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Book Review: tea’s aftertaste by Aubrie Cox

Lorin Ford

tea's aftertaste by Aubrie Cox
with graphic design and original pencil illustrations by Katie Baird.
Hand-sewn Japanese side-stitch binding, 48 pages (14cm X 14cm / 5.5" X 5.5") ISBN 978-0-9819591-2-2
Price: $12.00 plus $2.50 postage.
Publisher: Bronze Man Books, 2011
Millikin University
1184 W. Main
Decatur, IL 62522, U.S.A.

In his introduction to tea's aftertaste, Dr. Randy Brooks writes: "The significance of this chapbook is not merely the external recognition evident in the extensive list of journals and anthologies in the acknowledgements. The true significance is the many gifts of insight and awareness awaiting readers in her haiku. Aubrie's haiku are not in a hurry. Her haiku take time to breathe and to fully contemplate the things being observed or remembered. Her haiku understand that they come from the human heart, even though on the surface her images may appear to be merely objective."

The reader will benefit from allowing each of these forty haiku time to breathe. When reading Aubrie Cox's haiku I'm reminded that Bashō, exploring his concept of karumi, 'lightness', likened it to "a shallow river running over sand". I think Bashō knew his rivers, and here's a tip that might come in handy for wilderness survival: with that sort of river there's a lot more water held within the depths of sand than is visible on the surface.

Aubrie Cox's haiku are often humorous on first reading. I enjoy the 'double-take' response that they so often elicit:

day before Easter
I learn something
about my father

Could someone from the USA's Midwest (that part of America made famous in my part of the world by Bob Dylan's 'With God on Our Side') really be drawing a parallel between something about her father and the biblical events commemorated on Maundy Thursday, from the last Supper to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane? I suspect so, in this case. There is humour in the daring, in the disjunctive 'size difference' between the lives of ordinary people and those deified, then comes the tantalizing mystery of what's learnt about the father.

In the poem below, the quick shift of mood from celebration to deflation is comic: a quiet little glass of wine in celebration, the humour of family comedy relying on Grandma's loaded question, the author's nonplussed speechlessness.

first serial publication
grandma asks
when I started drinking

Yet what lies behind Grandma's question and her apparent disapproval? Possibly, the spectre of alcoholism in the family somewhere along the line rises to dampen the pleasure of personal accomplishment, or perhaps we are simply made aware of Grandma's need to take the author down a peg or two rather than share her happiness.

A surprise occurs within the quietest, most mundane of household tasks:

folding laundry
a sock
I don't know

Here the humour depends on the queerness of this use of 'know'. On the surface, it's simply an example of metonymy: the unknown sock stands for an unknown person. Beyond metonymy though, what is it to know socks? Is an underlying loneliness suggested, where people are known at second remove, through their things? Is this a despairing humour in the true clown tradition? The poem defies resolution.

Not only people enjoy possessions. We've all seen dogs devotedly carrying their ball on outings. So, what is it that makes this haiku more than simple description?

up the mountain
the dog brings
his own ball

For me it's the vastness, adventure and perhaps the difficulty of going up a mountain (leaving aside the Buddhist-related analogies) that makes the dog's action seem, in human terms, suburban and slightly ludicrous though endearing. Yet a dog bringing his ball is a happy dog, a dog that enjoys the game of 'throw and fetch'. On reflection, a readiness to play might be the just the thing to take up any metaphorical mountain.

Similarly, at first glance this next haiku might seem a well-painted scene, with the moonlight revealing rabbit tracks, perhaps in sand, perhaps in snow. Line two works as a 'hinge' or 'pivot', showing the simultaneous occurrence of two things:

moonlight filters
through the branches
rabbit tracks

It would be a lovely enough thing to reflect on. But is the viewer seeing rabbit tracks 'through the branches' or are the rabbit tracks themselves 'through the branches'? The scene is quiet and magical enough to allow for this latter imaginative possibility, in which case we might be witnessing evidence of a visit from the moon rabbit.

With a little imagination and familiarity with Science Fiction comics, we might find humour in:

distant galaxies
all the things
I could have been

…especially if we interpret the 'things' in a not very haiku-oriented way as alien monsters that we'd be thankful we're not. I can't dismiss this reading because it answers the often-heard moan, "What I could've been if only…". At the same time, I'm aware of the double edge and of the author's confessed love of ambiguity, as I open to awe and wonder at the extent of the universe and the possibilities of life that 'distant galaxies' brings into focus.

The chapbook's title is taken from this teasing haiku:

harvest moon
rises above the branches
tea's aftertaste

The harvest moon rising above the branches can be seen by all and reveals almost as much as daylight does. Some things remain hidden though: inside things, personal things. What could be more personal than the sense of taste? A lingering aftertaste is even more difficult to convey and anyway it depends on the sort of tea we've been drinking. What kind of aftertaste does the author mean? Koan-like, the poem answers in the only possible way: the aftertaste that you experience. That's the kind of harvest we gain from poetry, our own experience of the poem.

As I see it, attempting to categorize Aubrie Cox's work along traditional lines as either haiku or senryu is fruitless. I find that they are all in the spirit of haiku rather than senryu, so I've used that term throughout.

The production values of tea's aftertaste are excellent. I'm impressed, too, by how well the delicate and unpretentious illustrations in this chapbook complement the text.

tea's aftertaste is produced by Millikin University's wholly student-owned and operated press, Bronze Man Books, of which Aubrie has taken her turn at serving as senior editor. All profits from sales of tea's aftertaste go directly to the press, which continues to offer students hands-on experience in design, editing, and other aspects of publishing. For more information and some delightful photos of the book-sewing activities, please visit the Bronze Man Books website: http://www.bronzemanbooks.com/chapbooks/TeasAftertaste/index.html

Aubrey CoxBorn and raised in the United States Midwest, Aubrie Cox is currently working toward her M.A. in Creative Writing at Ball State University. She first began writing haiku in 2008 while studying at Millikin University. Since then her work has appeared in many of the major English-Language haiku publications and several anthologies.


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