong today - a blizzard like we hadn’t seen in weeks.  Weakened and sick, the icy air cut gaps between us. Before long, our group was scattered.  Although we fought to stay together, me, Collins, Rigden, and Reddington were all who remained.

When the blizzard finally ceased, only God knew where we were.  There was no trace of other men. The sledge, with our tools and gear, was gone.  While we were all ill, exhausted, and starving, Reddington was teetering on his very last legs.  I could not imagine him surviving the night.

permafrost
the life that dies
inside

June 7, 1848

Reddington passed away.  He simply lies on the ice.  Even with tools, we wouldn’t have the strength to bury him.  Either way, we haven’t the strength to care. With our backs turned to the corpse, Reddington’s a memory.  Our stomachs growl.

last rites
cutting ties
with a knife

June 8, 1848

Rigden and I are struggling to maintain our senses.  We are both suffering delusions. I, for one, have heard wild game, mistaken rocks for cans of food, and sought to re-board the ship.  Starving and ravaged by scurvy, the visions are stronger than my ability to fight them.

But Collins simply sits. He stares at Reddington’s corpse as if expecting it to rise.  Motionless, he appears nearly dead himself. Yet there is something in his eyes, something that reflects thought and intent.  He’s fighting. But for what? Reddington? Life?

Of the three of us, Collins is the furthest gone.  Despite my delusions, I still know there is nothing we can do to fend off death.

Arctic pool …
I peer into
my ghost

June 9, 1848

Collins rose and walked to the corpse.  Withdrawing his knife, he grabbed Reddington’s pants and cut a slit that ran the length of the buttocks.  With a quick rip, he tore the pants back - leaving the dead man’s bottom exposed. Collins stabbed Reddington, carving out a piece of him.  He bit into the flesh and started to eat.

Knife in hand, I approached Collins.  He paid me no notice whatsoever. Blood trickled over his beard as he gazed into the distance.  

I turned to Reddington’s remains.  There was a red gap where his flesh was cut away.  Otherwise, he was just as he had been; completely unaware of what had happened.  

I could not remember when I last ate.  Whatever words floated in my conscience could no longer be heard over by my belly’s hungry roar.

Arctic chill ...
a glimmer of frost
on his flesh


Contemporary Haibun Online, January 2019




June 21, 2019

Review: Jim Kacian’s after image

Here is my review of Jim Kacian’s excellent book after image, as published in Presence last year.


after/image by Dave ReadPresence 60, March 2018

Jim Kacian’s after image is a book of haiku which, through the force of the author’s imagination and the creative use of text, font and shade, pushes the genre into new grounds.  Divided into three sections, “world worlding”, “the social project”, and “after image”, the book progresses through a series of poems that weave visual techniques into theme.  Brilliant and unique, after image is like no poetry collection I have read before.

The first section of after image contains what the author describes as “a somewhat traditional sojourn through the seasons.”  While the haiku of “world worlding” that are written in the traditional three lines are successful, Kacian’s real imaginative power comes in his one line haiku, vertical haiku, and in the poems that experiment with font and shade.  Consider this one liner:

where the river widens just that much more light

One of the great elements of a well-crafted one line haiku is the possibility of interpreting the poem’s break in different places.  There are multiple ways the above poem can be read: 

where the river widens / just that much more light

where the river widens just that much / more light

where the river widens just that much more / light

Each break results in subtle differences in the images, changing the meaning of the haiku without changing the words.  Had it been written in three lines, the lines likely would have implied where the break should lie, limiting the interpretations of the poem.  

A similar effect can be found in Kacian’s vertical haiku:

a
rain
so
slow
the
puddles
don’t 
meet
late
spring 

Like the one line haiku above, this haiku contains many places where one could interpret the poem’s break.  An additional virtue of this poem is in its vertical composition.  With lines ending at every word, vertical haiku are naturally read at a slower pace, here working in concert with “a rain so slow”.

