Postcard from Iran

Shiraz is one of Iran’s jewels and while in that city we visited the shrine of Khwāja Šamsu d-Dīn Muḥammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī, the poet better known as Hafez (1326-1390), an honorific bestowed on him after he learned the Koran by heart as a child.

Hafez wrote poems about love which, according to what I’ve read, are almost impossible to translate into English because of their inherent mysticism – however, he is one of Iran’s best-loved poets and people know his poems off by heart. A recording of a dulcet-toned man reading poems (in Farsi) that was being played over loudspeakers in the garden had a beautiful rhythm and I even caught a rhyme or two. (Hafez said of his own poetry, when questioned, that “my poems lift the corners of the mouth – the soul’s mouth, the heart’s mouth …”.)

The Hafez garden in Shiraz. The poet’s sarcophagus is under the dome. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden was busy with visitors enjoying the many flowering, potted plants and visiting the poet’s sarcophagus inscribed with calligraphy. We decided to take advantage of the tea-house in the corner of the garden … unfortunately, it was playing loud Iranian pop music. Bit of a mood shatterer. (Our guide told them they should be ashamed of drowning out Hafez poetry with such stuff – they turned it down a slight notch!)

Goethe translated Hafez and, after much study of the Persian’s works, said “Hafez has no peer”! There is a long tradition of consulting Hafez in times of need – even Queen Victoria is said to have done it – with a reader treating his books as an oracle and opening them with a deep wish from their soul for guidance. Read more here in a BBC Culture story.

The sarcophagus of Hafez. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I mentioned to our guide that Omar Khayyam is probably the best-known Persian poet in the West but she said in Iran Hafez, Rumi (1207-1273) and Saadi (c1200-1292) all rank above Omar Kahayyam (1048-1131), who is better known there as a mathematician and astronomer. Saadi, whose tomb is also in Shiraz, has a verse about the unity of all peoples from his 1258 poem Bustan inscribed on the United Nations building in New York – the opening lines are:

The sons of man are limbs of one another,
Created of the same stuff, and none other.

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A friendly free library

The Little Free Library movement began in the United States in 2009 when a Wisconsin man built one to honour his late mother who had loved books and, despite some carping by city officials in the Los Angeles and Shreveport areas, it’s still going strong. (I previously posted about finding one in Prairie City, Oregon, and adding my book of haiku.)

I was following the ‘5 Rules of Travel Photography’ suggested by ace Tauranga photographer Kim Westerskov when in Natanz, Iran recently:

  • Photograph what you came to see (the Jame Mosque)
  • Shoot context
  • Shoot detail
  • Shoot people
  • Turn around and see what’s behind you …
natanz-jamemosque

What we came to see: The portal of the Jame Mosque in Natanz is dated 1317 but the rest of the mosque mainly dates from the post-Mongol period of about 1450-1500. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I turned around and saw a red-and-white-sign on a wall announcing in English: Armaghan’s Free Friendly Library. Beneath the sign was a beautifully painted metal cabinet, the sort found in many schools and offices, that when opened contained shelves of books! Well done, that person (or indeed, business) and I’m sorry I can’t tell you any more about it.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

WordPress, by the way, is one of the several sites blocked in Iran, hence a lack of updates as I travelled.

John Clarke 1948-2017

I’d just pulled into a parking space about an hour ago when the terrible truth dawned – I was listening to someone (Tom Scott, as it turned out) talking about John Clarke in the past tense.

And they played We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are and I sat there with tears rolling down my face. (The lyrics were included in a ‘best New Zealand poetry’ collection a couple of decades ago.)

I never met John Clarke, but he did take the time to hand write a letter to a young fan after Fred Dagg took off on New Zealand television in the 1970s – I was 12 or 13 and he was only 10 years older, which means more to me now than it did then. Then, he was simply a ‘grown up’ like almost everyone else around me. Now, I realise he was only young himself and didn’t have to take, or make, the time to be polite to a child. But he did.

He hadn’t flown for years, after a bad experience, and so his adopted homeland of Australia got all his later work and charm. But he still loved New Zealand. Read an (early) obituary here.

Here’s a magically rural New Zealand medley of songs by Fred Dagg, John’s wildly successful comic creation:

Fred, in case you’ve never met him, farmed somewhere around Taihape and had six sons all named Trev. His first appearance on New Zealand television was in 1974 on what was the otherwise serious farming show, Country Calendar (still going strong today).

One of the peaks of John Clarke’s success was The Games, a television series also starring Bryan Dawe and Gina Riley as the slightly chaotic, cynical and inept team bringing the Olympic Games to Sydney for 2000. It was, simply, genius. Watch, for instance, the clip (4:56) where they work out how to solve a major political problem (the Australian prime minister at the time was John Howard) with a moving, and sincere, apology to the Aboriginal people:

John Clarke voiced Wal Footrot in the much-loved 1986 animated movie Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale. Footrot Flats comic strip creator Murray Ball died on March 12.

Keep your gumboots on and God speed, you two.

