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Volume 34.2
Summer 2003

book review

Shadwell Hills
by Rebecca Lilly


Reviewed by Edward Zuk

Shadwell Hills, by Rebecca Lilly, with wood engravings by Frank C. Eckmair (Delhi, N.Y.: Birch Brook Press, 2002). 72 pages; 5.5" x 8.5" perfectbound. ISBN 0-193559-79-2. $16 from the publisher at PO Box 81, Delhi, NY, 13753.

Shadwell Hills is Rebecca Lilly’s first volume of haiku, and a fine debut it is. As I read it, the following string of adjectives popped into my head: thoughtful, subtle, calm, refined, philosophical, meditative, and graceful. None of Lilly’s subjects or imagery is entirely original. The haiku cycle through the seasons presenting the usual catalogue of plants, insects, and small animals, but her poems make you feel that they have been the result of long thought, and that no one has seen things in quite this way before. Take, for example, the following two haiku:

Evening rain—
the downrush of day
into shadow the plot

Autumn evening—
yellow leaves cover
reserved for me

Autumn evenings have been used as symbols of death in haiku since Bashô’s day, but the phrase “downrush of day / into shadow” and the picture of the poet confronting her own gravesite lend a feeling of freshness to the image.

The major theme of Shadwell Hills is death or, more accurately, the way in which Lilly comes to accept her own mortality. Familiar images of death run throughout these poems (evening, night, darkness, winter, wilted petals, fallen leaves, moths, vultures, graves, and graveyards), but they never feel clichéd or despairing. Instead, Lilly unveils an attitude that is Taoist in its simplicity, reminding us that the end of life is death, but also that in a larger sense Life and the cycle of the seasons continues in spite of one any one loss. The biographical note at the end of the book states that the author holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton, which may have contributed to the deliberative quality of the book. As I devoured these pages, however, I kept thinking of Lilly as a heir not to any philosophical movement, but to a literary one: the graveyard poets, a group of 18th-century writers who haunted cemeteries and brooded upon death in its various manifestations. When Thomas Gray, in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” visited a graveyard, his thoughts were similar to those that Lilly offers: a meditation on the inevitability of death and a willingness to envision his own mortality. Neither poet captures the pain, suffering, and sense of injustice that accompany death, but I suspect that most readers will forgive the omission.

The meditative quality of the haiku, it should go without saying, is the result of a long apprenticeship in English prosody. Lilly presents dozens of delightful images in this book, among them a “resin-scented wind,” “descending vortex / of vultures,” and pulsing “yellow throat” of a frog. Just as importantly, she is in command of a swarm of literary devices, including alliteration, internal and slant rhyme, assonance, and parallel structure. The thoughtfulness that pervades the book is the result of the control of language, which treads a fine line between being natural and artificial:

First autumn chill—
ivy clinging to the inside wall
of the stone well

Straight lines of rain—
faded names of the dead
in the slave cemetery

The slant rhyme connects the three images of the first haiku, and assonance highlights the key words (straight, rain, faded, names, slave) in the second. As Lilly reminds us, one cannot think deeply in poetry without also writing well.

Shadwell Hills is printed on thick vellum paper and is enlivened with wood engravings by Frank C. Eckmair. I can only hope that it finds the readership that it deserves.



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