A Hundred Gourds 4:4 September 2015

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39 Haiku -- Robert Kania

reviewed by Rob Scott

book cover

39 Haikuby Robert Kania
bilingual: Polish and English
Kontekst Publishing House , Poznan 2015
paperback: 56 pages, Papier ecrie Alto, 120 x 200 mm
ISBN 978-83-62564-94-1
price: 9 USD / 8 EURO / 6 GBP (including shipping)
by PayPal to: robert dot kania at gazeta dot pl

An old buddy of mine, quite some time ago, once described the process of writing haiku as akin to trying to wrestle an elephant into a jam jar. At the time, I took this to be in reference to haiku’s relentless pursuit of brevity. But over time, I realised that it hinted at something more about the intent of haiku, beyond the three lines, the pithiness, the cleverness. It was that haiku was attempting to say something ‘big’ in as few words as possible. A description which, arguably, could be adopted as the mantra of Gendai Haiku. Robert Kania's first collection of haiku, 39 haiku, whilst not being a treatise in 'big ideas', is an outline of even bigger ones.

Consider the opening haiku:

a sandstorm ...
only in the hourglass

This took me immediately (figuratively and almost literally) to the elephant and the jam jar. Kania is trying to say something big here. I have read his book several times, a book filled with universalities and unexpected discoveries with multiple shifts in content and rhythm. It contains poems about the natural and human worlds in equal measure. But it is this opening poem - and the one I kept coming back to - which connects the tumult of a natural phenomenon with the turbulence of our daily lives, and combines Kania’s central concerns in this collection in dramatic fashion.

There are several other poems in the collection containing the substantial force of Kania's explorations into human relationships, perhaps none more than this one:

the loss
a mother listens for
her son's breath

It is hard to pigeon-hole Kania. His style is elusive and roaming. Free. There is no particular theme running through the collection, although a good portion of the pages are filled with reflections of dreams and memories:
a paper kite –
my first dream
about flying
olives –
my summer memories
from a jar
In the afterword to 39 haiku, a letter to Kania is penned by Polish academic (specialising in Japanese poetics), Agnieszka Zulawska-Umeda, in which she paraphrases Japanese novelist and playwright Inoue Hisashi’s musings on the poetic principles of Buddhist sermons, and suggests that Hisashi is ‘talking’ to Kania in the same way as his ponderings echoed the teachings of the haikai school of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) :

“Easily about things difficult, deeply about things easy, amusingly about things deep, seriously about things amusing.”

Zulawska-Umeda is an obvious devotee of the Japanese classics and draws comparisons between Kania’s work to Basho and Buson. She is impressed with Kania's simple animation, annotating her commendation by recounting one of Buson's most renowned haiku:

swallow the clouds
spew out the petals
Yoshino Hills

a haiku which Kania might have had in mind when he wrote;

billowing clouds
over the desert –
a dream

And there are other poems which make us sit up and take notice of Kania’s ability to sketch, if not Buson-esque, then Cezanne-like imagery:

the river overflowed
and once again
fish in tomatoes

There is a knowingness about Kania’s writing. I think he knows what works. Or what can work. And when he puts it all together, it packs a punch, rendering the reader vulnerable, oblivious and tender. Connected and disconnected at the same time. This is what haiku can do. These are the big ideas that haiku, and Kania, can deal with. But these hard-edged moments are interspersed with the comparative ‘fluffiness’ of everyday relationships, which, at times, gives the book a slightly unbalanced feel.

39 haiku presents us with a perfectly ‘nowadays’ illustration of the freedom of haiku, moving as it does from the gently allegorical to the deadly-real and testing Kania’s commitment to the form. Kania’s haiku are quite deliberately non-traditional and Zulawska-Umeda is right to question whether Kania’s ‘outlines of beauty’ will stand the test of time. But the same question might be asked of every haiku poet in the world. Robert Kania is on the approach. I find comfort in that.

A minor criticism - all the haiku in the book are presented in Kania’s native Polish and translated into English. A few of the haiku could have done with sharper translation and suffer (albeit slightly) from minor grammatical flaws.


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