A Hundred Gourds 5:2 March 2016

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urban haiku – Owen Bullock

reviewed by Rodney Williams

book cover

urban haiku by Owen Bullock
Published in 2015 by Recent Work Press,
Canberra, ACT, Australia
84 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9944565-0-2
Print book, 13 cm x 20 cm
perfect bound
Price AUD$9.95 plus shipping
available from Recent Work Press

Even from a cursory glance at the cover of Owen Bullock’s new book urban haiku, readers could guess that the tenor of the poems awaiting them might not necessarily conform with more traditional approaches to English language haiku.

As designed by the book’s Australian publisher Recent Work Press, the background for the fold-around cover has distinctly urban origins: scratched, flaky paintwork over aged timber. Superimposed onto both front and back covers, a graphic image goes out of its way to defy expectations. Bearing the title ‘robotthing’ (as created by Luck Bullock), it shows a stylised humanoid figure which looks far more like an emblem for a piece of Science Fiction.

In keeping with developments in haiku across recent years in the United States, Owen Bullock makes his readiness to challenge expectations plain with the title of this collection too, promising a city-based focus that pays less attention to nature and the seasons, preferring to explore subject matter with a strong human focus instead, often couched in the senryu form. In 2010, the American haiku poet Barry George published a book entitled Wrecking Ball and Other urban haiku, while Michael Dylan Welch currently features urban haiku on his 'Graceguts' website. Flipping to the back cover of Owen Bullock’s new collection, one finds no summative blurb or quoted endorsement – rather, the only text offered is a single poem selected from within urban haikuitself:

bus stop
one homeless man
introduces us
to another

By no means the only poem about buses (or indeed the homeless), this choice of text lets the poet proclaim – from the outset – that his approach to haiku will not only position itself strongly at the people-focused end of the “nature versus human nature” continuum: he is also announcing that he is likewise committed to challenging expectations regarding poetic form with English language haiku. For this poem is not the only four-line haiku to be found within this book – there is a second one as well. Perhaps it is simply accidental that both of Owen Bullock’s four-liners happen to conclude with exactly the same phrase –

a lost duckling
from one pond
to another

Appealing to our sense of care for fellow creatures in moments of vulnerability, this second longer poem could be said to provide yet another instance of Owen Bullock going out of his way to challenge expectations. Not only might this haiku have been easily represented as a three-line haiku (if its middle two lines were joined into one): as in many other poems throughout urban haiku, Owen Bullock likewise feels no obligation here to structure his work in accordance with any sense of kire. Although there had been a clear break – without need for punctuation – between the opening phrase ‘bus stop’ and the rest of the four-liner featured on the back cover of his book, there is no similar sense of a cut perceptible within this ‘lost duckling’ haiku, even on a more considered reading (almost as if it were an incomplete tanka-in-draft, awaiting a fifth and final line). While its baby bird motif does give the poem a certain charm, the lack of any kind of juxtaposition reduces its chances of creating a greater level of resonance.

Along with those two four-line haiku, Owen Bullock includes a set of three one-liners within urban haiku, with the first of these exploring possibilities that might result from poetic form mirroring meaning: just as there is a solitary line of verse, so is there a single wagon-train of vehicles –

a line of cars follows the ambulance

While (again) lacking a sense of juxtaposition, this deceptively simple poem still succeeds in inviting us to speculate about a range of questions. Is there a direct and causal connection between the cavalcade of cars and the ambulance, or is the link random (under heavy traffic at peak hour in city conditions)? Have the other drivers got some vested interest in the well-being of the patient in the ambulance? Even an invasive prurience? And can the ‘line of cars’ be seen as symbolising a funeral cortege, as if the ambulance were instead a hearse? The second one-liner to be found in urban haiku likewise provokes questions in the reader’s mind:

intersection a child drinks the rain

This spare yet suggestive poem is strengthened by a shift in focus, from an urban-based location in its opening word, to a sense of humanity interacting with nature in its conclusion. With the reference to rain providing a kigo element in the process, this haiku offers a delightfully quirky suggestion of innocence and oddity that is clearly visualised. In a playful way this time around, the poetry again invites us to speculate: does this child manage to collect fresh rain water to drink by holding out a pair of cupped hands? Or is the youngster’s head and neck stretched backwards, with mouth left wide open, to catch falling raindrops directly instead? Either way, there is a sense of things coming together here: not just a pair of streets intersecting, but also a child interacting with the natural world in a city-based context.

The final one-liner from urban haiku might well resonate with those readers who can wistfully hearken back to their own days as tertiary students of the Arts:

in the pub misunderstanding Kant

This haiku connotes intellectual jousting in bars around campus (in a cultural sense, occupying very much a Western landscape, despite its Japanese-based poetic genre), with clarity of thinking clouded by excesses in alcohol. Perhaps the poem might see Owen Bullock as going so far as to link 'misunderstanding' with puns connected to various possible pronunciations of the famous philosopher's surname.

