Volume 38.1 Autumn 2007

book review:

She Was Just Seventeen by Billy Collins

reviewed by William J. Higginson

She Was Just Seventeen, by Billy Collins. (Lincoln, Ill.: Modern Haiku Press, 2006). 32 pages, 8.5 x 5, sewn letterpress edition. ISBN 0- 9741894-2-1. Direct from the publisher for $20.00 plus $3.00 postage ($6.00 postage outside the U.S.) from Modern Haiku Press, Box 68, Lincoln IL 62526.

A gold cover with red, embossed typography, a border repeating I Ching hexagram #17, also embossed in red, and the almost cheery title, She Was Just Seventeen, will brighten up any haiku book collection, and anyone sensitive to book des ign and materials should welcome this one to eye and hand, especially turning the pages, which repeat the I Ching pattern in silky-silver ink on the edge of every leaf.

In a quick count, I find 48 poems in the unnumbered pages of She Was Just Seventeen, Billy Collins’s new haiku chapbook from Modern Haiku Press, under the editorship of Lee Gurga. Having also counted the syllables of almost all of them, I can observe that Collins, like so many major poets for whom haiku represent a small part of their work, sticks mainly to a syllable-count definition of haiku form. More than half of these poems are in 5–7–5, and almost all of the others are in three lines of five or seven syllables each, totaling seventeen. The most interesting feature of Collins’s take on haiku form is his occasional use of a 5–5–7 syllable-count pattern. There are a dozen or so poems in this format, and they generally interest me more than the others.

The very first poem in the book provides a good example:

Heavy rain all night—
with closed eyes I see
the orchard, the dripping leaves.

A lesser poet might have shifted "the orchard" to the end of the second line and left the rest for the third. Whether Collins rejected this as making the middle line too long and the last too short, or recognized that there was more drama with the line break after "see"—forcing the reader onward to see what he could see—he himself probably couldn’t say, though I suspect both factors were at play. The subtle effects of this shift weights the end of the poem more, creating the effect of a cadence.

More important than details of craft, in this poem I feel a real haiku motif working: the poet does not speak directly of sound, but of the absence of light, except in his mind’s eye. What sensation stimulates that inner eye? The sounds of the rain, surely, but also the poet’s keen memory of that orchard, having seen the way the leaves and raindrops bouncing dance with each other. To paraphrase another poet, all the mind’s a stage.

As he has proved in poem after poem, Collins knows a good deal about the tradition, the wildly scattered tradition of world poetry. In another 5–5–7 poem he asks,

If I write spring moon
or mountain, is that
haiku plagiarism?

While I may not value this especially as a haiku, it certainly spoofs the repetition of favored phrases and images that plagues haiku to the point where even the great Shiki once doubted if haiku could continue another decade or two without utterly repeating itself. (If Shiki had foreseen the explosion of interest in haiku in scores of languages around the world, perhaps he would have been less doubtful!)

In a rarer variation on lines of five and seven syllables, Collins has this clean look at himself that many of us "of a certain age" can relate to, and which will stick in my mind for a good while:

From my bed, bright stars.
The doctor will phone today.
But for now just winter stars.

In a perfect 5–7–5 Collins can outdo J.W. Hackett’s famous hawk’s cry haiku and spike it with a little self-deprecation along the way, not to mention a wonderful rime that the eye might not catch:

High cry of a hawk,
cracking ice across the lake—
enough of my talk.

Several others of his 5–7–5 haiku strike me as among the best around, though there are also some that seem rather ho-hum, or sometimes a bit contrived, like this one:

Travel tomorrow,
so much I must leave behind—
this lake, this morning.

At his best, Collins is pure Collins, writing poems that strike me as quite meaningful —and intentionally so—but with a subtle edge of humor one may not notice at first, as here, where the poet poses himself, then catches himself striking a pose, and then decides to leave it at that, sharing a joke with readers who will catch him up in it:

Street lights in the dark
city where I walk—
a man with many shadows.

For me, the following poem’s striking images suggest an homage to Lorine Niedecker, an earlier poet much less well-known than Collins, but possessed of a similarly dry wit that only hits you after the end of the poem:

Black hearse rushes by—
blue chickory on the roadside
swaying in its wake.

Before leaving She Was Just Seventeen, I want to mention Collins’s poem “Japan,” a piece of some 35 lines which Collins reads often for audiences and is mentioned in Gurga’s brief afterword. Gurga cites the opening lines of “Japan,” and tells of its prompting him to contact Collins and ask if the latter would contribute to the pages of this magazine. What Gurga fails to mention is that, while “Japan” purports to be a poem about a particular Japanese haiku, the famous Buson piece that goes (in Harold G. Henderson’s translation)

On the temple bell
     has settled, and is fast asleep,
          a butterfly.

and Collins in fact misquotes the Buson haiku as being about a moth, rather than a butterfly. I suspect he does this deliberately, because the image of the moth goes so well with the wonderfully erotic climax of his own poem. (It would have been fun to include “Japan” in She Was Just Seventeen, but now, perhaps, you’ll go looking for it elsewhere.)

One other piece of business must be dealt with here, before a conclusion: other than the number involved, there seems to be no connection whatever between the book’s title, or the hexagram from the I Ching, and the contents of this book. However, from reading the information on the hexagram, neatly printed inside as a sort of anti-introduction, there does seem to be a connection between the title and the hexagram. Perhaps together they simply underline a tendency to ask unanswerable questions on the part of both poet and editor? John Cage would smile.

I will end this review with one haiku that I especially like, involving a perception seldom directly encountered in English-language haiku. It would be easy, perhaps, to parody this particular poem, but its theme of deep time, and the lightness with which it plays that theme, comes as very welcome in a world so dominated by the small corners of the here and now:

Moon in the window—
the same as it was before
there was a window.

Well, we are getting to see more of the moon, these days, the back side that was so long hidden from Earth now coming into view as we humans begin to trickle out into space. I hope those of us engaged so deeply in haiku here will embrace Billy Collins’s different and perhaps seemingly outside view of haiku, so that we may see sides of it, and of ourselves, previously hidden.



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