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Volume 43.2
Summer 2012

 

book review:

Nothing More Happens in the 20th Century: Haiku Dangers
by Gary Hotham

Reviewed by Robert Epstein

Nothing More Happens in the 20th Century: Haiku Dangers, by Gary Hotham (San Antonio, Texas: Pecan Grove Press, 2011). 42 pages; 5 x8. Glossy four-color card covers; perfectbound. Price: $8.00 from the author at 10460 Stansfield Rd, Scaggsville MD 20723.

 

Nothing More Happens in the 20th Century: Haiku Dangers is not for the faint-hearted, though a close reading could very well call to the surface a courage timid readers didn’t even know they possessed. Acclaimed haiku poet Gary Hotham offers a forewarning in the subtitle to his latest collection, which might scare inattentive readers away. What on earth could he mean by haiku dangers? If the cover art depicting row after row of identical gravestones doesn’t give away a central theme, the opening poem certainly should:

dew hanging on the fence—
paint chips off
the danger sign

Any haiku poet writing about dew cannot be unaware of Issa’s famous haiku alluding to the death of another child of his:

this world of dew
is a world of dew
and yet ...

Morning dew is a vivid symbol of the transient existence that is our life. However, one need not be a practicing Buddhist, as the Japanese haiku poet Issa was, to grasp this holy truth. Dew is also a thing in itself: it is simple, pure, lovely and fresh, produced overnight on cool surfaces when atmospheric vapor condenses. How many of us notice dewdrops during our morning commute or on the way to Starbucks for that much-needed cup of coffee? And what about those old danger signs? Do we notice the paint chipping off the signs of our own lives, or are we too busy making other plans, as John Lennon sang? Ever the keen observer of the quotidian, Hotham hones in on the new and juxtaposes it with the old to highlight that which we ignore at our own peril—the present moment—where the Eternal Now dwells. We encounter dew more than once in the book, where we are reminded that ample opportunities exist for coming into the present:

a slow curve in the path—
we haven’t walked anywhere
the dew hasn’t been

Make no mistake: this is most assuredly not a morbid or depressing book. Hotham is simply sharing his observations of what is, which encompasses birth and death, youth and old age, sickness and health, acquisition and loss in hopes of waking us up—as the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is quoted in the epigraph—to the “fullness of time.”

birthday party—
the child’s breath
bursting bubbles

Lest we fall into despair over the reality of impermanence, there is a consoling intimacy found in the link between the personal and impersonal, with the “i” that is me and the vastness which Zen Buddhists call “Big Mind,” as in the following poem:

our bare feet
next to each other
next to the ocean

Hotham gently suggests that to be acutely conscious of our finitude is to be fully alive. In such awareness do we find the wholeness that seems to elude us when we are living in trance, oblivious to the here-and-now. In the light of awareness, death (or loss, generally) is thus not the gravest danger; unawareness is. I greatly appreciate Hotham’s courage in being willing to write about life-and-death in an unadorned way:

a fly buzzes by
a room full of people
who know the dead man

From a place of ordinary wonder, new wholes are apprehended by intuition, which is at the heart of the haiku spirit—a spirit Ho- tham displays on nearly every page. Except for a sprinkling of redundancies and prosaic musings, there is actually a lot happening in Nothing More Happens: it is brimming with courage, truth, and faith ... making it well worth the risk of reading and, I dare say, rereading.

 

 

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