Volume 39.1
Spring 2008

book review:

The Regulars by Matthew Paul
Waiting for the Seventh Wave by John Barlow

Reviewed by Michael Dylan Welch

The Regulars, by Matthew Paul (Liverpool, England: Snapshot Press, 2006). 80 pages; 5 x 7 . Semigloss color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-903543-18-5. $20.00 from the publisher.

Waiting for the Seventh Wave, by John Barlow (Liverpool, England: Snapshot Press, 2006). 80 pages; 5x 7. Semigloss color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-903543-11-5. $20.00 from the publisher.

Reviewed by Michael Dylan Welch

Let me state this at the outset: with Snapshot Press, publisher John Barlow sets the platinum standard for design and production values among haiku and tanka books. Their quality is unsurpassed. Every physical aspect of these books is top-notch, including paper choices, photography, typography, and graphic design. With such a high expectation set by the production values, it would seem understandably difficult for the poems also to reach the same high rank, but read them conscientiously and you will see that nearly always the poems, too, reach a fine standard of excellence while they speak clearly of each poet’s personal experience. Indeed, books from Snapshot Press are always a tactile and poetic delight.
In particular, two new Snapshot Press books that are no exception to these observations are Matthew Paul’s The Regulars and Barlow’s own book, Waiting for the Seventh Wave. Most other books in the recent Snapshot Press crop of new publications are by American authors, but these two are British. One may immediately wonder what makes this work differ from the books by the American authors, and whether any identifiable Britishness arises in the poems.
I would say yes, but more so in Paul’s collection. We encounter poems that readers living in England would likely interpret with distinct local images, as in Paul’s one-liner,

in the coot’s wake     river police

It can immediately bring to mind the River Thames in London or Henley or elsewhere nearby. I’m British and grew up in England, so this is natural enough for me to see, although perhaps some American readers will see something else. Yet that doesn’t matter, as haiku routinely relies on our own experiences, whatever they may be, to “finish” the poem, to round it off in our lives.

Also in Paul’s book we see the British spellings of “kerb,” “spilt,” and “centre” in different poems, and cultural differences such as butter melting “on a hot cross bun” in another poem, a “pram” in another, and a reference to a “fete” in yet another — a term as common in England as “street fair” or “block party” is in America. A “winger’s” shadow, of course, is that of a soccer player. In one haiku that also mentions “Michaelmas,” we see a “bus queue” (not a “line”), and another poem invokes “Punch and Judy.” A reference to a “towpath” is hardly just British, but, for those who know the quaint British canals and their colorful canal barges (still sometimes horse-drawn), the word brings to mind an image very distinct from the much less common canals of the eastern United States. A couple of poems may completely stump some North Americans (the second haiku here being the title poem of Paul’s book):

the weir’s fizz …
tilling his allotment
on the tiny ait

in the lounge bar
a money moth circles
the regulars

Are these poems puzzling to Americans for geographical reasons, or is their challenge just a matter of vocabulary that has nothing to do with culture or location? It may be hard to say, yet when we know that an “ait” is a little river island, the first poem becomes clearer. Yet what of the “money moth”? Is it a metaphor for a sort of beggar, or is it a type of insect that is attracted to paper? Is seeing a money moth an omen that one will soon come into money? Whatever the case, we get a sense of character and place from Paul's poems, and that place is primarily England. In contrast, another poem describes “sugar maples turning,” which feels conspicuously North American, as is, of course, a reference to “West Coast jazz” (or I can’t help myself but think so). A significant number of the poems in The Regulars do feel British in their content, even while most of its poems are “neutral” (or universal) regarding location, as in this pair:

somebody’s breath
in the rush-hour train
sunlit river

the faintest rain —
market traders
arranging their sprouts

I confess that a few poems do still puzzle me, such as the following. In apprehending them, having a British upbringing seemed not to give me any advantage:

