The Onawa Poems, 1999–2008, edited by Paul W. MacNeil (Monson, Maine: Ship Pond Press, 2009). 41 pages; 5x8. Four-color card cover; perfectbound. ISBN 978-0-615294-49-0. Price: $11.00 from the publisher at PO Box 294, Monson ME 04464.
Reviewed by Allan Burns
Paul MacNeil, associate editor of The Heron's Nest, is well on his way to establishing an English-language utamakura — a place name invested with special poetic meaning and associations because it has served as the focus of superior poetry in the Japanese tradition. “Onawa,” as MacNeil describes it, “is the name of a Maine lake that snakes among three mountains alongside the Appalachian Trail.” It's also a spot where, for the past decade, some well-known haikuists have gathered at MacNeil’s property to compose poetry and enjoy wine, food, and the great outdoors. The Onawa Poems, 1999–2008 collects some of the finest work that has resulted. The volume’s featured poets include Yu Chang, paul m., John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, and MacNeil himself. There are also notable cameos by Ferris Gilli, Gary Hotham, Kirsty Karkow, Paul David Mena, and Paul Watsky. Karkow contributes one of her typically fine tanka in tribute to the editor-host (“his voice grows soft with sharing / lake lore learning from childhood”). Otherwise, the volume consists of haiku, senryu, and two Einbond award–winning renku, both composed by the team of Chang, MacNeil, Stevenson, and Tann.
The group’s spirit of camaraderie is memorialized in a number of ku, such as these by Chang and Tann:
the rise and fall
of friends’ laughter
the conversation passes
Several poems mention Onawa itself by name, helping further to forge the utamakura, such as Chang’s
a few yellow leaves
quiver on the poplar
The Great North Woods lakes are, of course, well-known for their breeding loons, and there is no shortage of “loonacy” among the Onawans, such as these haiku by MacNeil and paul m. respectively:
one loon call
three day blow
loons shake out their wings
before a dive
Some of the collection’s poems have been published previously and quite a number have not, including Gilli’s
the chipmunk’s cheek
full of seeds
a gemlike example of what MacNeil has called “the little truths … with a certain added quality of affection” that this poet’s outstanding haiku often portray. Connoisseurs of sound patterns should inspect that one carefully and roll it on their tongues.
Each page of The Onawa Poems presents a different poet’s work, creating a various and conversation-like atmosphere, in which we return four or five times to the voices of the featured poets. (The alternation quickens, obviously, when we arrive at the renku.) Favorite activities—such as kayaking, hiking, mountain climbing, birding, photography, stargazing, and drinking red wine—become key themes developed differently by different voices. Consider the approaches of these dissimilar ku on the same topic by Stevenson and Chang:
the smooth lines
of a borrowed kayak
in a kayak
I wet my pants
Such thematic strands and variations help unify the book and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Although much here is lighthearted — notably, Chang’s Chaplinesque antics, including efforts to photograph an uncooperative chipmunk — the volume does come to rest with a personal and touching elegiac gesture.
A gorgeous cover photo of Onawa at dusk appropriately sets the scene for the reader. The volume’s overall production values are modest but serviceable, with one odd choice, the use of bold caps throughout, which may prove off-putting to some readers. It puzzled me at first and seemed un-haiku-like, but I soon found it in no way inhibited my own enjoyment of the poetry.
The Onawa Poems distills many good, memorable, productive times into a unique place-themed collection that belongs in the library of anyone who cares seriously about the development of haikai art in North America. The whole is pervaded by a spirit of conviviality and the love of wildness. MacNeil and his fellow poets have no doubt made the name “Onawa” forever synonymous with haiku, renku, and “Moosebreath Ale Festivals.” I imagine haikuists in the future might well make pilgrimages to the lake to see it for themselves and to add their own haiku perspectives to the ongoing decade-long tradition anthologized here.