|© Stylus Poetry Journal, Est 2002|
|In Love with the Word: Poetry in Tasmania|
|Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror|
|Wind over Water|
|The Tao of Water|
|Haiku and its related forms|
ARCHIVE: Measuring the Depth
Measuring the Depth, Graham Nunn. Tasmania, Pardalote Press, 2005. 60 pp. RRP: $A18.50, p&h $A5 overseas. ISBN: 0 9578436 6 6.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Measuring the Depth is Nunn’s second collection of poetry, his first being A Zen Firecracker: selected haiku. In this volume Nunn concentrates on haibun and also presents several pages of haiku that are consistent with his earlier themes. The haibun, with their crisp syntax, clear images and simple style, are mostly a page in length, and focus on a single personal event or impression, while one or two are somewhat longer (2 to 4 page) works that combine narrative episodes in a kind of multiple-exposure.
Poets use stories to tell stories. This is a feature of haibun, which is a Japanese form of poetry from the Japanese hai, from the word haikai, and bun – writings, which refers to the style Basho used in his travel journals. The device of combining prose with haiku or tanka solves the problem with the brevity of haiku and tanka. The poem now acts as a torque point, where the attention given to one small aspect of the narrative demands greater attention as a contrast to the prose. Alongside the narrative of the poem, other frames of reference are allowed to operate. This is a feature of haibun that especially attracts the reader – not just the local situation of a poem, but the larger story, too, obvious or suppressed. How complex, after all, are our stories? In Nunn’s haibun “Brisbane River Blues”, “a sax player lets loose with a melancholy blues riff.” In other haibun, the poet writes his poems in a mall, a father and daughter play in a storm, a lover remembers his first love. The details may vary endlessly, but the stories themselves – or the structures of these stories – are relatively few.
Nunn’s style derives from these local narratives, but perhaps even more from his surroundings, the larger schemes he brings to his poetry – the worldly material by which he measures his life. This dynamic gives the haibun its distinctive appeal. What’s fascinating is the manner with which he matches story and haiku, the larger narrative with its counterpoint “moment in time,” as in the haibun “Saturday Night for Poets”:
And I belong nowhere . . .
Nunn uses a traditional and recognisable narrative method, using many of the story-telling techniques with which the reader will be familiar. We encounter real people: a sax player, busker, child, poet, father, etc. as they undertake dramatic events. Since his 2003 collection of haiku A Zen Firecracker: selected haiku, Nunn has won several awards, and been instrumental in the oral and performative traditions. For him the telling of the tale is a delightful task. Just so, I have been delighted buy his haibun – his tales of the ocean and beach, boats and fishermen, deep-sea fishing, the beauty of a Balinese village, city streets, and moments shared with his children.
In the poem “Fishing with Dad,” for example, the dominant subject is the connection between father and son, and the secondary theme is the way in which the various avenues of this relationship are explored:
Bruised and sunburnt we struggle out onto the jetty. While we sort the fish the memories flood back. We shake hands and say ‘see you again,’ knowing it’s unlikely.
in the car
The speaker in these haibun has learned to recall or intuit the most ancient of mysteries, as in the poem “Following the Rules of Trolleyology”:
She’s buying oysters . . .
down the aisle
The natural world is considerably more suburban, its wild past recessive, even repressed. In “Howling,” Nunn rides his memory to the city streets where,
My friend flashes me his its-going-to-be-a-big-night smile. We order . . .
black with one
But now he has evolved into a family man and homeowner, a civilized neighbour and a father who enjoys playing with his son in an abandoned boat (“Going Upriver”): “Going upriver and the sweat is gathering on my brow. The high tide eating away at the sandbank, making the dune grass tremble.”
Both in syntax and theme, Nunn’s haibun are powerful. With his superb timing, his compressed narrative, as well as the clarity of his haibun, Nunn has deepened his portrayal of Australia to a place of genuine spirituality. Such are the tactics and successes of the best haibun in Measuring the Depth. Here is part iii of “Bali Sunrise”:
Another humid morning and I am up with the roosters, shaving the bristles from my tired face. The animal I have only heard has eaten the banana from my fruit bowl and left the black skin for the ants. The sky is hazy, depthless. Standing before the mirror I muse on my time here. I am a solitary Adam, in a foreign paradise.
far from home
In this volume Nunn’s haiku focus on the here and now. They show us how marvellous life is, and not what we have been taught is true or think we believe is true. They are written from experience, not from beliefs or ideas. “Wet Season” is a haiku sequence that revels in the humidity, insect song and warm breezes of Bali:
The haiku that are interspersed between the haibun form a kind of interlude in which one can absorb the haibun before coming upon the observations and imagery contained in the haiku. In this volume many fine haiku sit together in a well-balanced layout. A couple of favourites draw me back again and again:
Everything is pared down to the barest essentials, but the haiku and the haibun move intensely through their paces to bring the reader an exact pleasure. Because the longer works are such carefully constructed wholes, it’s impossible to quote from them fairly, I can only state my sense that they represent something bold and new in Nunn’s work, and that they feel right and very much of his poetics.
Pardalote Press has done a wonderful job in presenting Nunn’s poetry as it deserves. Measuring the Depth should establish his place as one of the foremost haibun poets of Australia, and this is a collection the reader will return to with ever deepening pleasure.