heat haze
a tangerine milk float
jumping the lights

the fishpond
chocker with bindweed —
thinking of her again

For presumably cultural reasons, these poems don’t connect with me, yet I am not bothered by this, trusting that they will make sense to the right audience. Rather than feel alienated by them, I feel intrigued by the challenge of discovering something beyond my comfort zone. A number of other poems confront me where the poet has risked not being understood, yet the gamble seems worthwhile for the poet to be true to himself and his surroundings. Again and again with his haiku, Paul refrains from the sin of saying too much. I must presume, in “tucking a roll-up / behind his ear / the harvest sun,” that the “roll-up” is a hand-rolled cigarette. It is not too much of a leap to understand, in “blue dragonflies / a boy with a Hula Hoop / on every finger,” that a child has playfully placed ring-shaped snack food items on his fingers. The poet shouldn’t have to do all the work.

Notice the juxtapositions in the poems I’ve quoted (in the foreword, Katherine Gallagher rightly refers to them as “daring associations”). What a leap from blue dragonflies to Hula Hoop snacks. By such a pairing, we are carried to a lazy summer day, transported back to our childhoods (a dragonfly is traditionally an autumn season word, but I get a summer feeling from the child’s idle playfulness). Paul excels at such effective juxtapositions that take us with him on his intuitive leaps:

the forward lean
as she pushes the pram —
passion flowers

a stone shaken
from the heel of my shoe
apple blossom

Is the woman eager to see the flowers, or is the passion that the flowers represent the cause for her having a child to push in a pram? And what does apple blossom have to do with a stone shaken from one’s heel? We don’t need to figure out the reason for the juxtapositions. At the very least, their mystery holds us in each image until we feel the rightness, the wholeness, of what is described.
Think, too, of what is left out:

the breath between
appeal and decision —
pigeons fly

I see this as a game of tennis (I imagine Wimbledon). But perhaps it is some other sport, or perhaps not even a sport at all, and that’s okay because we can still dwell in the space created by the leap of juxtaposition. We are kept in a moment of indecision, and made aware of it by the chance timing of departing pigeons. And how quickly this dynamic instant happens and is gone.

In other cases, the juxtaposition is less of a leap but still engaging:

the window wiped
with the back of a glove
seasonal lights

Are the lights merely a discovery after the window is wiped, or is it the joy of the holiday season that motivates someone to wipe a window (I imagine a bus window) to unblur and enjoy the holiday lights?

A measure of humor pervades this collection also, as in these poems:

sweltering zoo:
a boy shows his lion
the real thing

my son asks
if he can help with the haiku —
his missing tooth

One of the seventy poems featured in Paul’s The Regulars is not only an example of the visual and aural quality of his work but finds an echo in Barlow’s Waiting for the Seventh Wave. Here is Paul’s poem:

the postman’s path
snail trails

Notice how each line has some sort of repetition — the repeated “cr” and “ss” sounds in the first line, the repeated “p” sounds in the second, and the rhyme in the third. Barlow’s book offers the following similar poem, also about work and snails, with the added humorous awareness of being slow and late:

late for work —
snail trails glisten
on the pavement

In Barlow’s book, too, we can see the effectiveness of what’s left out, where we fill in the missing guitar and butterfly at the ends of “midday silence / sun-highlighted fingerprints / on the acoustic” and “between shade / and sunlight— / cabbage white.” Barlow effectively seems to remove a verb, too, from the last line of “train delayed / I watch the giant hogweed / over the tracks.” Somehow we know just what is meant by “chiffchaff / in and out     in and out / of the pine’s shadows.” And we understand the sexual intimacy that has taken place just before “winter evening … / the arc of her body / in the afterglow.” These poems strike a fine balance between saying too much and too little, and by withholding at least something, they engage readers so they supply not just implied words, but implied meanings and overtones as well.

