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Volume 38.1 Autumn 2007

book review:

Called Home by Paul Miller

Reviewed by Charles Trumbull

Called Home, by paul m. (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2006). 92 unnumbered pages; 4 ¼" x 6 ½"; paperback, perfectbound. $12.00 from the publisher at PO Box 2461, Winchester VA 22604.

This second book of haiku by Paul Miller, writing under his haigo paul m., continues —and perhaps completes—the quest he began in his earlier Finding the Way (Press Here, 2002). The quest is for a sense of home, of "rootedness." In the Introduction, Miller informs the reader that although he spent most of his life in California, he has now returned to live in New England, the land of his ancestors, a fact that is clearly of great significance to the poet. The haiku in Called Home are arrayed roughly as a trip of discovery and rediscovery, from west to east.

Even apart from any personal meaning his trip may have had for the poet and the cohesiveness of the book concept, this is an important book of haiku. Miller has been writing haiku for nearly twenty years, and almost from the beginning his has been a strong voice in the development of an American model of haiku. His work continues to be at the cutting edge.

A comparison of paul m.’s verses with a more or less standard definition of English-language haiku points up telling differences. In terms of form his haiku are always in three lines but never—or only accidentally — in a 5–7–5–syllable pattern. He tends more toward using a 2–3–2 beat structure, but even this never tyrannizes his haiku. His haiku are about nature, broadly defined, but the nub of each poem is human nature — a distinguishing plus in our view. Miller’s haiku are very lyrical and are usually seasonal, but in a casual way. Traditional haikai use of kigo to evoke a specific seasonal "essence" (as the Japanese do) is absent, as for example in haiku that contain two seasonal markers,

late spring walk
flattened grass
where the ewe was sheared

moving the cow
closer to baby Jesus
yesterday’s snow

The "haiku moment" is very strongly present in Miller’s work, and the key to his technique is adroit selection of two images to bracket that moment. This is an essential element of a good haiku, in our opinion, and Miller’s work is exemplary in this aspect. Miller’s images are not always concrete; he often uses mental constructs, negative ideas, philosophical statements, or speculation as one of his images, as in these haiku:

orderly fields
of an Amish farm
the things I can’t tell her

expanding universe
a vine as thick as my arm
cut at the root

The degree of separation of the images in his haiku is the key to Miller’s great art —and also, very occasionally, his shortcoming. This crucial aspect of the haiku—placement of two images in a way that requires the interpolation of the reader—has been compared to the action of a spark plug: if the points are too close, a short circuit will result (i.e., if the images of a haiku are too close to one another, there is no surprise and the reader responds, "so what") but if the points are too far apart, there will be no spark at all (i.e., the reader’s mind cannot bridge the two images and responds, "huh?"). Miller sets the gap at the maximum. There is a great deal of subjectivity in all this, of course: for example, the poet can write a very personal or Aesopian haiku (one suspects Miller is doing this on occasion) that makes perfect sense to him/her but will fall flat with a reader not in the know. The images in these haiku seem fathomable to me:

last warm days
the discarded skin
of a praying mantis

gone to bed angry
the din
of summer insects

these really push it:

chance of showers
a frayed rope
linking the mules

drifting seed fluff …
the rented horse
knows an hour’s worth

and these have images too distant or are too amorphous for me to find much meaning:

migratory ducks
I have never
kept a diary

lizard sunning itself
this side
of the waterfall

Miller and Red Moon Press have published a masterful book in all respects. Everyone interested in how the envelope of American haiku is expanding needs to read this book carefully—a most pleasurable pursuit.

 

 

 

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