Owen Bullock, Summer Haiku. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780648404279
Stephanie Green, Breathing in Stormy Seasons. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780648553700
I suffer from depression, and when things get a bit overwhelming, I sometimes find relief in grog’s license to self-harm. In mid-2019, an incident got a little ‘out of hand’, resulting in a ‘threat’ of rehospitalisation unless I agree to a new regime of treatment, and a commitment to taking my medication. And my doctor was keen that I trial a course in ‘mindfulness’. I was very cynical (but, fortunately, didn’t have a lot of choice). I soon got an opportunity to put my new skills to use. My partner asked me to prioritise some self-care so, for a start, I agreed to go to a dentist for a check-up. My shocked dentist found that I had become a teeth grinder and as a result I had eighteen teeth that either needed extraction or filling. I have no resilience to cope with these mundane challenges, so usually would have been overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, but with my partner’s love and new toolkit for managing my breathing and emotions, I got through. Late-2019 was obviously my time to discover some of the healing potential of ‘mindfulness’ and it was also, coincidentally, when I discovered these two poetry collections.
Green describes her collection with the following thoughts:
These prose poems – I would like to call them ‘moments of poetry’ – recall journeys and intimacies, spaces of habitation, daily practices of denial, rescue, affection or assertion. They reflect on negotiations between body and mind that can so fiercely mark the experience of womanhood, striving to capture the intermittent intensity of this ‘boundless resistance’ through the impact of summer and winter storms.
Bullock’s offering is a collection of haiku, divided into the two seasons of summer and winter and written from a male’s point of view, but otherwise, his project could also be described by Green’s well-crafted author’s statement. Both collections celebrate a poetics of ‘mindfulness’.
And the fineness of each book begins with their covers. Both collections feature bespoke art works which are beautifully reproduced. Bullock’s cover has a detail from a textile work by Dianne Firth that shows a summer sun setting over a shadowed and starkly foreboding hill. The use of colour and line is atmospherically embracing, but also wonderfully suggestive of the sublime. Green’s book cover features a detail from a monochrome image by Michal Trpak called Slight Uncertainty that shows a woman awkwardly floating (or falling) while clutching to an umbrella (like a parachute) through a storm cloud (or is she caught like Dorothy in that menacing Kansas tornado?); she is certainly on her own, and breathing in ‘stormy seasons’.
Bullock’s unpunctuated New Zealand-based haiku do not make the mistake of crude syllable counting. Each poem is allowed to find its own space and shape. Some lines are stepped or floated across the page, there are gaps in the middle of lines, and while most poems are three lines in length, some inhabit smaller space. Bullock’s usual strategy is to evoke a natural scene, action or subject in his first line or two before transforming the observation or occasion with a remarkable image (which often includes juxtaposition and/or humour). This technique is well illustrated in the book’s opening few poems. The first poem reads:
the snap and crack
of broom seeds
This poem wonderfully evokes, with minimalist fuss, the ecology of broom plants; their pods turning from green to brown before bursting open to disperse their seeds. The juxtaposition of stifling, dry summer heat with reproduction is memorably wrought.
Bullock’s second poem reads:
a baby cockabully
in the rinsing bowl
This poem could be read as a naïve expression of wonder and surprise (and it is), but in such sparse language, it is also a declaration of the desire to live lightly, to inhabit this earth with justice and cherish moments of unlooked for union. This commitment to ecopoetics is subtly explored in many poems throughout the book, and perhaps the most brilliant example is the following:
a plastic bag
in the ocean
This stunning visual image would have unforgettable impact on a Greenpeace billboard.
Bullock has such a way of alluding to mystery, and to the possibilities of connection between the human and non-human worlds. The following are two stunning examples:
over the collector’s fire
five pairs of
the wagon steams
in the frosty bowl
But we shouldn’t think that Bullock is weighed down by seriousness. Many of his poems are full of delight and humour. The following are two fine examples:
finding its way
across the scrabble board
fifth night camping
In such straightforward and pared back language, Bullock is able to evoke richness in moments spent in communion between the human and non-human worlds, allowing the haiku form to find its own shape, and feel in dialogue with the eye/ear of contemporary poetics. In Summer Haiku, he does not reflect explicitly on the relationships between theory and practice, but each poem is clearly an expression of speculation and wonder.
Green, however, is plainly conscious of the interplay between theory and practice on the place of the prose poem within contemporary poetics and is keen to contribute to and illustrate advances in these reflections. She begins her afterword by quoting T.S. Eliot on his translation of a French prose poem by John Perse:
Its ‘abbreviation of method’ could be justified, Eliot suggested, by how ‘the sequence of images coincides and concentrates into one intense impression’.
Reflecting on Eliot’s thoughts, Green offers the following observations on her own strategies for exploring prose poetry’s potential:
It is this kind of confrontation between the shock of materiality and the sensitivity of imaginative apprehension that resonates with my approach to the making of the prose poems in this collection. Rather than seeking to redefine a poetic form that has been already endlessly defined by others, the claims of this work lie in the realm of engagement with the elusivity and viscera of being, and the interplay between them.
As if with this type of theorising in mind, Green begins the poem ‘Falling’ with the following:
It’s easy to read too much and find yourself falling. The slow burn of acid chuckle, the soft-turned ground, a thought or sentence almost out of place. The concentration required can be exhausting.
There is a delightful self-referential humour in these words, and the punctuation lends a broken, searching rhythm that both affirms and questions the primacy we often pay to philosophical over intuitive knowledge. These ‘moments of poetry’ are snapshots of existentialist joy and angst, alluding to a vast store of theoretical and practical goods.
Green’s usual strategy is to write a paragraph of between half-a-dozen and around twenty lines which describe a moment of connection between the human and non-human world, often located in a place of scenic beauty; or to focus on a moment of intimacy between (usually) two personas (often) on a journey together, or located in their domestic routines. Her final sentence will then move from the concrete scene to the crystallization of a transcendent insight (often involving joy, sadness, loss, or wonder). Her prose displays a wonderful ear for conversational rhythms and alliterations, and she is deft in her use of imagism. Occasionally she will address some inanimate object or plant/animal directly, as in ‘Bunya Pod’:
You are a pentagram, a glorious tawny shield. An impossible flower of iron, a Medieval five-fingered vice. Armoured and spiky, your fierce studded fertility clasps to time, keeping close what must grow.
And one of my favourite poems is ‘Blood Moon’:
On the night of the bleeding moon we go outside to look up, but the street is empty and the trees are sparkling with rain. Only the remnant of a glow shines through thick cloud. It would have been nice to see it, we say to each other, wishing for a moment we were in San Francisco or Bangkok and not alone. Later we will marvel at so many eyes turned to the sky and wish for the days of miracles. There’s always another eclipse you remind me, taking my arm as we go inside, to bed.
These two books have been a joyful encounter, but they also remind me to be kind to myself, to cherish moments of connection, to be grounded and maybe a little less overwhelmed by setback and emotion. They are another reminder of why we seek out great art in this exciting, secular age – the transcendence of joy, the embrace of loss.
Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Gininderra Press), Borroloola Class (IPSI), Fume (UWAP) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press).