John Martone is one of the finest purveyors of the short form in English today. Certainly, he is one of my favorites. When one of his gorgeous minimalist productions arrives in my mailbox, I am thrilled in a way recent books rarely thrill me today.
scrittura povera ("poor writing") is the latest volume to come from John and it opens with this intriguing epigraph:
hempen clothes and paper bedding ... ippen
The quotation is interesting, giving a little foot in the door of the master's hut. Which master, you ask?
Ah, that is the question.
For those who might be interested, here is a very informative article on Hijiri Ippen, the master quoted in the epigraph, from Hermitary, a resource on hermits and solitude. For those who want the poems on their own terms (I frequently fall in this school myself, hence this option), I would suggest simply skipping the article and head right to the poems below.
Well, enough of context, on to text! Or, perhaps, as we look at the opening poem, we see the poet has given us both at once:
Not quite a riddle, eh; for those who take a wholistic approach to existence, this makes sense. For those who are blues aficionados, the lyric "the stream flows to the river, the river flows to the sea" may come to mind. The image is not a trope, it is quite literal.
down to 3
and his teeth
An even cursory glance at the Hermitary article gives up the concept eremiticism, the life of the hermit. Ippen was a hermit and a monk, who ultimately traveled widely spreading his belief in Pure Land Buddhism. The speaker here, too, exhibits hermit-like qualities - all life is honed down to 3 cardboard boxes and teeth, maybe just 3 of those, too.
how much time
do you need
In terms of modern haiku, it just doesn't get much better than this. There is certainly a touch of Issa here, a perfect balancing between the comic and the serious. It is, as is life, both at the same time. The same principle underlies the following:
a good sleep
Here the speaker begins with misery and ends with happiness - how many of us would think of the good sleep we had after an onslaught of bed bugs? We might even think the two elements of the haiku are backwards, when it is us, our lives, that are backwards, or at least our perception of them.
Their is something at once contemporary and timeless about this observed scene. Virtually all of us have seen a variation of the same, yet how often does it call to mind something nearly mythic, evoked by the simple circle.
a human being
also standing upright
Classic haiku often compares/contrasts seemingly disparate elements; the resolution of these disparities (a mountain in a dragonfly's eye, a snail climbing, climbing, climbing Mount Fuji) evokes the oneness of all things. Here the oneness of all life, the life essence, is perfectly conjured.
chimney swifts stitch a day's end
There is a beautiful, imagistic, Buson-like quality to this - it is almost as if the insect-hunting swifts are actually gathering pieces of darkness together into night (all in 6 brief words).
watching that spider
you wash yr hands
One of Issa's most popular haiku - the fly wringing it's hands, wringing it's feet - is thought of here; though not as pyrotechnic, this haiku is even better, because it drops out the anthropomorphic quality and connects all beings in a simple gesture.
not one word
a night song
This perfectly evokes the hermit life - there is such a wonderful quality to the idea of song without words, be it bird, animal, or person.
in an apartment under the moon
Sensing the presence of the moon in an enclosed, sealed building also reminds us of the hermit experience and what it must be like for someone who lives alone in a remote area to experience living with others. A less talented poet would be tempted to "finish this poem."
of the spirit
As lovers of haiku know and as mentioned above, many a great poem in this form derives from disparate elements. What does fossil hunting have to do with the life of the spirit? Well, here is a perfect example of a poem in which the denouement takes place in the reader's head or, if you will, the reader is left to complete the poem.
So I'll leave that one to you, with only the thought that I enjoyed it very much.
This last poem throws us back on a single word, a word we think we know, a word that, if we don't encounter it daily, we certainly encounter with great frequency. What, oh what, does romance mean?
It means so many things and is such a lovely way to end a book, and a blog post, that I'll end as John Martone ends - right here.
By way of explanation: with a fair amount of regularity, I post on Fridays and Sundays. Friday concentrates on poetry related issues, Sunday, leans more toward music of a literary bend, with a healthy dose of poetry. In both postings I feature a poem (or poems) from back issues in the Lilliput archive. Somehow, I got two separate strands going with the postings for the different days. Currently, the Friday post, as with this one, is featuring issues counting down from the current issues; the Sunday post contains poems from issues counting up from #1. Two different strands, which occasionally pass through the night, which is exactly what happened recently.
Just a few weeks ago, I featured two poems by Albert Huffstickler from issue #117. Here's a third from the same issue. Wave as we pass by. A braid of two contiguous time travel strands, if you will.
Note to self: ease up on the Doctor Who reruns.
I imagine my motherseated at the yellow tablein her kitchensunlight touchingher still face:so few peoplewe ever really know.Albert Huffstickler
in the paper lamp
my dear one's face