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Book Review: Nick Virgilio, A Life in Haiku

Lorin Ford

Editor, Raffael de Gruttola
137 pages (plus 7 pages preface and introduction)
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5; 137 pp
ISBN 978-0-9748147-3-5
Publisher: Turtle Light Press, 2012
Highland Park, N.J., 08904 U.S.A.
Price: $14.95

book coverNick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku will be one of the most welcome American haiku books to be published in the first half of this, the 21st, century. Several years ago, I attempted to buy one of the advertised remaining copies of Virgilio's Selected Haiku (1989), but was disappointed to receive no reply to my letter. That the work of such an important, pioneering haiku poet has remained out of print and unavailable to many of us who first became interested in haiku this century has amazed me. In producing this book, Rick Black's Turtle Light Press has addressed what I consider a major oversight, and does so with a significant difference: though many of Virgilio's most iconic haiku from his two earlier collections are included, most of the haiku in Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku are previously unpublished. This virtually guarantees that this book will also be in demand by those who are lucky enough to have copies of Virgilio's previous collections.

If from herein I slip into referring to Nicholas A. Virgilio as 'Nick' it's because of the excellent editorial decision to include, along with the poems, introduction by editor Raffael de Gruttola and afterword by Kathleen O'Toole, a memorial tribute by Fr. Michael Doyle, a radio interview with Nick, two short essays on haiku by Nick and also his 'Note to Young Writers'. There is a well-selected array of photographs to boot, all with captions about Nick. The result is that the book conveys a sense of familiarity, even intimacy, with the poet and the man. One feels his warmth, his avoidance of pretentiousness and his sense of humour as well as his awareness of the pathos of life, his devotion to family and to the local community. One also senses the depth of his commitment to writing and promoting haiku.

Nick's essay 'A Journey to a Haiku' makes no bones about the fact that his haiku result from a workman-like commitment to craft. In this piece he succinctly shows the development of two haiku he found unsatisfactory into one good haiku over much time and many drafts, and he does it in straightforward, sincere language that anyone can understand. He draws on both experience and imagination and has no qualms whatsoever of combining them until the poem feels right. His final version:

where cattle graze
   near the grassy battleground:
      the grave mounds of slaves

Such a tranquil scene… grazing cattle, grass flourishing on an historical battleground (a nod to Basho) but then the disturbing quietude of that last line. This is a discomforting haiku in a way that Basho's haiku are not. The layers of time, reaching back from the present to the American Civil War to one of the causes of that war, the abolition of slavery in the USA, are all present.

(Reader, recall that Virgilio wrote all of his haiku long before Haruo Shirane delivered his ground breaking paper, 'Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths' (2000). Clearly, Nick Virgilio did not buy into the 'modern haiku myths' that were to be later exposed by Shirane)

On reaching the last line, one is compelled to return to the first and realise that we rely on cattle as slaves for meat and milk, that underlying wars and battlegrounds there have always been motives of trade and that soldiers, too, are a sort of trained slave. There is a darker side to Virgilio's reflections that sets him apart from the typical American patriot. There is no cloying sentimentality in any of his war-related haiku, including those written for his brother. He sees things more deeply.

In the radio interview transcript, Nick again insists that "Writing is rewriting." He makes it clear that he couldn't write the many haiku about his brother who was killed in Vietnam until years after the heartbreaking news was delivered. 'This one took 20 years":

telegram in hand,
the shadow of the marine
darkens our screen door

At the time, Nick had intercepted the Marine who'd been designated to deliver the telegram and got him to go and wait across the street until Nick had time to gather his family and see them settled. He then gave a signal for the Marine to approach the house.

During the radio interview, after being overcome by emotion whilst reading a poem (not a haiku) dedicated to his mother, Nick cites a fragment of Wordsworth from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads : "I believe what Wordsworth said about 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'… ." I have no trouble believing that Nick truly believed in, identified with and practised that oft-repeated declaration from the Wordsworth/Coleridge 'manifesto' (which, in its time, changed the perception and direction of English poetry) and that Nick understood it in his heart, as a man and as a practising  poet rather than as a scholar or literary critic might. Nick also demonstrates, in his speech and writing as well as his haiku, that other central idea from the Preface: that poetry should be written in the "real language of real men" rather than in artificial 'poetic' diction. Ultimately, it is a line from Wordsworth's 'Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey', also published in Lyrical Ballads, that, for me, most characterises the achievement of Nick Virgilio's haiku: "We see into the life of things."

out of the water…
out of itself

after the bell,
within the silence:
within myself

the sack of kittens
   sinking in the icy creek
      increases the cold

hospital quiet
I enter alone at twilight:
the scent of lilacs

       - for Richard Wilbur


I've chosen these haiku almost at random, and could choose many more as examples. A few moments of reflection on each will reveal the depth of the 'life of things' that Virgilio shows in his haiku.

Of the haiku displayed on the cover of Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku, Cor van den Heuvel, in his 1990 paper 'Nick Virgilio and American haiku: Creating Haiku and an Audience', writes:

"…the 'unknown flower growing through the helmet.' That haiku was originally published in 1968 in Leatherneck Magazine, the official magazine of the United States Marine Corps. That is quite early in the history of the haiku movement, but what is even more interesting is that Nick wanted the poem to appear first in the Marine Corps magazine, not a literary magazine. … Nick was not afraid to take his poetry to the common man and woman, or the soldier and athlete, even the poor and uneducated–he felt anyone could appreciate haiku if they only would listen and be aware."

It's high time that a new collection of Nick Virgilio's haiku was published. As well as the excellent content and editorial arrangement of the poems, this book displays the high production values that reflect the care taken with every detail, which one has already come to expect from Turtle Light Press.


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