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Donegal Haiku by Francis Harvey (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 148-149 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0004

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Moya Cannon's introduction to The Collected Poetry of Francis Harvey describes Harvey as a "Bashō-like figure"—a particularly apt comparison, as Harvey's publication of Donegal Haiku is a remarkable collection of 122 haikus that pay various kinds of homage to his seventeenth-century predecessor. Sandwiched between two pages featuring a single haiku each, the body of the book features three haikus arranged on each of sixty page spreads, complementing the three line form commonly used for haiku in English. The book's symmetrical arrangement and intelligent use of white space reinforce the symmetry, beauty, and austerity of the form it celebrates.

The Imagist movement of the early twentieth century likely made a western audience more receptive to haiku's spare form and striking imagery, and modernism's general move away from the strict metrical form that had prevailed for centuries in the West would also presumably make the syllabic form a refreshing change. To say haiku is "syllabic" poetry is not exactly accurate; haiku traditionally consisted of seventeen on, or sound units—which westerners have widely and inaccurately interpreted as seventeen syllables, divided into lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Hence, Harvey should not be faulted for occasionally deviating from the syllable count; modern haiku writers do likewise.

Despite the timeworn caution about not judging a book by its cover, it is worth mentioning that Harvey's cover, featuring a stunning photograph of Mount Errigal with a reflection of Mount Fuji in the water (courtesy of the author's daughter, Esther), eloquently prepares the reader for the parallels between representations of Harvey's Donegal and Bashō's Japan. In one haiku, Harvey makes the parallel explicit:

Sleeping, I think of
Errigal and Mount Fuji,
The shape of my dreams.

Bashō's solitary journey from Edo to Mount Fuji, Euno, and Kyoto, during which he took in the scenery and the seasons, inspired him to modify his poetic form in response to the world around him. Likewise, Harvey's solitary hillwalking, through which he discovered the intimate connections between nature and himself, helped to shape the content as well as the form of his poetry. He has often averred that this relatively solitary life has taught him a great deal more about poetry than a literary life among his ostensible poet peers would have.

The essence of haiku is "cutting" (kiru), which is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark, much like the western caesura that signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related. Harvey demonstrates his mastery of the technique as he relies on this juxtaposition to highlight the parallels between nature and himself, as in

Five crows in a tree.
The wind ruffles their feathers.
The leaves of my book.

For the reader, these images that quickly cut both ways open up the resemblances between feathers and leaves of a book, and implicitly, between the leaves of a tree and the leaves of a book. Harvey's imagery is also grounded, here and throughout the collection, in nature, as the imagery of haiku traditionally was as well. The form is thus also the means by which Harvey expresses his quintessentially environmental sensibility, a defining characteristic of his oeuvre.

Harvey continually reminds his readers that human enterprises—often delineated as culture, and thus held as distinct from and even superior to nature—have their origins in the nonhuman world. Another haiku juxtaposes blossoming flowers, singing birds, and poems:

The bluebells blossom.
A blackbird sings in the grove.
Swallows and poems.

The recent field of "ecomusicology"—ecocritical musicology—examines the ways in which music and nature are related, and how music reflects, is related to, or relies on nature. Harvey's portrayal of the essential role of birdsong in human language demonstrates this relationship, and reminds us as well that poetry has its origin in song. And nobody sings quite like Harvey:

You planted a tree.
I wrote a poem. What more
could anyone do?

Copyright © 2014 The University of St. Thomas
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Donna L. Potts...

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