Readers who happen to retain no sentimental attachment to a campus-based lifestyle – especially as students of European literature and ideas – may find less appeal in a range of poems included in urban haiku. Like it or not, this rarified context is one of the main halls of residence which these poems call home:

in a margin of Proust
someone has made
a calculation

Indeed – some might sigh – the sheer mass of words (indeed, thousands of pages) involved in the twelve volumes and seven parts of À la recherche du temps perdu has already prompted the odd reader to feel marginalised enough to make ‘a calculation’ or two.

While others among you could well feel sceptical about the merits of reading-by-numbers, it is a striking aspect of this collection that – from the sixty-four three-line haiku which comprise the bulk of Owen Bullock’s new book – only five poems have breaks explicitly punctuated: making a clever play on words, based on phonemically similar words, yet another university-based senryu is one example thereof –

seminar …
he slips fascists
into fashion

Readers who have been teachers might be especially amused by the droll tone and precise observation inherent in a poem calculated to make all of us smile:

my student uses the word

Adroitly capturing an unwitting misuse of language – while gently mocking the sense of undergraduate pretentiousness which underpins it – this poem is emblematic of Owen Bullock’s approach to around half the haiku in his collection, simply implying a sense of break or caesura. One cannot help but wonder whether other standard three-line haiku of his might have been even more successful, had they likewise involved some form of cut or juxtaposition, even if it were inferred, rather than explicit:

a student
with duct tape patches
on his knees

While at first appearing to lack any sense of a cut in its structure, arguably this last portrait of a student becomes sympathetic on reflection, just as it was amusing upon first reading, through offering a thought-provoking ambiguity in its final line. Viewed in such a light, this haiku manages to suggest that the young man in question is not actually a figure of fun, due to his odd appearance, nor even that he should simply be applauded for his inventiveness in overcoming short-comings in his worn-out attire. Potentially the final line could instead be seen not only as separate, but also sympathetic, when at first it had looked like it was linked directly to what preceded it, even appearing mocking in tone at first. A more considered reading might convert the poem’s intended spirit from humorous or condescending, to empathetic, by showing the student as sadly so down on his luck as to be ‘on his knees’.

It is simply true – all the same – that some of Owen Bullock’s haiku (no matter how visually precise) could potentially be made all the richer, if only they incorporated a greater sense of “something else”, hinting at an extra level of feeling or meaning, connection or contrast, beyond the single-image limits of the poem as presented:

a guy on the bus
reading a blue book
called Anarchism

To round out our “colour-by-numbers” perspective on urban haiku, the poet has also included five two-liners, fulfilling Owen Bullock’s implied promise from the back cover of the book to experiment with the haiku form. Adroitly balanced around the skillful repetition of its key word, this closely observed and neatly phrased poem captures a sense of the world in complementary (if fractional) decline:

the half-eaten apple

For all of its sense of urban context and formal experimentation, Owen Bullock’s urban haiku still finds room for spare yet suggestive nature-based haiku:

pied stilt
its hesitant

Traditional in more ways than one, and very much resonant as a result, this haiku evokes a moment of hesitation in the face of risk, showing the finely built wader in two colours as a pied – black and white – likewise caught in two minds. Wary of danger, yet compelled to let its sense of hunger overcome its feeling of vulnerability, the bird dips its head in search of food, while reducing its own capacity to spot potential predators in the process.

Although some haiku included might leave more space for readers to “read between the lines”, in juxtaposition, the book’s publisher Shane Strange (from Recent Work Press) is still justified in asserting that “Owen Bullock’s haiku sequence urban haiku delivers a world with deft subtlety and cutting precision. Each of these poems builds on the last to deliver a strong sense of place and of people. urban haiku has an eye for the absurdities of contemporary life, as well as its quieter, less noticed moments.”

Truly a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Owen Bullock has moved quite recently to Australia’s capital city, in order to undertake a doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. Yet he had been born and raised in Cornwall, prior to living in New Zealand for an extended period: there, he held a range of significant editorial roles, most notably with Kokako, the only haiku-specialist journal from across the Tasman Sea –

Sydney airport
a huge Maori fella walks through
whistling Greensleeves

Acknowledging British cultural antecedents (while letting a love for music also show through), this poem applauds multiculturalism and inclusiveness on the Pacific Rim. A focus on air travel is a minor theme which recurs here and there across the rest of this collection too, yet the poet’s big-hearted sense of warmth towards other people – including the disenfranchised – is pivotal throughout:

old harmonica player
shaking his way
to life and death

Its preponderance of acute and charming senryu in particular ensures that urban haiku continues to reward re-reading, while reminding us that Owen Bullock – an experienced, confident, experimental practitioner in Japanese-based poetic forms – is every bit as much a student of humanity, as he is of the Humanities, as he is of haiku.


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