Wasp on the Prayer Flag

Wasp on the Prayer Flag (Alba Publishing, 60 pages) is a selection of the writing of Irish poet Maeve O’Sullivan from 2018-2021, momentous years, as it turned out. The first section of the book is divided into Seasons, with autumn leading the way and including this outstanding haiku:

first autumn storm
my balcony flags
still releasing prayers

The Haiku Sequences offers us the chance to travel with the author as she explores Ireland, a country that was on my to-do list – and with luck and science hopefully may still be.

estuary swim
on a rare sunny day –
this beach’s name means mouth

(from the sequence Kerry Dreamtime)

O’Sullivan’s quiet descriptions give me a good ‘feel’ for her places, which sound much like many I know in New Zealand. Like her, I have been rediscovering my own country and feel richer for it. One silver lining of restricted travel has undoubtedly been that we’ve all looked harder and thought more deeply about ‘near’, rather than rushing to tick off the next exotic surrounding of ‘far’. O’Sullivan is an experienced traveller – as detailed in her 2017 collection Elsewhere – and even manages a sweetly wry senryu about her ‘old life’.

bored with lockdown
I wear the sandals in which
I travelled the world

Finally, there’s a decent-sized selection of senryu, arranged under topic headings including ‘RIP’, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and, inevitably, ‘Pandemic’, the topic that’s had us all in its grasp for the past 18 months.

no human hugs
for seven weeks –
this silver birch will do

I’m glad the senryu were separated out as it allows the humour for which the Irish are famed to sparkle through here and there, even when addressing the bleakest of subjects.

after three funerals
hoping the tiramisù
lives up to its name

Throughout the collection, which is the right size to enjoy at one sitting (if that’s how you take your haiku) are, if you’ll excuse the pun given the following, poems that are breath-taking in their observation and depth of perception.

piper’s in-breath
released in a series of notes –
midsummer

Many of the poems have been published, or broadcast, previously. Pulling them together in this collection is a valuable, and sensible, exercise as O’Sullivan’s publishing credits show that her work finds a home in many and varied outlets, a surprising number of them print-only.

this little moorhen
navigating alone
canal walk

(from the sequence Holy Week Blessings)

Wasp on the Prayer Flag may be ordered through Maeve O’Sullivan’s own website, or from the publisher with whom she’s had a long and fruitful association.

Reviews: Moss & Austin

Two books from Australian haiku poets this time – Broken Starfish, haiku and ink paintings by Ron C Moss (Walleah Press, 2019) and changing light by Gavin Austin (Alba Publishing, 2018). Both are handsomely produced volumes.

I have long admired Ron’s brush paintings (and his haiku) so to have a volume studded with them is a real treat. With 131 pages of poems and art (all in one section), readers are given a decent helping of Ron’s work in his third major collection.

moss haiku

Ron lives in Tasmania where he’s been a longtime rural volunteer firefighter. He has recently retired from paid employment.

swollen moon
a playtpus swims
belly to the stars

almost home
a barn owl swoops
into the dusk

a firefighter
turns off his headlamp …
autumn moon

shading pencil lines
like my father taught me …
summer clouds

The layout is lovely – with one haiku per page, the poems have room to breathe and be themselves. Every time I dip back into the book, I find something else to like.

muffled voices
mother’s pin cushion
sparkles in the light

austin

Gavin, a resident of Sydney, divides his collection into five sections of varying length, the first three are elemental (land, sea, sky) followed by “Fur & feather” and “Life & death” with one or two poems on a page, again a good choice. My only niggles are that on a few of the left-hand pages the haiku are set too close into the book’s spine to feel comfortable  and that the vast majority of poems have a break after the first line. Neither of these things diminished my enjoyment of the collection, although the latter meant I read the book in bursts, a few haiku at a time, to stop the uniformity of style becoming a negative.

circling bushfire –
a slow death
of daylight

                       morning light
a school of fish suspended
                       between waves

morning drizzle
a wagtail shimmies
on the gatepost

leaden sky
the broodmare’s feed bin
heavy with rain

The collection draws on eight years of work and while the back page blurb claims the haiku are “unashamedly Australian in flavour”, the poems will pose few problems for readers in New Zealand. In reality,  there are many poems that could be set anywhere.

the pale scarf
draped from her throat
wisteria vine

There is much to be enjoyed here.

Elsewhere

Irish poet Maeve O’Sullivan set off on what she calls a ‘life-changing world trip’ in late 2016, visiting 13 countries on 4 continents – one of the outcomes of her peregrinations is Elsewhere (Alba Publishing, London, 2017, $US10; click on the link for other currencies), a collection of haiku, haibun and long-form poetry.

In her preface, O’Sullivan says of the decision to mix long-form poetry with haiku in her fourth collection, I also believe that haikai – haiku and related forms – shouldn’t be confined to a quasi-ghetto in the wider poetry world …, an admirable sentiment so here’s hoping the contents find a wide readership.

deep-fried pork:
I await instruction
on how to eat it 

(Japan)

maeve cover

Elsewhere takes the form of a travel journal, although this is no collection of dashed-off shasei (sketches from life) but rather a book that’s more in tune with the Basho tradition of travelogue, rewarding consumption in a linear fashion as we travel alongside our narrator.