Occasionally, maybe too much is left out. For example, I find myself unable to figure out the following poem. Nor can I begin to know what I’m supposed to feel in response, because so many of the words can be interpreted in multiple ways (especially “light,” “burn,” and “dipper”), creating an unhelpful ambiguity. If the first line is an idiom, it’s one that escapes me:

light on the burn —
the dipper

Britishisms are much less common in Barlow’s book than Paul’s. We see a “flat” (apartment) and a reference to a “crisp packet” (potato chip bag) in two poems, and a “loch” in another, but that’s about it. Perhaps one may conclude that Barlow has spent more time than Paul with American haiku, for better or worse, and the vocabulary, by accident or design, seems less uniquely British to American readers. Some may consider this a strength, others a loss. As with some of Paul’s poems, some of the vocabulary in Barlow’s book does nevertheless still challenge readers on occasion (but not because of being British). This is true in words such as “pipistrelles” and “rosebay willowherb” in a few poems, and in “early June — / the chack of a ring ouzel / and tormentil everywhere” (even if some of these words are unfamiliar, listen to their wonderful sounds!). We know that the “winger” in Paul’s poem was a soccer player (or “football,” as the British would say), but in Barlow’s “kickoff / gulls squawk / from the crossbar,” the poem could easily be about American football, even if it’s most likely soccer.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, Barlow’s poems seem to have made more of an effort to cross the Atlantic, or to find a universality that’s less geocentric. One could ask if this takes the color out of them, or if they have traded one color for another. Americans may find much pleasure in the British content and unique vocabulary in Paul’s poems, and there’s less of that local distinctiveness in Barlow’s poems. Instead, Barlow provides what may be a broader accessibility in a number of standout haiku:

train delays
for the fifth day now
the dead fieldmouse

banks of cloud
wind ruffles white patches
on the tree-top crow

dripping oars —
the merganser’s wing tips
leave the water

with eyes wide open
shooting stars

I love the humor of some of the poems, too:

early morning —
the cat’s tail
circles the bed

night silence …
beneath her head
my pins and needles

I find less startling (yet still effective) juxtapositional leaps in Barlow’s poems, but instead, many of them demonstrate a refined sensitivity for rhythm and sound. Listen to the “l” sounds and the staccato beat in the first of the following poems, the “b,” “d,” and “n” sounds in the second one, and more “l” sounds in the third and fourth poems:

March squall
the yolk sac spills
from a song thrush egg

spring dawn sun
behind the blind
buzz of a bluebottle

failing light
the last angler
leans into his cast

this morning
the squashed blackbird’s tail
a little lower

Notice how Barlow does not explain why the bird is squashed in the blackbird poem. He trusts us to figure out why, that it has been hit by a car or killed in some other traumatic fashion. It seems that the last life of the bird is slowly draining out of it as its tail lowers — both literally and figuratively. Since first noticing it the day before, the poet is still sympathetic toward the bird in the morning, and feels pathos in its lowering tail. It takes a fine sensitivity to notice this, and thus it is no wonder that Ferris Gilli affirms in her foreword that Barlow “continues to make a significant contribution to the haiku movement,” which I think is true not just as a publisher, but as a poet also. This is true not just in England, where Paul also shines, but in North America as well.

In the end, all you can do with fine haiku poems is to be silent and let them wash over you, or to wait for the poem’s moment of stillness if you are attuned to know it is coming — as is often the case with the work in Barlow’s Waiting for the Seventh Wave.

we fall silent
the winter-grey river
swollen with rain

evening surf …
sandpipers waiting
for the seventh wave

Again, the production values in Snapshot Press books are truly stellar. Don’t let that fool you into assuming that the poems they feature are equally good. Rather, read them carefully to discover their character and freshness, so you can find for yourself that the poems are frequently as fine as the packages they come in. You will find this to be the case for Matthew Paul’s The Regulars and John Barlow’s Waiting for the Seventh Wave — each with distinctive poems that reward multiple readings.

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