Presence review

Sandra Simpson’s well-regarded haiku have been gracing journals around the English-speaking world since 1995, so this, her first collection is long overdue. It contains 87 poems, one or two to a page, that are divided into seasonal sections starting with spring, and 16 well-produced colour photographs, also by the author, that largely complement, rather than illustrate, the writing. Living as she does on the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s North Island, Simpson writes haiku that are sometimes dotted with Maori terms, not least for flora and fauna, but she’s equally adroit in finding haiku moments in scenes that could be almost from anywhere on this planet:

pausing also
at the scared matai …
a woodpigeon

hot night
songs of love
from the petrol station

The word ‘also’ in the first of this pair cleverly hints at the human presence that renders the matai (black pine) sacred. What both poems have in common is a fine balancing of meter – in the slow trochees of ‘pausing also’, the apt spondee of ‘hot night’ and most particularly in the anapaests of ‘at the scared’ and ‘from the petrol’ – and indeed the book as a whole is marked throughout by clear, carefully weighted diction, no doubt in part because of Simpson’s long career as a journalist. It’s unsurprising, then, that there are some real gems included:

one egg
rattling in the pot
autumn rain

end of harvest
we pull out the leaves
on the dining table

This isn’t the first time that I’ve singled out Simpson’s egg haiku for praise: why, then, is it so powerful? For me, it’s partly the inspired use of ‘one’ rather than the much more obvious ‘an’ – a choice that emphasises in the simplest but subtlest way possible the solitude of the unseen protagonist. The second line succeeds because Simpson opts for both the right verb (what other would have done half as well?) and the right conjugation: ‘rattling’ rather than ‘rattles’ – it isn’t always the case that the present continuous works best but here it undoubtedly does. The third line reinforces the downbeat mood, not just through the image but the sounds: the alliteration between ‘rain’ and ‘rattling’, and the assonance of ‘autumn’ with ‘pot’ and ‘rattling’. It’s a poem that is intensely visual and aural and which conveys an instantly perceptible picture and mood of an ordinary domestic scene – all expressed in straightforward language handled beautifully and with apposite brevity.

‘end of harvest’ also depicts a simple pre-meal scene, but does so through a clever enfolding (with the second line a syllable longer than the first, and the third line a syllable longer than the second) that ends with a pleasant surprise: the leaves being pulled out (probably for the first time in a long while) aren’t the leaves of, say, a cabbage, but those of the table on which a communal meal will be had to celebrate now the year’s hard work has paid off and all the produce is safely gathered in. Again, it’s a scene that could be occurring in many different places and countries. It could easily have produced an overwritten haiku, yet there’s nothing fancy at work here; just excellent writing that gives the reader the perfect amount of space to complete the scene her/himself.

Simpson’s enjoyable and attractive book demonstrates once again that there are some fine haiku writers in New Zealand whose work is well worth seeking out.

– Matthew Paul, Presence 46 (July 2011)


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