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Volume 43.1
Winter Spring 2012

 

book review:

Distant Virga
by Allan Burns

Reviewed by Paul Miller

Distant Virga, by Allan Burns (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2011). 64 unnumbered pages; 4.25 x 6.125. Glossy four-color card covers, perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-936949-08-9. price: $12.00+s&h from the publisher at <http://www.redmoonpress.com>.

Virga is a meteorological phenomenon in which observable precipitation evaporates before it hits the ground. It is often seen as the trailing mist below clouds. It is an apt metaphor for the haiku moment, and by extension the haiku poem that seeks to encapsulate it. Allan Burns understands this impermanence, not in a simple "change happens" fashion, but rather that the universe is in continual motion and that every moment is simultaneously created and destroyed.

Despite the title's implication, the poems in the collection are immediate and earthly. Burns is a naturalist who sees in Nature the continuous and expansive creative process. He uses the inherent pairings in the haiku structure—the give and take between parts—to great effect, imbuing the smallest things with surprising power:

source of the creek
a kinglet's
breeding song

The first line places us and the birdsong in a physical location, and since the breeding song is also a beginning it is easy to stop at that easy parallel; but the ambiguity of the cut also allows us to see the song as the source of the creek. In a back-cover blurb, Marian Olson refers to Burns's belief that the "earth is holy," and I find this to be true.

winter-golden grass
bent to the wind
to the ways of deer

early dusk
a nuthatch works the cracks
between garden stones

These implied interconnections permeate Burns's work and show a self-sufficient system that is interconnected, and of the Buddhist notion of causal dependence in which all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. As such he has empathy for his subjects because they are equally of his consciousness.

a willow reveals
the underground stream
Dharma Day

final ascent
a stonechat lifts
from the heather

I find the second poem especially uplifting. Yet in poems in which mankind appears, those connections are threatened.

the lake they drained
amber eyes
of the osprey

sunset chill
a coyote withdraws
behind the headstone

There is a wonderful parallel in the first poem between the lake and the deep, golden eyes of the osprey—until we remember that the lake is drained. The use of a headstone in the second poem is haunting. Coyotes have adapted well to mankind's incursion into their territories and often live now in the shadowed places of mankind. Here that shadowed place is a graveyard which speaks heavily to our view of Nature. If Burns's poetry is to be viewed through a Buddhist lens then not only the Earth is holy, but also mankind as interconnected to it, and thus he extends this empathy to humans as well. August sixth is, of course, the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

the sunset clouds of August sixth

Comanche grassland
ruins of the mission
cast the only shadow

As the editor of the Haiku Foundation's Montage collection Burns has seen haiku in all shapes and sizes, both traditional and modern, yet his own are well situated in the English-language tradition of the past thirty years. Yet he does break out occasionally. The below poem is partially cut by one of Ron Moss's brush works.

black smoke of a—no trespassing—life

In the face of recent modernism Burns has argued that English-language haiku is far richer than given credit for, and I had a hard time finding a weak poem in the collection. With the exception of one or two sketches, all fifty poems in Distant Virga are energetic and engaging—and strong evidence for his argument.

 

 

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