Kacian’s experiments in embedding font and shade into his haiku foreshadow what’s to come later in after image.  The lightening, darkening and bolding of text are techniques used to augment the poem’s affect:

   somewhere
              becoming 
       rain
becoming
     somewhere 

The gradual darkening of the words in the poem allows the “somewhere” of the first line to visually become “somewhere” by the end of the haiku.  The shading of the words matches the poem’s intent.

whales beneath the surface [of] the year’s first dream

The “of”, grey and wrapped in brackets, invites the reader to consider the haiku with and without its inclusion.  With “of” included, the poem reads as the whales being under the dream’s surface, perhaps pressing up into it and giving it shape.  When the “of” is skipped over, we are left with a strong grammatical break between “whales beneath the surface” and “the year’s first dream”.  In this latter case, the juxtaposition implies that the whales are the year’s first dream.  This haiku’s duality of meaning would not have been possible without the innovative use of colour and brackets.

In the second section of after imageKacian’s poetic imagination really gets to work.  “the social project” is exclusively composed of one line haiku that are organized into a matrix of categories.  It is much like following a spreadsheet grid:  the poems share relationships within their “column” (the page they are printed on) and across their “rows” (the “ghosted” categories that carry over pages).  Juxtaposed against the written word are the “stages of a ‘process painting’” (Kacian’s words).  Just as the matrix of poetic possibilities grows through the text, so too does the complexity of the paintings which are set adjacent to the poems.   

Consider the following two poems in the order they appear on their page:

tracking your path by the lights you turn on firefly

war again on the list New Year’s Day

Both of these poems express a theme of cyclicality.  Just as the firefly lights up, darkens and lights up again, so too do human beings, after periods of peace, return to war.  These haiku recognize patterns.  What has happened before will happen again.

However, in examining the first poem, “tracking ...”, against the poem that shares its “the one” category on the next page, a different theme emerges:

with the fire down to coals whispering 

A reading of “tracking ...” followed by “with the fire ...” describes a lineal process.  The lights of the firefly turning on and off will eventually turn “down to coals whispering”.  Cycles, here, are not enduring.  That which begins must end; that which lives will die.

There is a rich complexity to the competing themes that emerge from reading those three poems.  Considering that “the social project” houses 44 haiku working within their “columns” and across their “rows”, the depth of potential interpretations multiplies quickly.

The final section of the book, “after image”, is a series of haiku that include a fragment of the preceding poem as a barely visible ghost text.  Lingering, like an echo or an after image, the ghost text shapes the reading of the current haiku.  Take the poem:

a breeze and my mind on to other things 

In isolation, this haiku is carefree, almost flippant.  Yet when taken with the ghost text:

my own wake

The reader is left with a much darker interpretation.  It is not flippancy that moves the narrator’s mind “on to other things”, but thoughts of mortality.  

Kacian also used the ghost text to create humour:

i hope i’m right where the river ice ends

And then:

running faster

The image the poem creates is that of someone feeling his way along the edge of the ice.  But when it is juxtaposed against the ghost text “running faster”, we are left with a funny vision of him finding the end of the ice, and scrambling as best he can to avoid slipping into the frigid water.

Perhaps the best moment from “after image” came in the use of the ghost text for the first poem:

spring running faster than i ever have

With:

no memory

Contextually, it is fitting that the first poem, appropriately set in spring, would have “no memory” to inform it.  However, a little digging yields a subtle surprise.  The “no memory”, ironically, is an after image from the last poem.  Similar to the haiku discussed in “the social project”, Kacian is experimenting with the concepts of linear progression and cyclicality.  In what appeared to be a series that directed itself in forward looking manner, a second reading uncovers a cycle in which the last poem informs the first.

after image is a brilliant book of haiku that expands the scope of the genre to include the use of text, font and shade in enriching the poem on the page.  Kacian capitalized on a wonderful imagination to create a book that will set the standard for haiku for some time to come.  This review has merely scratched at the surface of the depth of this collection which will, in all likelihood, have as many interpretations as it has readers.