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Volume 35.1
Spring 2004

 

book review:

The Road Behind
by Mike Dillon

 

reviewed by Edward Zuk

The Road Behind, by Mike Dillon (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2003), 56 unnumbered pages, 5 x 7.5, perfectbound. ISBN: 1-893959-37-6. $12.00 + $3.00 postage and handling from Red Moon Press at P.O. Box 2461, Winchester VA, 22604-1661.

Haiku of This Time, of This Place

One of the never-ending arguments in the English-language haiku community is whether the haiku should be a universal or local poem. Since the haiku is being read all over the world (one side argues), shouldn’t it use only images and language that can be understood by anyone, regardless of their background or locale? But (retorts the other), shouldn’t our haiku draw their strength from their connection with the environment and the sounds, smells, sights, and language that its poets encounter every day? This debate, of course, will never be won by one side or the other, but it affects every writer of haiku. Whenever a poet decides to edit a poem by replacing a specific flower’s name by a more general one, or else crosses out a familiar word to substitute a local slang or expression, he or she is playing out this argument again.

Usually a poet comes down on one side or the other of the local/universal divide, but Mike Dillon, in his debut collection, The Road Behind, manages to write both kinds of poems. As a long-time resident of the Puget Sound region, he is a keen observer of those things that define the Pacific Northwest: the relatively peaceful history between its Indian tribes and settlers, the salmon runs that define its calendar, the vast Pacific Ocean, its environmental debates, and the sublime mountains and evergreen rain forests. Yet he is also capable of writing haiku and senryu that express truths that are not bound to any place:

cherry blossoms:
the spawning stream
flows empty
the last kid picked
running his fastest
to right field

Being from Vancouver, I must admit to a fondness for those haiku that express something particular to the Pacific Northwest, if only because the recent settlement of our region means that there are vast stretches of landscape and history that have not yet made their way into poetry. What an accomplishment it would be for the haiku to lead the way in the hard work of turning these things into literature, I could not help thinking as I read these poems, even as I realized that the author had not committed himself to this task in any systemic way.

The final piece of the collection, however, does make a first step in this direction. “August, For a Little While Longer” is a medium-length haibun that weaves the author’s personal history with a trip to an Indian reserve and the history and landscape that his journey evokes. The piece is not wholly successful, if only because the material demands a longer treatment, even though Dillon includes many fine observations along the way (“a hot blue noon” or “skyscrapers, like figments from Dalí, float there in the warm fabric of the air,” for example). Yet the attempt opens up exciting possibilities. I am eagerly looking forward to the poet’s future work to see how much of our time and place make its way into his writing.

 

 

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