Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku, by John Barlow and Matthew Paul (Liverpool, Eng.: Snapshots Press, 2008). 350 pages; 5 x 7. Hardbound. ISBN 978-1-903543-24-5. £19.49 from the publisher at PO Box 132, Waterloo, Liverpool L22 8WZ, UK.
Reviewed by Paul Miller
John Barlow and Matthew Paul previewed their Wing Beats project at the 2007 Haiku North America conference in Winston-Salem. At the time their presentation included a number of beautiful photographs that I pressed them to include in the final product despite the cost or logistical difficulties. They were wise not to take my advice. At the presentation, the overwhelming impact of the projected photographs of the various bird species was balanced by the presence of Barlow and Paul, but in a book of poems the photographs would easily overpower the written work. The volume would become more of a coffee table book — albeit a beautiful one — than a book of poetry. And while this might sell more books than with haiku alone, it would be a change in the project’s goals.
Barlow and Paul’s book begins with a brief introduction to the project by the editors, then gets straight to the action presenting over 300 haiku by 36 British poets arranged in taxonomic order of species: from Mute Swan to Corn Bunting. The choice of only British poets is accidental, although not surprising, considering Barlow and Paul’s insistence on experiential poems. This primary goal is made plain in the Foreword: “All the haiku … concern ‘real life’ experiences, ensuring the book has genuine value as a record of wild birds in Great Britain at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Also “Wing Beats continues the centuries-old tradition of writing with a sense of place that stretches from the largely anonymous Anglo-Saxon poets, through the medieval ruminations of Gerald of Wales, to the prose works of.…” I’ll spare the reader the lengthy list, but the editors’ understanding of their book’s place in tradition is clear and laudable.
The editors’ insistence on experienced haiku could risk nothing more than a series of dull, nature-as-is snapshots, but this isn’t the case as the first two poems make clear:
snow light …
from a swan’s bill
two swans passing
beat for beat
You don’t have to be a birder to appreciate these poems — a sentiment I found myself repeatedly expressing. The editors have done a good job picking strong, accessible poems that give any reader room to inhabit. In the main the majority of poems are by Barlow and Paul themselves, yet the editors have made good use of all the poet’s voices. A few additional, random examples:
path tailing off ...
the red kite spreads his wings
into the rain
gather on the mudbanks—
the whistles and clicks
of a stonechat —
the stillness of a lamb
Since these are poems on British birds the reader should expect occasional terms such as “Michaelmas” and “dragon’s teeth” as well as other Britishisms. Such terms give the poems a strong sense of place and, I hope, help reinforce the poetic history that areas and dates in Britain have — what the Japanese call utamakura. In the Paul poem Michaelmas serves in that way, as it is the traditional end of the harvest and a time when people gather to choose elected officials and settle debts.
As mentioned earlier the photographs previewed at Haiku North America and online at 3LIGHTS Gallery (threelightsgallery.com/johnbarlowintro.html) didn’t make it into the final book. Instead, complimenting the poems are more than fifty of Sean Gray’s watercolor illustrations painted from the artist’s own photographs (the editor’s insistence on experienced moments at work again). Often showing the birds in motion, they are a nice understated addition to the poems and help to break up the text. Despite reassurance from the editors, in some cases I am still unconvinced that a few of these watercolors aren’t in actuality photographs.
At the end of the book the editors provide nearly a hundred pages of appendices: Taxonomy, English Names, Scientific Names, Season Words, British Status and Season Word List, The Compilation Process, and Notes and Sources. Despite living in America, I found the appendix on Season Words and their appropriateness to Britain wonderful reading. For haiku poets in the U.K., the British Status appendix should be especially enjoyable. It lists each bird, gives its traditional haiku season, and the editor’s opinioned British haiku season.
The scope of Wing Beats is large, and its assemblage must have been a significant task for the editors. For a reader it is also a daunting proposition. With so much information, where to start? I found that the beginning was the best place. Months later I am still enjoying the book.