A Review by Al Schirmacher
Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-language Haiku, edited and introduced by Allan Burns
Snapshot Press, 2014
479 pages, $49.95–hardcover
Each of us has filters, mental and emotional screens that help us interpret experience. Poetry allows us to temporarily install someone else’s filters to experience reality in ways we normally would miss. Poetic anthologies move us from filter to filter, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes shockingly.
Where the River Goes is an anthology of that second, sometimes shocking type, an exploration of the work of 40 20th- and early 21st-century American, British, and Australian poets. It’s well worth the journey, even if there are bumps and occasional landslides along the way.
One filter we birders and ornithologists bring to our interpretation of the world is the language of scientific description. We are so used to ornithological diagnoses, field guide language, descriptive internet posts, and realistic photography that we can forget that there are other filters available for the interpretation of nature. Where the River Goes forces us to lay aside our scientistic filter, leading us instead toward philosophic, even metaphysical, discussion—in three lines, more or less.
“More or less?”
Yes, this is not your elementary school teacher’s haiku. Those rigid 5-7-5 syllable counts are passé. Consider these three, very different examples:
still no word
a kingfisher flies up
from dark water
- Ferris Gilli
- John Barlow
gathering thunderheads the bullfrog’s eyes
- Jack Barry
Today’s haiku is different, “a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”
Another filter crashes.
Let me take you through the parts of this important collection.
The editor (and a poet of haiku himself0, Allan Burns, comprehensively, sometimes even exhaustively, introduces Where the River Flows. He explains the anthology’s restriction to only naturalistic works. He also reviews the historical and philosophical roots of haiku in Japan, observing along the way that nature has not fared well in the West; English-language haiku provides a counterpoint.
The editor introduces three filters that I wrestled with as a reader. First, he notes that two thirds of all western haiku mixes natural and human elements; most such poems, suffering from what Burns decries as “anthropocentric creep,” are omitted from this anthology. The absence of poems mingling the natural and the human leaves me with the feeling that something may be missing: after all, poetry is written by humans, presumably to help others and themselves observe, integrate, and relate to nature. Such fusion seems natural, and its absence here unnatural.
Second, the introduction, and in many ways the anthology as a whole, is overwhelmingly Buddhist in its orientation. This is understandable, since haiku’s origins, and many of its practitioners, are Buddhist. But one wonders whether the pluralism of modern western culture has not given rise to poets from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheistic, and other traditions. One is left with the impression that only those with Buddhist leanings possess the appropriate self-effacement to compose important haiku. (Allow me to introduce my own filter here, since I am a Christian pastor who writes haiku.)
And third, Burns occasionally seems to fall into the trap of writing for other poets. This is a troublesome issue for modern poetry, and such hermeticism might detract from the pleasure of the book for naturalists or for the general public.
But the body of this anthology is worth the entrance fee.
Each poet is well introduced by a précis summarizing her or his creative history, highlighting particular gifts of imagery and language, and indicating further works worth reading. Burns does not shy from criticism, which encourages his readers, too, to interact with these poems at a deeper emotional and argumentative level.
Birders and ornithologists will be pleased to find that birds are prominent in half or more of the poems printed here.
a painted bunting hovers
in the sea oats’ curve
- Peggy Willis Lyles
a crow in the snowy pine…
inching up a branch,
letting the evening sun through
- Nick Virgilio
black swans land
their white under-wings
fill with moonlight
- Ron C. Moss
With more than twenty years of birding behind me, I can see the bunting over the sea oats, I can relish the crow blotting out and then allowing the sunlight to escape, and I can imagine black swans alighting in the night. My heart is captured.
This book demands work from its reader, but so does any field guide or natural history volume. It perhaps takes more work, since birders’ filters tend to become encrusted, even immovable. There can be a basic scientific-poetic clash.
One does not read haiku as one reads natural history or science. One does not even read haiku as one reads other poetry. There is no rhyme, no obvious western meter, often not even progression. Haiku are rarely read aloud. Rather, the haiku captures a moment in time, in an intentionally understated manner, requiring that the reader interact with the text mentally and emotionally to fill in the gaps. Haiku are often a single moment of anticipated memory, a written image to be contemplated.
So adjust your filters and savor. Lay aside the filters of analytical description—just for the moment—and look through new ones.
On the cover of Where the River Goes, Ted Floyd claims that “Anybody interested in nature and nature writing will delight in this anthology.” He is right.
– Al Schirmacher is a pastor, former businessman, and erstwhile poet who lives in the booming metropolis of Muscotah, Kansas, after 54 years in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and New Jersey (although he has never birded Cape May, sigh—not many opportunities at age three). He finds himself alternately laughing and worshiping while in the field birding.
Schirmacher, A. 2014. Anticipating Memory [a review of Where the River Goes, edited and introduced by Allan Burns]. Birding 46(5): 66.