A Hundred Gourds 2:4 September 2013
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A classic collection revisited: Mike Dillon the road behind

By Matthew Paul

the road behind by Mike Dillon, 2003
Red Moon Press, POBox 2461, Winchester VA, 22604-1661, USA
p.b., ISBN: 1-893959-37-6

Of all the haiku collections I’ve read and enjoyed over the years, few , if any, have brought me more pleasure than this one; in fact, I’ve recommended it to several well-known haiku writers and lent it to another, who liked it as much as I do. So what’s so distinctively good about it? Well, in a word: everything. The low-key cover, from a Barnett Newman painting, and lovely flecked paper are attractive in themselves before one reads any of the 72 haiku, two poems and one haibun in the book. The title hints at mellow, slightly sad retrospection and so it proves:

cold motel window:
faraway in the dusk
a softball game

This haiku on the first page exemplifies the Dillon style: crystal-clear description; precise and balanced language; and a colon making a shift of scene and perhaps of time, as if ‘faraway’, beloved of fairy-story tellers, refers not just to physical distance but back through the years to childhood. Dillon’s frequent, idiosyncratic use of the colon – only six of the haiku in the book go without one – marks him out as a haiku poet who follows his own path instead of churning out the same old homogenous pap.

It’s obvious from the subject-matter and expression of his haiku that Dillon is a reflective writer who cares passionately about his local environment: the book is rich in the fauna of the landscapes in and around Dillon’s home on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington: within just the first few pages, we have a cow herd, ‘migrating whales’, deer, osprey and this:

sunset shaft
pierces the cloud bank:
a foal bends to the pond

Again, the wording is as precise and satisfying as can be, with the colon emphasising the spotlight-like effect of the sun as it alights on the foal mid-action. Read aloud, the poem can truly be savoured for its clarity of image. At first glance, there’s not a lot going on here; but, as Doc Williams put it, so much depends upon it. Dillon insists on perceiving – and drawing our attention to – scenes that most folk would probably find unremarkable. It’s this ability that lifts the quality of the haiku in the book into the highest realms.

There are some (deservedly) well-known haiku in the collection, including this philosophical example par excellence:

I came here:
wind in the reeds

It’s a cerebral haiku, for sure; one that no doubt needed a good deal of thought as to the best form of expression, yet it reads so naturally that the reader is grabbed by the utter beauty that’s presented – the sound; the movement; the sheer outdoorsy sense of aliveness that this simplest of pictures conveys. That – as ‘instead’ implies – it’s an alternative to some other, much less rewarding, but unspecified activity gives the poem added power. Stylistically, with the second and third lines longer than their predecessors, it’s spare, daring and as assertive a statement as existential nature haiku can get.

And what of this?

the drunk on the dock:
a sweetness unwinds
from his perfect cast

Once more, Dillon takes a risk: that middle line, with such subject-matter, is entirely unexpected; and because of it the whole poem unreels in imitation of the action within it. Through alliteration and assonance, the first line relays the fisherman’s unsteadiness, so the triumphant splendour of his feat is all the more surprising. Using ‘perfect’ in a haiku might have been considered to be giving too much away, but here it’s natural and unobtrusive, not least because the extraordinary word in the poem is ‘sweetness’ – a choice of word that says as much about Dillon’s intuitive empathy as it does the picture he relates.

Including two poems and a haibun within a book that the cover says comprises of haiku could have been an exercise in vanity; with Dillon, though, it feels just right. Like many of the haiku, the poems hark back to how things were, to moments and friendships full of joy, and the haibun deals sensitively and passionately with history and nature’s cycles. In so doing, they round off beautifully this elegant and richly re-readable collection.

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