A Hundred Gourds 2:4 September 2013
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page 5    

A bird-loving man: haiku and tanka – Rodney Williams

reviewed by Lorin Ford

book cover

A bird-loving man: haiku and tanka – Rodney Williams
Cover and illustrations – Helen Timbury
ISBN 978-1-74027-800-3
Ginninderra Press , Port Adelaide, Australia. 2013
84 pp, 14 x 20.5 cm, perfect bound
Price: $22 from publisher

A bird-loving man is a poetry book to read right through at one sitting and to return to again and again. Perhaps this is partly due to the abundance of actual sequences, but the sensitive editorial sequencing of the whole over three main sections (haiku, sequences and tanka) contributes to the flow. A carefully chosen haibun on the theme of imminent birth to begin with and a tanka prose piece on the death of the author’s mother at the end serve as well-balanced bookends to the body of verse in between.

Rodney Williams is adept at subtly implying possible narrative threads whilst blending the natural world with human affairs, as in these consecutive verses taken almost at random from the tanka section:

this straight road
beyond the next ridge
out of line
first her question
then his reply

frosty ride –
beneath a roadside blackwood
on this slope
I place a boobook owl
made warm by morning sun

Australians will immediately recognise the accuracy of the reference to the endless straight roads in certain parts of country in the first and the tree species and the inevitable roadkill in the second. Behind the tenderness of the human gesture toward the dead owl here is the awareness that owls wait by roadsides to prey on small, freshly injured wildlife, risking their own lives.

Rodney Williams’ clearly observed and focused images, sometimes in juxtaposition with succinct personal reflections, allow the reader to draw metaphorical meanings from his tanka and haiku directly, unhindered by contrived literary metaphor or simile. Angling, we wait in suspense to see what’s hooked, to find at the final line that we’ve experienced the sensation of a dream vanishing upon waking:

the float
sucked below the surface
bobs back up
without a catch …
awake again too soon

The image of a swooping swallow and its reflection brings a personal recollection and reflection; the movement of mood in the poem swiftly dipping down into a recalled moment of emotional darkness parallels the literal movement of the bird:

a swallow
skims its own reflection
beneath the bridge …
recalling the night
when I too might have leapt

Not all of the poems are Australian-based. One gathers that Rodney Williams’ older sister, to whom, along with his mother, the book is dedicated, lived in America. Williams is as aware of the others, the animals and birds, that we share the earth with when he visits the USA, Canada and New Zealand as he is on his native soil. ‘Intensive Care’, one of two tanka sequences in tribute to Janet, begins with a raccoon, an animal which seems to occupy a similar ecological niche to the Australian Brushtail Possum:

on the garage roof below –
at three
in the morning
the hospital rings once more

All is noted, felt and accepted, even the somewhat startling note of what, in context, seems to be black humour:

her mother’s funeral
my niece hums
The Battle Hymn
of the Republic

The sequence ends with:

our last day here –
my younger sister
re-potting cacti
while I plant daffodils
in a time we’re calling fall

The effect of that final line is poignant. The experience of the death of someone close to us can be compared to being in another country where different terminology is used for common things. We adapt with acceptance, but with an acute awareness of the difference it makes to us.

Humour in Rodney Williams’ haiku is laconic and understated, the selected image suggesting the larger context, the season often implied. As a veteran teacher, Williams calmly watches the inevitable from the shore of a lake:

school camp –
into their own reflections
canoes capsize

The Ninety Mile Beach, in Gippsland, Victoria, really is an unbroken, ninety miles long, white sand beach. The whimsical thought occurs that this man and dog may have been walking a very long time indeed:

an old man
walking an old dog –
Ninety Mile Beach

It is the practice of graziers to get a group together to go up into the high plains to herd wild horses (brumbies) every couple of years, in Spring or Summer. The stockmen’s huts remain as shelter for all comers year round. Does the brumby in the following haiku snort by way of warning to the herd or in disdain?

stockman’s hut
by the high-plains track
a wild horse snorts

There is drama, too, in the normal round of farm life. Human activity in this haiku is indicated simply by a flickering lamp. The scene is filmic, portending the birth of a foal and the middle-of-night midwifery involved.

barn owl blinking …
a lamp flickers
in the broodmare’s stall

The tanka from which the book takes its title exemplifies the stance of the poet throughout: involved with the world of nature and with family, sharply aware of death within the context of life, feeling deeply but never telling the reader so and able to remain in states of perplexity and inconclusiveness:

a bird-loving man
in a house fond of felines …
our daughter’s cat
rattling the screen door
drops a parrot at my feet

A bird-loving man is a substantial collection which coheres remarkably well. In the haiku section alone there are 119 haiku. The poems never lapse into sentimentality or self-indulgence and never heavy-handedly coerce the reader. They have the unaffected but musical cadences of natural speech. Though there are an equal number of haiku and tanka in the sections devoted to these, when we take the sequences into account, tanka far outweigh the haiku. Rodney Williams’ tanka once and for all put paid to the myth that tanka is necessarily a more ‘feminine’ sort of poem than haiku. This is a carefully crafted book that will not disappoint, with the bonus of Helen Timbury’s lively linocut artwork for the cover and internal illustrations.

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