Light Comes Slowly
By Edith Shiffert
As I continue to explore the world of syllabic Haiku, I sometimes discover a work from the past that has faded from view. Such a work is a collection of Haiku by Edith Shiffert called “Light Comes Slowly”.
“Light” was published in1997 by Katsura Press. I don’t believe it was ever reprinted. The collection received the Haiku Society of America’s ‘Merit Book Award’ for 1998.
Shiffert was born in the U.S. but she moved to Japan in the 1960’s. She has lived in Japan, mostly Kyoto I understand, for decades. Shiffert married a Japanese man, Yuki Sawa. Together they published “Haiku Master Buson” in 2007; a superb collection of Buson’s Haiku.
The Haiku collection “Light Comes Slowly” is arranged according to the twelve months; there are twelve chapters beginning with ‘January’, ending with ‘December’. This is an effective arrangement, a kind of expansion of the four seasons arrangement often found in Haiku anthologies.
The writing in “Light” is assured and mature. These are observations on nature and the world from a woman who has had a long life and has taken all of her varied experiences, distilled them, and is able to communicate them to us. There is a sense of serenity in this collection that I find compelling.
Many of the Haiku are from the perspective of old age:
Our silly old age
makes every flower lovely,
every dog a friend.
Some are contemplative:
Be still now, be still.
See the sunlight on your hands
and on air, your breath.
Just now as we change
from one year to another,
I remember you.
Shiffert is self-assured as a poet, having published many volumes previously. This allows her to use standard English poetic constructions such as metaphor:
I feel my spirit
glowing in a dark forest
like the last red leaves.
I find this Haiku particularly moving. The metaphor is striking and points to an experience of inwardness that is truly mysterious.
There are themes that weave through the twelve months. One is that of old age. Another is her fondness for cats; quite a few of the Haiku highlight her relationship to felines:
Water in a vase
on the table, cat drinking.
The end of August.
Shiffert’s Haiku are syllabic, as the examples above indicate. The flow of English is completely natural, the images striking, and the way the Haiku link to each other as we move through the calendar year gives the reader a steady sense of flow and ease. Shiffert’s commitment to a syllabic approach to Haiku is intriguing to me because in other collections of her poetry most of the poems are free verse. But when she composes Haiku (and Renga, in another collection) Shiffert adopts a syllabic approach. This is another indication of her sense of self-assuredness and her strong connection with the Japanese poetic tradition, a tradition of formal verse.
This collection deserves to be reprinted, but short of that there are used copies available; I found mine at amazon. This is an excellent collection of poetry and an excellent collection of Haiku. I think it deserves to be more widely known.
In closing, a final Haiku from the collection:
The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches.