Forest House With Cat
By Edith Shiffert
I discovered Edith Shiffert earlier this year. I wrote a review of her haiku collection ”The Light Comes Slowly”, and posted her 100 Verse (Hyakuin) Renga from “A Return to Kona”. I have continued exploring Shiffert’s poetry since then. And I have come to the conclusion that Shiffert is a major resource for syllabic haiku poets. Her work, written over many decades, informed by a long stay in Japan, is beautiful, substantial, and inspiring.
Here I want to make a few comments on her haiku collection “Forest House With Cat”. This was published in 1991. “The Light Comes Slowly” was published in 1997. Both of them use the same large scale framework for placing the haiku: a calendar of the twelve months. Each book begins with January, and then continues on through the calendar months, concluding with December.
Each month is about six pages of haiku. This makes it possible to read one month at a time; each month is self-contained. The effect of grouping the haiku this way produces what I think of as a ‘haiku collage’; wherein each haiku could be read as a stand-alone, yet the overall effect of grouping them generates a picture or understanding that is greater than simply the sum of the parts, or in this case, the individual haiku. Sometimes the connection between two successive haiku is very close; almost renga like. At other times the connection is more distant. But the overall feel I get is that each haiku in a monthly series represents a brushstroke in a larger painting.
There is another effect from this kind of arrangement. Because Shiffert’s haiku are syllabic, there is a steady pulse as one moves from haiku to haiku. This underlying pulse is a felt unity that holds all of the images and observations together. You can’t get this in free verse haiku where line count varies so greatly from poem to poem. But when you place a series of poems together like this, where they all have the same syllabic contours, the reader naturally starts to feel the pulse, the rhythm, that they all embody.
I admire Shiffert’s ability to use formal haiku in a wide range of subjects. I am particularly fond of Shiffert’s haiku that encompass extended time. Here’s one from the Chapter ‘April’:
as though seen just yesterday –
but sixty years gone!
A clear take on how subjective the passing of time is.
Here’s one from ‘May’:
perched on the side of the lake.
A thousand years passed.
Here I think Shiffert is focusing on the feeling of timelessness we sometimes have when in the presence of a beautiful scene; we kind of shift into timelessness and an instant becomes a thousand years.
And here is one from ‘August’:
Becoming a rock
waiting ten thousand seasons.
I get from this an aspect of nature not often found in haiku; that natural forces and processes unfold over long periods of time. It might take ‘ten thousand seasons’ for a rock to become an actual rock. Such an observation puts our own human lives, of such brief duration, into perspective.
I am very fond of haiku that encompass what I call ‘extended moments’. They are not easy to pull off, and only a few haiku poets I know of have done it well. But when they are done successfully I find them very striking. The juxtaposition of a very brief form combined with the vastness of the time indicated can be highly provocative, in a good way. The haiku lasts only a few seconds, but the topic is an extended period of time and the intersection of the brief moment of the haiku when it is embedded in an understanding of time as vastness is rich in implications.
Here’s a final example of this kind of haiku, from ‘October’:
Flower patterned rock
with red dragonflies resting.
Once a sea was here.
Shiffert has plenty of traditionally themed haiku. Here is one from November:
Full moon brightness –
as though a frost were gleaming
on every surface.
And from ‘July’:
Almost dark but then
a cool breeze, the clouds turn pink.
Now a pale new moon.
And, of course, there are plenty of cats in this collection. One from ‘July’:
A leaf of bamboo
drifts down to the balcony,
the old cat bites it.
There is a delicate, deftly woven tapestry, an interplay between image-centered haiku, extended moment haiku, and more everyday haiku like the ones about her cats, or dogs, or haiku about old age. Each kind of haiku can be found in all twelve months/chapters. Because the placement of the haiku is done carefully the shifting from one kind of haiku to another never feels jarring; rather the effect is of an easy ride.
This is yet another gift from Shiffert to English language syllabic haiku. A well crafted, thoughtful, and lyrical collection of haiku poems, Shiffert has an assured grasp of lineation. Run-ons are almost nonexistent and her standard approach is to use natural grammatical divisions at line breaks. Shiffert also has a feel for punctuation and how it can assist in structuring a haiku. Many of her haiku contain two sections defined by full-stop periods. Shiffert also uses dashes, commas, and other available markers to good effect.
If you have a chance, find a used copy. I think you will enjoy it.
While going to sleep
remembering all the years.
The moonlight is cold.