Isabella Mori, “A Bagful of Haiku”

A Bagful of Haiku: 87 Imperfections (available on Amazon)
by Isabella Mori
Vancouver: Isabella Mori (2017)

Toward the end of the beginning of A Bagful of Haiku: 87 imperfections, the gloves come off. After wondering whether she creates flawed beauty, or things merely flawed, the author turns her attention to that bad joke running since grade school, now running on Twitter and Facebook and social media of all sorts. Anything can be a haiku, right? Just put it in that weird form:

“Today John is sad ….. and so, so very lonely ….. he’s also chilly” This shows the 5-7-5 structure, includes loneliness (even melancholy?) as well as “chill.’ But, unfortunately, it is not a good haiku.

‘Not good’ is not the same as ‘flawed.’ What is a flaw? The fly in the ointment, the 3% missing from 100%, a beauty mark, a limp, a missing button? A flaw is a difference noticed on a whole. John’s haiku is boring, clichéd, not cohesive, unskillful. It may be flawed, but it is not flawed beauty.

Mori wrecks a terrible, overplayed joke by simply invoking standards. To be sure, the opening of her book contains a lot of thoughts about haiku in an attempt to help readers better appreciate the form. But those ideas, while useful, do not entirely cohere, as they do not quite form a resonant picture of a world where people strove to be masters of making haiku. “Show, not tell” is somewhat set aside early on when the book attempts to frame contemporary practice. Rather, the tone of the opening apologizes. Explaining why and how any haiku were recently written, as well as notes sounded by terms like “imperfections,” “Twitter,” and even “moments,” makes the art feel something other than necessary. Regarding “moments,” Robert Hass once noted that in the haiku of old, three concepts central to Buddhist practice can be observed at times: all things suffer, all things are contingent, all things pass away. I am not sure you could attempt to understand this sentiment about human experience and the nature of the cosmos, one which more or less has defined religion for half the world for thousands of years, which informs individuals striving for compassion and Enlightenment, and then try to explain the potential value of haiku to someone who thinks “Haikus are easy / But sometimes they don’t make sense / Refrigerator” is poetry today.

When Mori turns the artless “Today John is sad” into dust, the book speaks with a force it did not have before, despite the strength of the previous poems. She speaks with all the power a poet has — her attention to the language itself. It is not a fair fight to put her against many who should know better when they try to go viral by passing a grocery list as a poem. — Haha, it was really funny the first 50,000 times, I imagine myself saying. Now show me that you’ve learned anything from anything you’ve read. — Mori, obviously, has no need to apologize in the least. She attends to her craft and has a good feel for what works. Most importantly, she’s eager to learn. The many facts about haiku scattered in the first half of her book put her education on display. She will highlight what she has learned, then show it immediately, illustrating with haiku of her own. It’s almost redundant for me to say that A Bagful of Haiku, whatever its imperfections, contains some very good poems.

Mori has built and now possesses a sharp poetic toolkit. For a demonstration, watch how she captures the drama inherent in motion. Two haiku she places side-by-side strike me as exceptional:

cat runs down the stairs 
into the yard, now that spring 
has opened the doors

chase that dragonfly 
down the valley up the hill – 
aaah, breathless rainbows

The first haiku, depicting a cat running down the stairs into the yard, features solid wordplay with “spring.” Spring, the season, opened the doors for the cat; the cat’s springing also sounds like a door opener. A Zen-like riddle about opportunity holds court in this haiku: if you don’t take an opportunity, is it really there? That’s my provisional reading; some might find it too New Age, but it has a practical use. People who beat themselves up over things they think they’ve lost would do well to consider that developing awareness is very different from complaining about not being aware before. This cat has a futural orientation, methinks.

The haiku has a sequel: chase that dragonfly / down the valley up the hill – / aaah, breathless rainbows. So the cat chases after a dragonfly and has nearly unbounded energy, leaping across the landscape. Mori’s speaker gets tired just watching; the result is literally breathless rainbows. The haiku has good balance and lightness. “Aaah, breathless rainbows” is a line I can imagine a number of poets trying to fix in workshop or sweating profusely over. Here, it’s properly ridiculous, suitable for the subject matter, advancing a picture of the poet at this moment in her life. Let these cats run out of energy, I suspect, is a sentiment that can be taken several ways.

Mori’s knowledge of the tradition underlying haiku shows all throughout this small volume. She offers essays in the second part of her book that detail poems, figures, and debates which have informed her practice; her section on kireji I found very useful. The first of those essays might be thought to take issue with my invocation of Hass above. Still, to get the most out of this book, I cannot recommend enough a read through of Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku. It’s not that Mori is inaccessible — far from it. But there are many times she’s doing far more than imitating the masters; she’s commenting quietly on how she’s received their work, how they’ve made her attentive. That she documents her daily life in haiku form, again, calls for more learning and context than one might originally assume. I recently started a book on Buson that treats his haiku like a diary. Poems which implicitly refer to that dark and cold when winter is about to become spring, for example, would make no sense if not assigned something like a specific time of year. Mori definitely has poems which call for as much familiarity and knowledge as you can muster. Her own essays and reflections are only a beginning.

As for this book, I eagerly await a sequel while I wrestle with her poems on the blog. There’s a lot to learn from A Bagful of Haiku, and its strengths show a real poet at work. She doesn’t need to explain her craft or its context. It’s up to us to keep up with her.

2 Comments

  1. Ashok, I’m finally taking some time to engage in a bit of conversation with you about this. First of all, thank you for the review. I feel honoured that you took the time to read this and to put your wonderful mind to it.

    One thing that interests me is that you imply a certain deliberateness in the cat and dragonfly haiku. Now I think it’s lovely that you find the interpretation that you do, for example in “spring” – the door springing open, the opportunity, etc. – but that was not intended. The cat haiku was indeed about that moment in spring when it’s finally warm enough to leave the backdoor open. Even the word “about” immediately strikes me as too much, because it brings a distance that the immediacy of haiku so often hopes to bridge. It’s, well, just that: The cat runs down the stairs and into the yard because the door is open, and the door is open because the weather outside invites it. The haiku form then does something magical with it – I almost want to say, it caresses the moment that the haiku poet captures, frames it in an aesthetic form, not unlike a photograph.

    However, as I said, it’s wonderful that you take that haiku and do your own thing with it; you provide, as Alan Summers says (here http://britishhaikusociety.org.uk/2016/10/reader-second-verse/) the second verse. There’s no great need for you to “get” what I “meant” because that would make it a simple two-step interaction. I’m telling you, you say you understand, case closed. How boring! I like it much better this way. Your many thoughts in your review are the second verse, and maybe I provide the third now, and we are off and back to the origin of haiku, the haikai-no-renga, where the haiku (then haikai) was just the beginning of a series of linked verses.

    You say the cat haiku has a sequel – but again, that was not intended. It just happened. I think that’s so important in art: to let things happen. To get out of my own way so that beauty and perhaps also meaning have room to grow, to show themselves, to invite others to participate. And yet this occurs in a form – the haiku – that certainly doesn’t follow the path of “anything goes.” This interplay between form and letting go, form and letting go, is quite a mysterious discipline, isn’t it?

    A smile of gratefulness
    Wafts across the continent

    1. Thank you for writing! It’s great to hear more about your process.

      It took me a long time to understand that the words are the intent, not the other way around. What took me aback when I first started writing is how some artists got really irritated by that.

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