Recent publications

New editions of Kokako (26) and NOON: journal of the short poem (13) landed this week, plus I spied a hard copy of Frogpond 39.3 on someone’s coffee table the other night so quickly flicked through (a sampler of haiku from each edition appears on the website but, alas, mine weren’t among them).

Reproducing this haiku – on the second day the remnants of Tropical Cyclone Debbie have been pouring down on us – seems appropriate. (Thoughts are with those affected by landslips and flooding in the North Island and the full force of Debbie in Queensland, Australia.)

thrumming rain

the deeper sound

of rhubarb 

for RB

– Sandra Simpson, Frogpond 39.3

Bar-tailed godwits at Miranda on the Firth of Thames, New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Simpson

new year’s day –
black begins to inch up
the godwit’s bill

– Sandra Simpson, Kokako 26

We toddled off for a couple of nights in Miranda just after New Year as I particularly wanted to see the bar-tailed godwits that come for the summer from Siberia and Alaska, and that part of the coast along the Firth of Thames is one of their preferred migration spots. The Miranda Shorebird Centre has a hide and over the summer had a couple of volunteer guides there daily to chat and inform, plus share a high-powered telescope with visitors. One thing I learned is that as the males come into their breeding plumage, their bills also change colour, turning from mostly pink to mostly black with the change starting at the tip (they breed only in the Arctic).

I’m always slightly astounded that my work appears in NOON: journal of the short poem, it being a publication that favours the cutting edge and me not seeing my work as even a little bit ‘out there’. However, editor Philip Rowland often selects my haiku and two are in the latest edition.

wisteria in full bloom the rest escapes me

– Sandra Simpson, NOON 13: journal of the short poem

And, finally, a Senryu appears in the online anthology of this year’s Sharpening the Green Pencil Contest, organised in Romania. The poem tells it like it was.

new year’s eve –
a bare-chested man hollers
compliments

– Sandra Simpson

Goosey, goosey …

The latest edition of The Heron’s Nest has been published and includes this haiku of mine:

low-flying geese sunlight on every leading edge

– Sandra Simpson, The Heron’s Nest 19.1

This was a real scene that I laboured to get right, partly in acknowledgement of all the great goose haiku that have gone before. Here is just a small sampling of the many that I like (by the way, New Zealand doesn’t have migratory geese which rather puts us behind in haiku terms). I’ve posted the first two before, back in 2014, but still love them.

stopt to allow geese crossing some idiot honks

– Janice Bostok (1942-2011)

Alan Summers has pointed out (see Comments) that my original posting using ‘stopped’ in Jan’s haiku was incorrect. In White Heron, her 2011 biography by Sharon Dean, Jan says:

“Everyone tries to correct me … I actually used the old-fashioned past participle stopt instead of stopped because to me it sounds more sudden, and I didn’t want to break the flow of the haiku for too long with an exclamation mark. Somehow that stopt allows the haiku to read shorter and quicker… In using stopt I wanted to convey to the reader that I was very definitely stopped – firmly stopped. I even had the car engine turned off.”

the sound of geese through the crosshairs

– Melissa Allen, Modern Haiku 44.1

river fog …
the sound of geese
coming in from the sea

– John Barlow, Wingbeats: British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2008)

the first flakes of snow
drifting down the wetlands
Canada geese

– Billie Wilson, The Heron’s Nest 4.11

‘Wild Geese Returning to Katata’, one of Hiroshige’s Eight Views of Omi. Image: Wikipedia

somewhere
between bitter and sweet
migrating geese

– Michele L. Harvey, The Heron’s Nest 18.4

行雁がつくづく見るや煤畳
yuku kari ga tsuku-zuku miru ya susu tatami

the travelling geese
check it out thoroughly…
sooty mat

– Issa, written in 1807
from The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa

Translator David Lanoue offers this comment: The mat is a tatami mat made of woven straw. The fact that it is sooty implies that it belongs to “beggar” Issa.

River’s Edge review

River’s Edge by Owen Bullock (Recent Work Press, Australia, 2016).
ISBN 978-0-9944565-2-6. Purchase details.

A new, slim volume of work from Owen Bullock who is rapidly becoming a citizen of the world – born and raised in Cornwall (UK), has lived for decades in the upper North Island of New Zealand and is currently a PhD candidate in Canberra (Australia). 

Many of the poems in the book, which follows his 2015 collection Urban Haiku (Recent Work Press, read a review here), stem from his work in New Zealand as a home caregiver and are more properly senryu, although the author terms the collection ‘haiku’ in his brief introduction. (See Owen’s footnote 1 at the end of this review.)

“I was visiting elderly people in their own homes, which was far more meaningful. They told stories in which their wisdom shone through.”

