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Book Review: Blyth's Spirit by Neal Whitman

Lorin Ford

Blyth’s Spirit, by Neal Whitman
40 pages (14.5 cm x 2.5 cm) semi-gloss cover
Price: U.S. $10, Can $14.95
Publisher: Haiku Pix Productions, 2011
11F, No.489, Tian-fu Rd.
30058 Hsinchu City, TAIWAN

Blyth's Spirit is one of the two equal First Prize winners of the 2011 Haiku Pix Chapbook Contest. With a nod in the title to R.H. Blyth and Shelley's skylark, Neal Whitman sets his poems out within the six categories that Blyth used in his four volume classic, Haiku, and adds another, 'Literary Landscape', for a haibun inspired by his work for the Robinson Jeffers' Tor House Foundation. He also provides an additional section to include comments on his poems by a variety of haiku poets, quoting Blyth's challenge:

"You are not to be a mere observer of literature but to play your part in its dynamic re-creation."
Haiku, volume 2: Spring

From his warm, chatty introductions to each section it is clear that Neal Whitman is in his element as an active volunteer in his community and a 'people person' who'd like to encourage everyone to read and write haiku.

There are eighty-four haiku in all, including those within the four haibun. Some are Whitman's early haiku, written in the first months after he became a member of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society in 2008. If asked, I'd usually advise fewer poems and more stringent selection for a chapbook, however all of these haiku take their place as part of the record of the author's haiku journey.

Many of the haiku are inspired by observations of his local area – the Monterey Peninsula coast, California. Whitman often makes perceptive use of Shiki's shasei aesthetic. Some of his best haiku feature strong juxtaposition of fresh, well selected images 'from life'.

beach storm –
in a sea of sagewort
one wild aster

This haiku demonstrates that our conception of shasei need not exclude the English language's natural propensity for metaphor: in context of a beach storm, 'a sea of sagewort' shows most economically the grey-green sagewort covering the dunes and the sea's waves, their one colour in the storm light, their convergence into a pattern of storm-tossed movement that dominates the scene. The effect is cinematic rather than painterly. The small wildflower, named from the ancient Greek for star, might indeed seem like a star "when only one/ is shining in the sky." (1) As it takes the foreground in the final line, it becomes the centre, the focus that composes sea, sagewort and storm – a small miracle.

A lunar eclipse is compelling to watch, but do we assume that we humans are the only ones who notice?

Earth's shadow
crossing the moon –
seals start to bark

I can't resist finding a humorous comparison with dogs barking at a trespasser implicit, though that's not all: the sound of barking seals emphasizes the silence of the eclipse and deepens the stillness of the night.

One of the haiku given in the book in context of the haibun about Whitman's activities for Tor House particularly struck me as a 'stand-out'. It's a 'stand alone' haiku, not dependant on the haibun context and can be contemplated in itself when extracted:

summer tour
the sundial in the garden
one hour slow

Sundials are the oldest way of measuring time and the most ancient of scientific instruments. Our ancestors learnt to divide the day into sections of time by observing the changing lengths and directions of shadows. A sundial set in an historic garden is an image of historical time. Entering the poem, we contrast this with our contemporary experience where, practically everywhere in the world but Queensland, we set our clocks, mechanical or digital, forward for the longer days and back again for the shorter days. It's a comic nonsense, of course, that the sundial is slow: the earth orbits the sun; the sun appears to rise and set as it has always done whatever method of measurement we use. The poem invites us to contemplate how humanity has observed process, measured it, called it time and become the efficient species, but to be alive in the present moment with all its seeming inconsistencies.

Gentle memories of the past are evoked by the sight of maidenhair fern. It may be that a comparison of the lightness and lacy delicacy of the embroidery and the fern is all that's intended, and that would be quite enough.

maidenhair fern
my grandmother's

It happens, though, that embroidering ferns and native plants was a popular evening pastime for women during the era between the turn of the 20th century and WW2. Young women made tablecloths, napkins and other household items in anticipation of marriage and having their own home. What were this grandmother's dreams when she was a young woman in an era so different from today's world? Did she later talk to her grandson about the fern motif in her embroidery, thus demonstrating that her inspiration came from the forms of nature?

Whitman is also capable of very dark, risky humour layered with its opposite, the tragic:

for my birthday
parachute lessons
the final solution

I'm sure everyone will recognize the loaded phrase here, indelibly associated with Hitler's extermination policy in Nazi Germany. A comical take on someone's idea of a solution to the problem of a birthday gift for 'the man who has everything' suddenly deepens into an evocation of the terrible deaths of so many in Hitler's concentration camps. A joking, exaggerated intimation that family must want rid of him to make such a suggestion collapses into contemplation of the tragic historical horror. A birthday becomes a reminder that death will come soon enough without deliberately risking life in extreme sports, but instantly extends beyond the personal. "No man is an island/ Entire of itself." (2)

"The reader gets the last word", Whitman writes in his introduction to the final section of Blyth's Spirit. I leave the last comment to another reader, Jerry Ball, a true gentleman whom I had the pleasure and privilege of walking and talking with when he visited Australia for the 4th Pacific Rim conference.

a yowling stray
the saucer of milk
iced over

"I've selected it for its simplicity. Nothing spectacular, just a brief statement of the situation. … No need for written explanation, the statement of fact is affect enough. No need for metaphor. Yet there is a trope, a turning. The saucer of milk is 'iced over'." – Jerry Ball, from Blyth's Spirit

There was a lot to fit in this chapbook: the author's introduction, a dedication page, a general introductory page on the seasons and a further introductory/ author's commentary page for each of the seven sections, along with the poems and photographs. The result is that the haiku, printed six to a page, are rather crowded. Even given the tight fit, more thought could've been given to layout and a way found to allow each of the haiku a bit more white space instead of having them all left aligned in single file down the page.

1. 'She dwelt among the untrodden ways' – William Wordsworth
2. 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' – John Donne

WhitmanNeal Whitman and his wife, Elaine, a photographer, serve as docents at the Robinson Jeffers' Tor House in Carmel, California, USA.

He is a member of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, Haiku Poets of Northern California and the Haiku Society of America. He teaches a free workshop: "Haiku for Everyone, for Anyone."

Combining Elaine's images and Neal's haiku, they work together to find resonance between the visual and literary arts.


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