Fittingly, it begins and ends at ‘Home’, opening with a haibun that could only have been written in Ireland (I found myself automatically reading the acerbic nun’s words in a Father Ted accent) and including the sweet haibun Closure about clearing out and selling her parents’ home after their deaths, one of the prompts for O’Sullivan’s extended travels.

fifty-something:
the birthday book of my youth
used for deaths now too

(Home)

Flashes of that humorous Irish voice are also to be found in the haibun Dateline Quito and Resettled and these haiku, among others.

an Irish lullaby
for the infant …
kicking throughout

(Dublin)

the tropical fish
that lived in my uncle’s house –
I’m in their tank now

(Galapagos Islands)

The book is divided into four sections – Home, West, East and Envoi: Back Home – and  O’Sullivan has helpfully titled her sets of haiku within these sections to allow us to place a pin in the map as we share the locale with her.

108kms to go          the mule and I share an apple

(Slow Camino)

How difficult it is to travel as a woman alone – at any age. And although not all her trips were solo, most were so my hat’s off to O’Sullivan for stepping out into the wide world, opening up her senses and experiencing everything. My interpretation, or perhaps intuition is, that she set off wanting to be filled with joy and I hope she found enough to have made the travelling worthwhile.

en route from Delhi
the monsoon has yielded
yellow mustard flowers

(Agra)

O’Sullivan was not only writing and editing as she travelled but, thanks to technology, also submitting pieces – and having them accepted for publication – thus giving her a solid core of work for a book by the time she was back in Dublin.

San Diego Bay –
its deep blue darkened
by an aircraft carrier

(Southern California)

rushing to lunch
I pass a homeless woman –
her sparkly sandals

(Colombia)

Elsewhere offers much to be enjoyed and, for me, contains only one tiny ‘flaw’ in that some of the em-dash breaks in the haiku seem to be in the wrong place but I wasn’t sure if this was an editing error or a deliberate choice:

viewing tower
in the rooftop pool below –
a lone swimmer

(Hong Kong)

To me, the natural break is:

viewing tower –
in the rooftop pool below
a lone swimmer

Elsewhere is well produced with three or four haiku per page on a nice weight of paper and the attractive cover image was taken by O’Sullivan at Kompukuji temple, Kyoto, Japan. Armchair travellers, those who have visited these places and those longing to get out and explore will enjoy O’Sullivan’s genuine and honest approach. She has done a grand job of using her fresh, traveller’s eye to bring us thoughtful glimpses of the people she met and the things she saw – and has gifted us the chance us to keep her company on the long journey from Home and back again.

***

I haven’t commented on the long-form poetry as it hasn’t been my field for a good while, but I did wonder why so many are rhymed – have they come back into fashion and no one’s told me? Quite possible.

Read an Irish Times article by O’Sullivan about her travels and the book.

Thirty percent of the profits from sales of this book are to be donated to environmental group Friends of the Earth Ireland.

Book of remembrance

I have finally got around to reading A Train Hurtles West, a collection of haiku by Irish poet Maeve O’Sullivan – and chose to pick it up on a day when I really needed distracting from my life, a ‘wobbly’ day in other words and one that had taken me unawares.

And right there, on the first page of haiku, she had me:

first anniversary:
we choose not to enter
the Garden of Remembrance

  • Maeve O’Sullivan, from the Remembering Father section

She has divided the book into small sections with only the title at the top of the page to let anyone who’s interested know that you’ve moved to a new theme – however, the poems are arranged so well that it doesn’t matter if you don’t pick up on a theme change. The seasons are there, but so are Interiors, Music and September Affair, among others.

May breeze
blowing this field of dandelions
to one o’clock

  • Maeve O’Sullivan, from the Spring Haiku section

                             9781910185124

Being Irish is to be born with a quirky sense of humour and that is evident in several poems:

Murano island:
an exchange of glances
reveals a glass eye

  • Maeve O’Sullivan, from the Fruili Dusk section

O’Sullivan’s assurance with the haiku form is contained on every page. However, if I have one criticism of Train it is that I wish O’Sullivan, a founder of Haiku Ireland, had edited the collection just a touch more tightly – there are a couple of haiku that are statements or that use three images instead of two. But it’s a minor quibble in a collection that hangs together well and is a generous helping of the author’s work.

first glimpse of the kingfisher changing the river forever

Maeve O’Sullivan, from the Birds section

The final section gives the book its name, with the collection dedicated to the poet’s mother, who died last year. As a book of remembrance for a life lived and for a life being lived with all its happiness and sadness, quiet corners and rowdy backdrops, flowers and birds, this will do very nicely indeed.

mother dying            a train hurtles west

  • Maeve O’Sullivan

Copies are £10 / €12 / $15 each, plus P+P, with 30% of the profits from sales going to the Rigul Trust which funds healthcare and educational projects in some Tibetan areas of China. See the publisher’s website for details.