Bullock is finely tuned to the daily struggles, humilities and joys of the end stage of life and these senryu are touching, without being in the least sentimental or demeaning to either party, and I heartily recommend the book on the strength of these poems alone.

on the piano
photos of the ones
who don’t visit

 

not good news …
he puts the lid back
on the jam

Caregiving must throw up many moments where both the giver and receiver need to grin and bear it (or bare it) and Bullock’s sense of humour doesn’t fail him.

massaging
my male client’s back
in a bloke-ish way

As it is, River’s Edge intersperses caregiving senryu with senryu on other topics and even some ‘maybe’ haiku – poems that have a nature focus, although often without a season word – leading to a somewhat jarring progression. (See Owen’s footnote 2 at the end of this review.)

However, knowing Bullock, I expect this ‘leave and return’ is an intended subtlety, a reflection of the messiness of life where our interests – and the calls on our time – are many and varied. This happens, then that and now we go back to this. After a week of caregiving he has mental space to observe nature, carry out a few chores, then it’s back to work.

fence wire
oscillating blue
the water drop

 

shopping for clothes
wanting to buy
what I’m wearing

Seen as a journal of a period from Bullock’s life River’s Edge becomes a more cohesive whole and, to my mind, a more satisfying read. The author however, offers no nudges in this direction in his introduction (so I may be quite wrong).

The book, which uses good-quality paper, features one poem per page, giving the words of each poem plenty of space to interact, both with each other and within the reader’s mind.

The collection is dedicated to his brother Brian, who died in 2013, and Martin Lucas, long-time editor of Presence haiku journal, who died in 2014. There is also a senryu dedicated to Christchurch poet John O’Connor, who died in 2015.

somewhere
in that mass of cloud
a few of your cells

And for the one or two poems I found myself unable to mine below the surface image:

wave lift
phosphorescent
moonlight

there was one like this on the next page:

ahead the pouring light

I hope Bullock will delve further into his caregiving work and consider a complete themed collection on the subject, perhaps including haibun, another form for which he’s known.

It would be an unusual – and I suspect valuable – collection, especially given Bullock’s eye for detail, his calm observation and clear humanity towards the people for whom he was caring.

dusting
her little vases
this is my devotion

Through his words they have been given a voice and it’s one I suspect they’d rather like.

Sandra Simpson

Owen Bullock writes in reply:

Footnote 1: I can’t be bothered distinguishing too much between senryu and haiku, but when I do try I realise that my definition of haiku is broad and takes in many pieces that others label senryu. To me, the fact that a piece is about a human being doesn’t make it a senryu, because we are also nature. It’s only a senryu when the poem gets into the mind of an individual and directly reflects human perception.

Footnote 2: I’m afraid I don’t and haven’t for a long time seen seasonality as essential to haiku. Partly this was because of my being from Cornwall and then moving to New Zealand, where I began writing haiku. Living in New Zealand, it took me many years to be able to consciously distinguish between seasons enough for that to be reflected in my writing – there simply weren’t seasons in New Zealand, it was basically mostly summer, and I still don’t countenance the idea of winter there (only when I lived in Southland and the pipes froze every day could I perceive winter).

Words that flow

I had occasion this week to paraphrase Martin Lucas, the late editor of Presence, while critiquing one of my own haiku at a group session, saying something like “I’ve made a weather report of the first line”, dissatisfied because I knew I was wasting the line.

Here is what Martin actually said, from his essay Haiku as Poetic Spell (click on the link to read the whole thing, well worth it):

The internationally accepted formula runs something like this (expressed here in 5-7-5 for my own amusement, though 5-7-5 is now outmoded as far as the arbiters of taste are concerned):

seasonal ref’rence —
then two lines of contrasting
foreground imagery

Seen in isolation, any one of these haiku can be impressive. Taken in quantity, the effect is numbing.

And towards the end of the essay, he describes what he wants in haiku: Words that chime; words that beat; words that flow. And once you’ve truly heard it, you won’t forget it, because the words have power. They are not dead and scribbled on a page, they are spoken like a charm; and they aren’t read, they’re heard.

Sometimes it does me good to remind myself of what I should be striving for, especially as the ‘dry’ spells become longer and more frequent.

This is not to say we shouldn’t use a seasonal reference in our haiku, just that they should be carefully chosen – the single-line ‘fragment’ carries just as much weight in a haiku as the two-line ‘phrase’; it’s not a throw-away scene-setter.

Here are some haiku from my bookshelf, ones that use a ‘weather report’ first line to great advantage, in my opinion. The first poem I shared with the group and it was one of those wonderful moments when everyone in the room reacted … by laughing.

mild winter day
the neighbour’s dog barking
till I’m hoarse

– Carolyn Hall
from Water Lines (Snapshot Press, 2006)

midsummer morning –
the dead tree’s shadow
stretches upstream

– Adele Kenny
from The Haiku Hundred (Iron Press, 1992)

outgoing tide
my mother’s togs
a year looser

Catherine Mair
from incoming tide (Quail Press, 2016)

twilight: across the lake
distant reeds take the shape
of a bittern

– Martin Lucas
from Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2008)

And to finish, an actual weather report haiku!

weather forecast
searching the sky
for an isobar

Jeanette Stace
from A to Zazen (Zazen Haiku Group) 2004