Volume 39.2
Summer 2008

book review:

The Unworn Necklace
by Roberta Beary

Reviewed by Keith Heiberg

The Unworn Necklace, by Roberta Beary (Liverpool: Snapshot Press, 2007). 80 pages, 5 x 8, perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-903543-22-1. $20.00 postpaid from Snapshot Press, PO Box 132, Waterloo, Liverpool L22 8WZ, U.K. or online at <snapshotpress.com.uk>

E.M. Forster’s advice to novelists holds for all creative artists: “Only connect.” Some of the poems in Roberta Beary’s first individual collection, The Unworn Necklace, connect brilliantly. The most subtle example is:

the roses shift
into shadow

Consider the paradoxical links between sound and motion (i.e., audible thunder and a physical “shift”), volition and inanimate objects (“roses shift” suggests intentional movement), and light and dark (the “shadow” may be cast by storm clouds, by the wind pushing the roses into the shadow of some other object, and/or by emotions). In short, the connected — and connecting — paradoxes make this haiku both obscure and unforgettable.

Some of the poems offer multivalent readings, as in:

first snow
at every window
a child’s face

“[F]irst snow” may be the first of that season, or the first ever seen by these children. In either case, the freshness of the experience and the freshness of newly fallen snow harmonize well. Likewise, the lack of punctuation allows the reader to group the words in different ways and arrive at different meanings. The most common reading takes the first line (“first snow”) as the kigo, and the last two lines (“at every window / a child’s face”) as the story. Of course, each snowflake is unique, like each child. And from the parents’ perspective, children grow up and move away as quickly as snowflakes vanish. But take “first snow / at every window” as the statement of the season and “a child’s face” as the story. Now we see parallels between the fresh, shining snowflakes and the fresh, shining face of the (now singular) child. We may even see a Zen haiku in which the moon is simultaneously reflected in many drops of dew, symbolic of enlightenment. (After all, a snowflake is just a drop of water that has dropped through cold clouds.)

Most of the poems in this collection are senryu and deal with Beary’s divorce. A few show us everyday details that often get overlooked but when noticed speak volumes:

no longer married
only their shadows touch
. . . graduation day

The reader can feel the tension between the divorced parents, with the familiarity of touch heightened by its absence. In addition, they’ve been forced together by what they created together — a child — so the schism is even more painful. In a sense, their divorce is itself a “graduation”: from a joined but unhappy life in the small world of their former relationship, to separate and (hopefully) happy lives in the larger world.
Speaking of which:

third date—
the slow drift of the rowboat
in deep water

The uncertainty of the first two dates is past, and the couple is moving toward deeper emotional water. The oars dangle, which suggests the relationship moving under its own momentum, as well as the two individuals’ respective decisions to not change course.

Unfortunately, many of the senryu tell us little that we couldn’t have guessed:

it’s over
slicing his shirt
for the ragbag

If a haiku or senryu is seeing “the extraordinary in the ordinary,” this poem only gives us the latter. The experience may have been moving for the speaker, but here the form and content are so commonplace, the poem fails to connect for the reader.

Some of the images, though less common, seem to have been included simply as literal records of an event rather than crafted to fit the poem. For example,

morning fog
my father asks me
who i am

I like the association — obvious though it may be — of physical and mental fog. However, Beary’s father is obviously in his twilight years; to say “morning fog” suggests the freshness of a new day, and dissipates the poem’s force.
Likewise, in

a new tremor
in his left hand
. . . spring dusk

We aren’t told whether the individual is young or old, but we assume the latter, and “dusk” works nicely with the notion of old age (Think of Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”). On the other hand, “spring” suggests new beginnings, and “spring dusk” could set up a fruitful paradox, moving simultaneously toward beginnings and endings, suggesting the full-circle movement typical of Bashô’s beloved Taoist classic Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu). But “spring” fails to connect with “new tremor,” and the reader is, in a sense, left waiting for a train on the wrong track.

Finally, the title poem:

all day long
i feel its weight
the unworn necklace

The simple, direct force of this image speaks for itself, and returns again and again as associations echo through the reader’s mind. But the lowercase “i” (which Beary uses consistently) feels like an affectation, and the self-consciousness pulls the reader out of the poem. In general, the most effective usage is the most ordinary: “nothing special.”

There are many haiku and senryu here with powerful yet subtle imagery and clean diction, but many of the poems work at cross-purposes to their own images, or simply state the obvious. For a first collection, it’s quite good, but it would have been stronger had it been allowed to ripen a bit longer.

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