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Volume 39.2
Summer 2008

book review:

Ouch! Senryu That Bite by Alexis Rotella
&
Eavesdropping — Seasonal Haiku by Alexis Rotella

Reviewed by Paul Miller

Ouch! Senryu That Bite, by Alexis Rotella (Baltimore, Md.: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007). 184 pages, 6 x 9, softcover. ISBN 978-0-6151-6318-5. $24.95 from <modernenglishtankapress.com>

Eavesdropping — Seasonal Haiku, by Alexis Rotella (Baltimore, Md.: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007). 49 pages, 6 x 9, softcover. ISBN 978-0-6151-6201-0. $18.95 from <modernenglishtanka press.com>

I don’t personally know Alexis Rotella, but I suspect if I met her at a party I would spend the night across the room behind a potted plant. This isn’t to say that I don’t think she’d be entertaining company — quite the opposite from the back-cover testimonies of heavyweight friends van den Heuvel, Pizzarelli, and McClintock — but rather that one has the impression based upon her work that one’s slightest foible or spilled drink will end up as a poem somewhere.

Rotella is a talented poet. Taken from her thirty-year oeuvre, Ouch! delivers 500 senryu in a nice variety of styles. Her poems can be situationally funny yet still touching, and she is not afraid of puns, as seen in these poems respectively.

He walks on eggs
around me—
the kung fu master

Before going downstairs,
I adjust the stars
on my tiara

The nun
picks her nose—
old habit

There can often be a fine line between haiku and senryu, so fine in fact that some magazines rightly don’t bother distinguishing each with their own section, but the poems in Ouch! never get close to that line, giving us instead personal moments that are easily recognizable as classic senryu. As such, many of Rotella’s poems point out the oft encountered absurdities of life:

Next to the cemetery  travel agency

Because all ironies are not created equally poem-worthy, she can fall flat as in the following:

While the nurse draws
an old man’s blood,
he reaches for her breast

Don’t call me elderly
screams
an old friend.

However senryu, like any short poem, are a tricky business in large quantities. Being so small we tend to gobble them up quickly like candy. A collection of 500 senryu risks our wondering when our friend will tell us something real rather than yet another amusing anecdote. Interestingly, after reading a certain kind of poem more than once I began to wonder if Rotella wasn’t such a fun companion after all. I suddenly felt she was occasionally judgmental and mean-spirited. For example:

Pumping her own gas
woman wearing
Versacci

First class —
the flight attendant
forgot a corkscrew

Floating along
in priestly robes,
the pedophile

In the first poem she probably meant to spell the fashion designer Versace, but more importantly, the poem seems to be less an observation than the projection of an angry subconscious. Rotella finds irony in a perceived class distinction. It isn’t that the driver thinks she is above pumping her own gas — we and Rotella can’t know that — but that Rotella thinks she thinks she is. Likewise, in the second poem, rather than describe the real irony, which is first-class service without wine, she needlessly personalizes it — attacking the poor flight attendant. In the third poem, whatever your religious leanings, she uses too large a brush. On the plus side this shows us a real person behind the poems, always a necessary thing in my opinion, but I mention it to say that sometimes behind Rotella’s grin lie angry, angry teeth; although teeth she is not above using on herself.

Witches hat —
it was made
for me.

Rotella’s book Eavesdropping is a reprint of her 1982 collection Clouds in My Teacup with a few editorial alterations, and contains some poems that made it into Ouch! Of the two it is a quieter and better rounded collection because it contains poems from either side or both simultaneously of the aforementioned haiku/senryu line, which helps keep it fresh.

On a tombstone
lovers
laughing.

The questionable period aside, this is a wonderful poem that if read slowly surprises the reader at each step. A few more:

An empty persimmon skin
left on the plate —
Mother all alone.

First spring day —
tricycles gather
at the hilltop.

Filling my mouth
with moonlight,
then swallowing.

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