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A Hundred Gourds 2:4 September 2013
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Review of Carolyn Hall the doors all unlocked


by Matthew Paul




the doors all unlocked by Carolyn Hall
Red Moon Press, PO Box 2461, Winchester VA, 22604-1661, USA
p.b., 102 pp., US$12 from www.redmoonpress.com
ISBN: 978-1-936848-16-4





As you’d expect from writer as proficient and prolific as Carolyn Hall, this, her third, haiku collection, dedicated to much-missed Peggy Willis Lyles, is packed with varied, high-quality haiku and senryu. Right from the off, Hall catches us unaware:

the table legs
uneven
first spring day


Here, the almost trite observation of the legs’ unevenness is rendered significant by the implied comparison with the change in seasons, when the weather and one’s biorhythms are more often than not unpredictable and, indeed, uneven; and by the irregular layout of the poem – long/short/long instead of the more orthodox short/long/short. Whilst a first glance at this haiku may lead one to put a caesura after ‘uneven’, a subsequent reading makes one realise that the second line can be read as a hinge, i.e. as a descriptor of both the nouns.

In another haiku, Hall uses synaesthesia to good effect:

telephoto lens –
the loon’s call
comes into focus


Of course, it is not the call itself that comes into view, but its source; and Hall perfectly and wittily captures that happy birdwatching moment when a lens alights upon such a source – in this case a very beautiful diver.

Hall is highly adept at traditional haiku, such as this:

chimney smoke
deep in the lily’s throat
autumn dusk


Here we have a perfect unity between the elements that make up this universally appealing crepuscular scene: again, a (this time more obvious) hinge line; a mixture of unmentioned but implied colours (the dark smoke merging with the colours of the lily’s exterior and interior and with those of the sky as it fades into darkness); a comparison between the chimney and the flower’s throat; the end rhyme of the first two lines; alliteration between ‘deep’ and ‘dusk’; and the assonance of those wispy ‘k’s in ‘smoke’ and ‘dusk’. In all, this is a timeless picture, beautifully rendered.

Hall is expert, too, at writing poems that achieve that fine balance between the haiku and senryu ends of what Dee Evetts once aptly described as a spectrum:

winter solstice
he takes our walk
without me

morning drizzle
the junk man collects
the last of her things


These are powerful poems by any standard; simply but superbly expressed. In the first of them, the kigo and the pronoun use underscore, and thereby enhance, the understated sadness of the scene. In the second – one of several fine poems in the collection that (presumably) concern the death of Hall’s mother – the five one-syllable words of the last line convey the feeling of bereavement far more effectively than any explicitly emotional vocabulary could have done.

Hall also has a tendency to write some haiku that are tanka-like, wherein a statement of mind or emotion, or an abstract noun or thought, is juxtaposed with (usually) an observation of nature. In the English-language haiku ‘world’, it’s an increasingly widespread, and rather aggravating tendency, I find, since too often the different elements seem like they’ve been thrown together randomly to see what happens when the dust falls. Here are four such examples:

I let him
remember it his way –
spring gust

I don’t know
a soul at this picnic –
         damselflies

altered memories
birdsong tugging
at the sky

how to sate this hunger winter sky


This is an interesting quartet of poems, but to my mind, they vary considerably in quality and effectiveness. As arguably the best, and best-known, of them, ‘I let him’ certainly has within its first two lines a knowing and double-edged – i.e. humorous but simultaneously serious – take on the complexities of a loving relationship that makes for quirky and attractive reading; but how do those lines relate to the other element of the poem? One could argue that any nature-based kigo could, without too much thought, be chucked in to fill the space of the third line without adversely affecting the allure of the first two lines, so why has Hall used this one? Well, of course, it could just be an accurate representation of Hall’s firsthand experience; but the chances are, I suspect, that she put an awful lot of thought into it. So far from being a throwaway addition, ‘spring gust’ was probably selected because: it is a short phrase that contrasts well with the long second line and mirrors the brevity of the first line; and, moreover, that the gust implies a comparison with a degree of hot air in the words that ‘he’ has just uttered.

‘I don’t know’ is less successful in that its out-loud expression of the protagonist’s thoughts contains a clichéd idiom and because the appearance of the apparently unconnected ‘damselflies’ makes the intuitive leap for the reader in trying to gauge the whole poem more difficult than might normally be the case. Perhaps it’s simply a matter that the protagonist is too shy to strike up a conversation with any of the strangers and prefers instead to focus on the beauty of the damselflies. One could argue that that open-endedness adds value to the poem. For me, though, it seems a little forced, as though the two elements of the poem are stitched together too loosely.

The third example is weaker still, with the non-specific abstraction of the first line set against, or in comparison with, an odd expression. Presumably the use of ‘tugging / at the sky’ here is shorthand for something like ‘calls down other birds from the sky’, but it isn’t clear to me. I’m all for the use of ambiguity as a tool in haiku when handled judiciously, but in this instance, as in several in the collection, the meaning isn’t sufficiently clear to engage me.

Similarly, ‘how to sate…’ seems too reliant on the reader projecting her or his own concept of ‘hunger’ – i.e. for food, companionship, love, sex, or whatever – since the poem steadfastly refuses to disclose its mystery; and that sense is only exacerbated by the nondescript presence of ‘winter sky’ that seems, but one cannot be sure, to be implying a feeling of bleakness.

Despite my grumbles regarding that tendency, the book does nevertheless have more than enough variety of form and content in haiku of genuine depth and excellence to invite repeated readings. I’ll leave with a couple of haiku that speak very eloquently for themselves, including one that exemplifies how the statement tendency can work well when expressed originally and insightfully:

dogwood blossoms
Mom’s ashes
lighter than expected

Dad’s forgotten
what I never knew –
fresh-fallen snow






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