Friday, November 23, 2007


summer drizzles: haiku and haibun by Bruce Ross. HMS Press, 2005. ISBN 1-55253-63-9. Perfect Bound, 6” x 9”, 84 pp.,$10.00 US in USA/Canada; $12.00 US abroad. (Available directly from the author at: Bruce Ross, PMB 127, 11 Bangor Mall Blvd., Ste. D., Bangor ME 04401.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

Bruce Ross, well-known author of the haiku manual How to Haiku (2002) and editor of the popular anthologies Haiku Moment (1993) and Journey to the Interior (1998), divides this latest collection of his own writings evenly between an introductory section of 50 haiku and a closing section of 18 haibun.

“Gone in Sleep” provides a ready entry into the world of Ross’s haibun. The prose opens briskly and objectively while adopting a tone appropriate to a tour guidebook: “Chicago, for all its breathtaking skyscrapers and densely multi-racial population, lacks the hustle, bustle, and buzz of New York City ….” This breeziness proves deceptive, however, for only two sentences later the poet introduces his true subject which is not a world-class city but something much closer at hand:

Chicago features clean streets, with only a few of its homeless visible. Just outside a breakfast place was one of them ― he looked up at me from his seated position with bright eyes and the most dazzling smile I had ever seen, as if a light had gone on in him, as if I were his best friend ― but I walked by and into the place, to return to the street only after breakfast.

a warm breeze
the beggar’s dazzling smile
gone in sleep
(p. 77)

The chatty and easy-going prose assumes a powerfully ironic tenor in the stark contrast between a breakfast establishment and the street, a comfortable visitor from out-of-town and a homeless resident. Meanwhile, the earlier perception of the poet, “he looked up at me … as if I were his best friend,” can now be rejected as having no more substance than the “warm breeze” in which the “dazzling smile” of the homeless man and his illusory friendship with the poet is definitively dissolved, “gone in sleep.”

Occasionally, like most writers, Ross allows his emotive investment in a motif to override his critical judgment. “Old Stone Walls” is instructive in this regard:

The long abandoned monastery lies in the hills of western Portugal. We wind our way single file through the narrow, low passageways, entering the various living areas in turn, with bowed torsos. In a courtyard we are told that one of the monks’ vows was not to write or speak anything unless it was as beautiful as silence. I linger in one corridor and almost melt into the stillness.

monk’s quarters
light and shadows
on the stone walls

This clear and precise paragraph depicts a very colorful scene, indeed, and imbues it with much atmosphere, until one, led by Ross, enters the courtyard. There, the relation of a vow “not to write or speak anything unless it was as beautiful as silence” induces the poet to “linger in one corridor and almost melt into the stillness.” Objective detachment is abandoned and the sentimental phrase “almost melt” ― motivated, perhaps, by an uncritical acceptance of the conventional equation of silence equals beauty ― is allowed to damage what would otherwise be one of the collection’s finer haibun.

This criticism points less to any shortcoming in Ross as a poet than to the inherent difficulties of the haibun genre in which a single writer must master and wed two opposing modes of discourse: prose and verse. This act is akin to that of walking on a trapeze wire where one may more readily fall than cross safely.

One final haibun, “Winter Desert,” may illustrate, by positive contrast with the above, this author’s range. Here, the reader discovers Ross on the Arizona-Mexico border in the Tohono O’odham Reservation:

Mile after mile, the desert landscape, uniquely covered with giant cactus, saguaro, organ pipe, senita, some forty feet tall …. The fantastically shaped saguaro take on human form: two large cactus arms held up in prayer, a big and little saguaro, parent and child, spine-to-spine, the arms of a cactus twisted in ecstatic dance. The cactus have survived to their own ends in this place and the Indians have made peace with this.

as close together
the stand of saguaro
Indian gravestones
(p. 67)

Ross’s independent haiku, while centered upon nature, often limit their ambition to objective description. Concise and exacting descriptive writing is not easy to attain by any means but were haiku criticism, like figure skating or diving, to admit the concept of “degree of difficulty” (perhaps it should!), description would be on the low end of that scale as compared to the symbolic, the metaphorical ― the haiku, in short, that conceals an entire universe beneath its simple descriptive veneer.

These haiku show how ably Ross can present his subject:

singing its heart out
to no one in particular
morning blackbird
(p. 10)

seaside motel
the only window
filled with fog
(p. 55)

Each poem is clearly constructed and would likely prove acceptable to any haiku editor. Nor is there anything precisely to fault. Ross’s contentment with deft surface description is everywhere on display. The critical difference between such “free-standing haiku” and the haiku that Ross employs in his haibun, perhaps, lies in the broader context of the haibun’s prose. There, his descriptive haiku freely adopt new connotations and, reciprocally, add depth and resonance to the paragraphs in which they are embedded.

Ross, on occasion, promises more

off center
the empty clay pot
beside the doorstep
(p. 36)

but close examination of this arresting but enigmatic artifact reveals no means to penetrate its world. The reader is in want of the fuller context that Ross, with his excellent haibun prose, provides.

summer drizzles is neatly, if plainly, produced with a simple black drawing on the cover and with legible type. It is an interesting read and well worth the price, especially for the student of the quiet but growing haibun movement.

reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
first published in Lynx XXII:3, October 2007

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