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).

John O’Connor 1949-2015

It is with sadness that I write about the passing of my friend John O’Connor of Christchurch, a leading figure in haiku in New Zealand. Read something of his life and about his work here.

John was an extraordinarily able poet and his appreciation of my work meant a great deal to me … although I was able to tease him after his judge’s report for last year’s NZPS Haiku Contest. In it, he wrote: “To go further [with your haiku] have a look at the Poetry Society’s website – it has plenty of excellent advice put together by Sandra Simpson, one of our leading haiku poets” … but he omitted to choose one of my haiku for the (lengthy) prizelist! We decided we were both red-faced, as he genuinely thought there was something by me among his choices. It was always good hearing him laugh.

obit page –
the face of an old friend
stares out

– John O’Connor

                        Looking back through mist – 
unable to see who passed.

– John O’Connor, after Shiki

In our last phone call just a few days before he died, we did plenty of laughing. I will miss his friendship and his kindness but, above all, I will miss the poems he had still to write.

Winners & a loser

Heartiest congratulations to my mate Vanessa Proctor, winner of this year’s NZPS International Haiku Contest with:

all that I am mountain spring

I’ve just finished reading the report by judge John O’Connor and right at the end he mentions my name followed by the words “one of our leading haiku poets”. Gulp. Thing is, I haven’t won a brass razoo in this year’s contest! No mention of any sort, except that fulsome praise. Bet you can you all see my red face from where you are.

So here’s an earlier one that has done well – winning the 2008 Kokako Haiku Contest. This haiku also appears in breath and is featured on the Katikati Haiku Pathway.

pausing also
at the sacred matai …
a wood pigeon

– Sandra Simpson

Matai, or black pine, is a conifer native to New Zealand. Read more here.

The wood pigeon or kereru is a beautiful bird, but is also a greedy and rather stupid bird that will eat until it can no longer fly which made it easy game for Maori and early settlers. Apparently it’s quite good eating, my grandmother (born about 1903) could recall having it in a pie when she was young. Some of the trees in our native forest rely on the kereru to distribute seeds so it plays a unique role in forest regeneration.

A kereru in a kowhai. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This link tells you a bit about the spot beside Lake Rotoiti that inspired the haiku.