Phillip Hall reviews blue balloon by Grant Caldwell

Grant Caldwell considers that the minimalist gems found in blue balloon ‘are both haiku and senryu’. This boundary-crossing hybridity is a pragmatist’s solution to the problem of adapting these ancient Japanese forms into a contemporary, English language context. And he is interested in the problems of this acclimatisation from both a theoretical and creative outlook. Caldwell opens his collection with a supportive, lyrical essay which describes his take on the reading and writing of these poems. For Caldwell, haiku and senryu are ‘immersive’ in the way they evoke a season or location (geographical/interior). And while they can be humorous or sombre, they are nearly always a rendering of a moment of transient beauty, a sense of aloneness or tranquillity. They ‘avoid similes and intrinsic (overt) metaphors’, and usually consist of two parts: a phrase, broken in two, and a fragment. There is ‘often a break, or ‘jump’ or link of universal or ‘other’ implication…between the phrase and the fragment’. And, when written in English, commonly comprise two or three lines of nineteen (or fewer) syllables with a punctuation mark (usually a dash) acting as a hinge between the two segments that make up the poem.

There is nothing in Caldwell of the haiku devotee, that refined introvert striving for profundity, as he explodes stereotypes with a sly and irreverent eye for comedy. Many of his funniest moments are centred on keen observations from the insect world. Here are four of my favourites:

in hundreds of years

you have not learned about windows –

bee     (p 11)

*

mind out, fruit-fly –

i’m trying to write here!     (p 17)

*

black ants –

running both ways

along a black irrigation pipe     (p 24)

*

opening the door

to let a fly out –

two more fly in     (p 86)

If insect behaviour can reveal, in a light-hearted way, something of our foibles, while encouraging us to feel a little more attached to our surroundings, what about a dog pissing?

in a city street

a dog pisses on a shop window –

online shopping     (p 42)

This is a marvellously-clever pun, subversively comic and vividly entertaining. And while observing a dog in the process of awkwardly squatting or cocking a leg to piddle (or poop) is quirkily amusing, what can be better than laughing at death or religion? Caldwell’s comic turns often pirouette on the point of punning and juxtaposition in order to destabilise certainties and anxieties:

after three hundred years –

the skeletons

still have teeth     (p 52)

*

church carpark –

a white hearse one day

black the next     (p 78)

*

Good Friday –

everything

is shut     (p 30)

That final Good Friday haiku is a good example of how skilfully open-ended Caldwell is. This poem could be read as being critical of empty churches (with too much political clout) while everyone enjoys a long weekend, of being satirically sacrilegious (and I think it is), but the joke of everything being shut on Good Friday is also a clever allusion to Christ’s burial, and to the open door of the empty tomb discovered on Easter Sunday morning. This ingenious text of eight straightforward syllables invites a multiplicity of responses ranging from sacrilegious joy to ecstatic devotion. But, of course, Caldwell is not always satirical or funny. He also writes of seasonal or cultural phenomena in a way that is sombre (with a tone that is often reflective or grave). So, he has poems that speak to social anxiety and our (too often unmet) need for connection and collegiality:

a man putting leaflets

in letter boxes –

talking to himself     (p 12)

*

alone

watching the river –

a leaf passing     (p 26)

Caldwell also often reflets on death, alluding to our need to discover meaning in moments of bereavement:

winter chill –

a flock of starlings

wheels above the cemetery     (p 34)

*

at my father’s funeral –

my stepmother’s sons

carry the coffin     (p 17)

The sense of family disintegration, made all the worse by grief, is heartbreakingly wrought. It is another tragic reminder that for many of us, solace and pride cannot be found in familial love. The poems that most evoke a sense of existentialist angst, of the valiant if forlorn struggle to create something that is aesthetically beautiful, are focused on an isolated insomniac, toiling through the night:

late at night –

leaves

scatter across the street     (p 28)

*

insomnia –

dead leaves

blocking the gutter     (p 29)

*

so quiet

late at night –

the lamp     (p 32)

*

at 3 a.m.

a light across the street –

someone else awake     (p 33)

*

awake all night –

a mouse

in the wall     (p 91)

Caldwell is never, however, downtrodden for long. We often see him hailing glimpses of beauty, even bliss, in the gutter:

a puddle

in the gutter –

clear sky     (p 27)

*

a mudlark in the gutter

lifting wet leaves

for insects     (p 28)

*

puddles in the carpark

jumping with rain –

lit by streetlights     (p 76)

These poems delight in their naive surprise, and they are stunning reminders that the healing beauty of the natural world is also found in the city. But this is not a vindication of thoughtless and greedy development. Caldwell is not often explicitly (or didactically) political, his use of language is so dexterously nuanced and open-ended, but occasionally he writes a poem that would make a stunning environmentalist’s billboard:

the coal mine

is

the canary     (p 22)

He also writes the odd poem reflecting on his creative process, often with an eye for self-effacing humour:

perfect haiku –

falls like an autumn leaf

on still water     (p 79)

*

after strong coffee

i can’t stop writing

bad haiku     (p 46)

*

at 3 a.m.

waiting for haiku –

it never comes     (p 33)

And one of my favourite treasures in this collection is the deceptively simple observation set in Kyoto, Autumn, 2015:

temple entrance –

no threshold     (p 62)

This apparently artless poem, with minimalist fuss, expands horizons and nourishes our ways of thinking about spirituality and interconnectedness. It invites us to rethink what is sacred, what is profane? It is a chime for promise and grace.

Grant Caldwell, blue balloon: a collection of haiku and senryu. Melbourne: collective effort press, 2021.
ISBN: 978-0-9593755-2-7

Phillip worked for many years as a teacher of outdoor education and sport throughout regional and remote Australia. He now resides in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. Phillip’s poetry, essays and reviews can be seen in such spaces as Best Australian Poems, The Blue Nib, Cordite Poetry Review & Plumwood Mountain while his poetry collections include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press), Borroloola Class (IPSI), Fume (UWAP) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press).

He co-publishes the poetry e-journal, Burrow, at: https://oldwaterratpublishing.com

And his brand-new poetry collection is Cactus. This can be ordered at: https://recentworkpress.com/books/product/cactus/

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