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Volume 41.1
Winter 2010

 

book review:

Ksana: Collected Poems 2005–2009
by John Martone

Ksana: Collected Poems 2005–2009, by John Martone (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2009). 208 pages; 6x9. Glossy tan card covers; black endpapers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-893959-84-2. Price: $12.00 from the publisher at PO Box 2461, Winchester VA 22604.

Reviewed by Marshall Hryciuk

I have the recent good fortune of receiving a group of John Martone's chapbooks. Two staples, white card covers, 4? x 6, 6–12 pages, often of cardstock in a very small, thin type: a conveyance for sets of poems that seep slowly into a self-renewing fountain of minimalist language. Within each minibook each poem shades off, sometimes clearly, sometimes vaguely, into another poem as blocks or patches of paint in a Cezanne or Hundertwasser painting, only on a smaller, black-on-white scale. Each bit of page is affiliated by subject matter with one before or one after, the stapled leaflet as a whole closing not so much with a developed point or conclusion as with the passing of the duration or presence of the subject, as from page 4 of old child

chopping peat moss
                                   in wind
                                                     bog man

                        my notebook now peat moss dust

redbird — look up
                                sky all
                                              red
                                                        maple
                                                                        flowers

                my sweat soaked thru this notebook

This isn't English-language haiku as it presently constituted. It's poetry more in kind with Cid Corman's, which gains in power and wonder from being read as if it were haiku. Martone's is a writing that is a witness to nature, natural occasions, and everyday activities keenly observed in simple language. In this it is haiku, and more so in that it so easily steers clear of cause and effect, judgmental attitudes, obvious transparencies, telling the mind instead of showing the senses — that is, bad writing that is accepted in our haiku culture because it contains season word, two elements, and an "aha?!" of awareness. Singularly, Martone's poems here pivot not so much toward communication with a reader as on a patience with nature down to its most minute synapse and have a corresponding patience with language that seeks for each poem the root of its own syntax. If I can feel the push of an author here at all it is of the movement from a kind of traditional burning-candle meditation, variations on an isolated subject turned to a spare language idiom that maintains poise without control.

Then along comes this full-size volume with a photo of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva gleaming on the cover as if he were of carnelian. It contains twenty of these chapbooks within, and I have the further good fortune of reviewing this book for a magazine whose previous issue printed Scott Metz's review of The Haiku Universe for the 20th Century. It's clear to me that whether you prefer leaflet reading or this cadillac version of these poems, this work is "gendai" poetry in English; a minority report from the latter-day counterculture of haiku. Calling Martone a "modernist" haiku poet fits in some negative ways — he’s nontraditional, non-purist and nonconformist — and in some positive ways — in his use of contemporary language, accessible imagery, and universal small-case lettering — but this does little to separate him from the other poets who publish in Modern Haiku. "Postmodernist," while being an accurate term for describing artists and writers who feel that modernism and its moral initiatives have had their day, is still a critical and academic term and comes from outside of inspiration. It's a term that seems ill-applied to haiku poets in general and one that does nothing to inform Martone's quiescent approach. He begins in devotion, in meditation, and observation, and his style, so much as he has one, is a surrender to the ebb and flow of living and witness.

And now there's the Gendai Haiku Kyokai, an organization of Japanese haiku poets, which represents maybe 20% of the millions of haiku writers there, bringing out a new anthology and signaling a new attitude towards haiku-culture by Japanese haiku poets themselves. Last year they published their work in English translation. Almost seems too lucky for me, but I'm convinced that understanding Martone as a gendai haiku poet brings a fresh clarity to his work and how we should approach it. What Martone shares with the poets of this new anthology is a "heightened subjectivity." His work is a "step back" from wanting to be haiku. It moves very slowly to commit to language and almost as carefully on its own momentum through it. I find it best to read not the whole haiku twice before proceeding to the next one, but each line twice before reading the following line to receive the full value of each verse towards receiving the whole poem in its integrity. Myself, I find a simple joy in reading effortless poetry that flows "out of control" with no controlling thesis or headpoint; but certainly from a life lived for and of poetry.

lose
yr

glass
es

&
now

what

has a two-liner beside it. Yet underneath that, about ten lines down,

yr
glasses
just

an
other
mask

Martone does list Corman as one of his "sacred heroes," and his attention to the thinnest strand of breath becoming language is shared with him, but there is a terrific sense of wabi-sabi here too, reminding me of Gary Snyder as well as of Basho; a "chilliness" in the human condition that is fragile unto peril:

owlet
got in
my house

And four lines down

my hands
nest

baby
owl

Then there's the admirable humility he has without crowing about it —as with Issa as well as Basho:

squat down to eat
                           a tin of pears
                                                opens cleanly

sit on heels
& study
mushrooms

And it is satisfying that the book does perform the spiritual witness announced by its cover. Remembering that in yoga, each of the physical senses is presided over by its own deva or guiding soul, i.e. all sense-perception begins as a divine gift from the body not under the personality's control;

someone beautiful lives at that open window

and that the road up and the road down are the same road:

drainage
ditch
possum
you were
born
blind too

The circle has never been broken. There is nothing to fix, affix or re-fix. And if this isn’t haiku, then it's not-haiku from the other side of "short English Western poem" as is often the phrase used to disqualify poems in workshops. I think to consider it gendai poetry, the influx of a more intense haiku from the future, is the best way to approach it.

And, oh yeah, Ksana is the finest millisecond of time. The strongest sharp blade shearing a cord of silk takes 64 of them to pass through. We live and write through such tenuosities. This is a beautiful book and an exciting experience if you want to read haiku in motion — as if stillness could be anything but provisional.

 

 

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