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Volume 37.1
Winter Spring 2006

book review:

The Silence Between Us: Selected Haiku of Wally Swist
by Wally Swist

reviewed by Bruce Ross

The Silence Between Us: Selected Haiku of Wally Swist, edited by Randy Brooks (Decatur, Ill: Brooks Books, 2005). 128 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2, perfectbound. ISBN 1-929820-07-0. $16.00 plus $2.50 postage from Brooks Books, 3720 N. Woodridge Dr., Decatur, IL 62526.

There is a Chinese saying (actually found in a fortune cookie) that goes: Ultimately, the world opens full of meaning before us. This saying resonates with what especially appeals to me in the haiku of Wally Swist, such as this:

deep bend of the brook
the kingfisher’s chatter
after its dive

Swist was and is an early great master of a haiku formulated within sensitivity to the reality of nonhuman nature in and of itself and belongs, at his best, in that circle established by John Wills, Charles Dickson, and Robert Spiess in American haiku. After so many years this haiku still speaks to me. Like the work of Wills, Dickson, and Spiess, one knows on reading a Swist haiku like this that this is not a poem mediated by literary conventions of nature haiku, Japanese or not. This is not an exercise in “birds and flowers.” Here,as I wrote in Haiku Moment (xxxix), is a “representation of the poet’s fusion with his nature subjects in what Bashô terms being ‘one with nature.’ ” Alluding to Bashô’s famous “Go to the pine to learn about pine,” I cited Bashô’s disciple Dohô’s interpretation “enter into the object, sharing its delicate lifeand feeling” (xxxix). Swist presents natural entities and natural landscapes, those primarily in rural western Massachusetts, through “a Taoist appreciation of the liveliness of the cosmic energy in all things [as in this wonderfully alive kingfisher] and in a Zen Buddhist appreciation of things ‘just as they are’ in their existential distinctness [Swist defines haiku in his preface as ‘discovering the epiphany in the commonplace’]” (xxix).

Swist’s preface, “The Poetics of Walking,” describes a kind of walking meditation, what he calls “psychic feng-shui,” in which he loses his ego and his “will dissolves into the divine will.” Within this walking is, for him, the center of haiku formulation: “the poetics of haiku … has always meant walking out into nature and having the natural world move through me.” So Swist comes upon the deep part of the brook where the kingfisher fishes and fuses with the essence of the kingfisher’s exclamation. He has produced what he has defined as a “successful haiku”: “the experience of an eternal moment, the numinous found in Nature.…” He gives his own narrative example of this process:

[W]hen I find the first starflower of the season in early May, blooming, as always, beside Canada mayflower, my eyes range up the slope. And I see another and another. It is in this opening of vision that the best haiku are created.

His “opening of vision” is suggestive of the “world [that] opens full of meaning, before us.” Another New Englander, Ralph Waldo Emerson, expressed it this way in the Language section of his essay “Nature:” “Every object rightly seen, unlocks a new faculty of the soul” (Whicher 36). If Swist is in this Emersonian mode of seeing — and I think he often is—his haiku often are revelations of essence, his “epiphany in the commonplace.”

Many of his important haiku, such as the one about the kingfisher, reflect nature in some active, almost animistic, phase:

stopping in my steps:
a bird who seems to know me
calls from the pine

the farther into it,
the farther it moves away —
spring mist

This bird seems to know him. The mist seems to be playing a kind of tag with him. An animist world? If these natural presentations are to register in his walking meditation and be discovered as, according to Emerson, a facet of his own soul, perhaps these “strange hints” from nature register the opening of the visionary state Swist seeks for his haiku.

In other major haiku, a sense of deep stillness predominates, often in a painterly crafted scene that reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings:

one broken pane
remaining in the shed
full moon

joe-pye weed
silhouetted in the sunset —
the heat

deep twilight —
the abandoned horse pasture
thick with buttercups

dawn mists rise . . .
the river bottom covered
with mud-caked stones

These haiku show the final stage of Swist’s walking meditations. He has, in Bashô’s words, become one with nature. The ego has dropped. Just what is there is shown, but what is shown resonates deeper and deeper as pure revelations.

Though this volume contains haiku on relations with his wife, homelessness, hospitals, and the like, by far the majority of the volume’s verses are of these quiet haiku. I think, also, these quiet haiku will be his testament.

Works cited:

Ross, Bruce, editor. Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku. Boston, Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1993.

Whicher, Stephen E., editor. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.


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