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Volume 37.1
Winter Spring 2006

book review:

Summer Drizzles
by Bruce Ross

reviewed by W.F. Owen

Summer Drizzles, by Bruce Ross (London, Ont.: HMS Press, 2005). 84 pages, 5.5 x 8.25, perfectbound. ISBN 1-55253-063-9. $15.00 plus $2.00 postage (North America) or $4.00 postage (elsewhere) from the author at PMB 127, 11 Bangor Mall Blvd, Ste D, Bangor, ME 04401.

Bruce Ross’s latest collection comprises forty-nine haiku, eighteen haibun and one haiga (from which the book title comes). The book is a compilation of prize-winners and previously published works. Even though readers will have encountered some of these writings before, republication is valuable in that it gives a context for understanding the poet’s broader vision. Collected works enrich the fabric of our discipline and should be considered as a project for us all.

With Ross being a past president of the Haiku Society of America, an editor of haiku and haibun, and a frequent contributor to all the major journals, I expected fine haiku. My expectations were fulfilled in some favorites:

blue winter sky
the little peck holes
up a pine tree

steady summer rain . . .
an old swayback farmhouse
by the road

Many of the poems reminded me of what William J. Higginson termed the “zoom-lens effect” (The Haiku Handbook 116). There is a shifting visual focus between blue sky and the little holes in a tree. Like a camera lens, our eye moves from the large blue sky to a focus on the “small sky” found in many of the peck holes — and back again. For me, an excellent haiku draws readers in and makes them active participants in the haiku moment, rather than merely passive receivers. These poems are not only reliant on visualization, however. The steady summer rain falling down, and perhaps through, the swayback farmhouse gives me a feeling of the physical weight of years of weathering. The language of that poem is as much kinesthetic as it is visual.

Each of the poems is printed on a page of its own, so the reader can enter into the haiku experience without distraction from other poems. The quality of the paper could have been higher, however. The bond paper quality of the book is disappointing. There is a crinkling sound as pages are turned.

Bruce Ross currently serves as coeditor of the annual Contemporary Haibun and is well published in this form of writing. The eighteen haibun included in the latter part of the book treat boyhood experiences, travels alone or with his wife, and existential Zen-like meditations. Most of the haibun are written in the familiar form of one or two paragraphs of prose with a single haiku ending the work. Three haibun are between one and two pages long. Ross has the gift of writing excellent haiku, so he has cleared the hurdle that some writers fail to cross as they strive to write effective haibun. I agree with those who write treatises and definitions about haibun: mastering the haiku form is a prerequisite to writing good haibun. There are excellent prose writers who lack haiku proficiency and some haiku poets who struggle with narrative forms. The haibun form poses a special challenge: to write vivid, creative prose — including in some cases metaphorical or stream- of-consciousness passages — juxtaposed with haiku that neither restate the prose material nor are so obtuse as to fling the reader into the far reaches of the universe. There should be interplay between one or more haiku and the prose sections such that synergy or a surplus of meaning unfolds. Haibun need to carry the reader to a multitude of other, sometimes surprising, fields of experience. The haiku often is oblique, yet connected relevantly, to the narrative.

In this respect, most of the haibun in this collection succeed. Ross paints beautiful images that draw the reader into a reliving of scenes. A few of the haibun, however, have haiku that too closely repeat ideas already expressed in the prose or are a bit too predictable for my taste. For example, the haibun “Lunar Eclipse”:

Lying on my back on the floor I look up through the tangle of trees to the last slice of the luminous full moon. All that crowded my mind to the brim this especially busy day vanished. And then the strange radiating burnished orange ball, so far away and yet so close in all its strangeness.

lunar eclipse
all of the stars
so much brighter

The haiku is a continuation of the prose rather than a springboard toward new possibilities of meaning. Still, Ross employs brevity and imagery skillfully in this and the other haibun.

The haiku in the book are stronger than the haibun, but taken as a whole the collection gives readers a good view of Ross’s life and range as a poet.

 

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