Embrace of the Human Condition
Gallagher, D. C. the nether world. Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2009, unpaginated, perfect softbound, 4 x 6. ISBN 978-1-893959-81-1, 12 USD <http://www.redmoonpress.com>.
Frampton, A. a gate left open. Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2009, 72 pp., perfect softbound, 4 x 6, ISBN 1-978- 893959-85-9, 12 USD <http://www.redmoonpress.com>.
These two books are excellent productions from Red Moon Press, from the high quality covers, endpapers, paper and print, to the size of the books themselves, which comfortably allow one to three poems per page. Both are divided into sections that have on the title page very fine artwork by the authors—Gallagher’s involves haiga and Frampton’s ink sketches.The titles to each section are taken from a poem within.
It is Frampton’s first full-length book of haiku, while Gallagher’s is part of the Red Moon series that is devoted to honoring the memory of notable members of the haiku community. Gallagher was a poet and an artist, widely published, the recipient of many awards, an active member of the haiku community and highly regarded. She died on 17 July 2009.
Gallagher’s the nether world is carefully crafted. The poems within each section read together like sequences; some as if they are stanzas of one poem. The artwork at the beginning of each section is taken from a collage haiga by the author and the sections and the poems in the book work and flow together in the same way, each forming a part of a larger concept or whole. In such a book the lighter or weaker poems still work well in context even if they do not stand so well on their own.
a gate left open is not as carefully structured, although there are poems in every section that belong and work well together. Unfortunately, many weak poems are included; a more judicious selection by Frampton or her editor would have resulted in a volume which more accurately reflected her true ability.
A striking similarity in these collections is the fact that the poets rely almost exclusively on one rhythmic structure: one line, then two; short, then long. Thirty-four of Gallagher’s 42 poems and no less than 88 (give or take) of Frampton’s 104 poems follow this pattern, which does tend to be the dominant rhythm of most English haiku. In the nether world the editor arranges Gallagher’s poems so as not to have more than five in a row and with poems of different rhythms in between. In Frampton’s book there are so many poems with this rhythm that reading can at times become monotonous. If each poem is considered individually, this criticism does not matter; collectively, it most certainly does. Also, neither Gallagher nor Frampton makes enough use of variation in line length.
When I wrote reviews in the 1980s I repeatedly noted that many poets seem to get hung up on one punctuation mark and tend to use it excessively, if not exclusively; and inconsistently, if not incorrectly, although poets are not bound by “correct grammar.” Nick Virgilio in his Selected Haiku,  for example, used the colon in 88 of his 130 or so poems as well as in most of his one-liners in which it is completely out of place. For Virgil Hutton, it was the semicolon. And the most frequently (mis)used punctuation mark was the dash. Twenty years later nothing has changed. Gallagher uses the dash in 36 of her 42 poems. The rest are unpunctuated. Frampton uses the dash 35 times; the ellipsis 21 times and a few colons in her 104 poems. The rest, nearly half, are unpunctuated.
In haiku, punctuation, with few exceptions, occurs at the end of a line where the lineation and the rhythm already indicate the need to pause. Since they are such short poems, any misreading that might occur is soon resolved and any ambiguity can enhance the poem. In the vast majority of haiku, punctuation is redundant except for the ellipsis because of its visual and emotive effects, and the way it suspends the reader in the line. It can have a strong, if not powerful effect, but overuse can lessen its impact.
Most contemporary haiku poets, Gallagher and Frampton included, no longer begin their poems with capital letters or end them with periods consistent with the notion that a haiku neither begins nor ends yet they still make conventional use of capital letters in the body of their poems. Visually this emphasizes such words and it is ironic that the words most often capitalized are decidedly anthropocentric. Why are words such as “I”, “Grandma”, “Mary Janes” (a commercial product), or “Independence Day” capitalized when natural phenomena such as the sun, the earth and the moon, on which “so much depends” (William Carlos Williams),  are relegated to lower case?
Both poets write senryu but they never match the quality of their haiku, especially their best, and it is here you will find the weakest poems:
checking sell-by dates
the cone breasted woman
with a tight face
the band plays
Gallagher’s senryu reminds me of Paul Muldoon’s Hopewell Haiku.  It is light, mocking in tone and the moment passes all too quickly. Frampton’s is simply not a poem at all and there are a number of these.
Notwithstanding any or all of this, both poets can obviously write excellent contemporary minimalist haiku; both make use of all of their senses, Frampton in particular; and they are good to very good and occasionally excellent with language, image, lineation and rhythm, although Frampton’s use of language is occasionally awkward. Both are really good with sound, something that is quite rare:
expands in her palm—
the sizzle of summer peppers
in the skillet
Gallagher has one, one-liner which is one of her few objective nature haiku:
a loon calls mosquitoes from nowhere
This is a marvelous haiku (all summer), traditional in content, minimalist in style and her shortest poem. It has that mysterious quality and depth to it found only in the best haiku; that unspoken communication between things natural, including the poet who also answers the call of the loon and has herself come from nowhere. I am tempted to call this quality yugen although I am not certain if I truly understand the meaning of that word.
Frampton has considerably more descriptive nature haiku in her collection, which are difficult to do well and can be repetitive. A number of them, such as the first poem, are rather insipid, although the second poem is first rate:
in a wave
the Milky Way
after the rain
a snail unfolds
In the better haiku, the second line is pivotal and can be read with either the first or the third line. I see this poem on the cusp of summer and autumn, a time of change and uncertainty when things begin to reveal themselves in a different way; and, of course, an allusion to Basho’s famous poem: the rough sea — / flowing toward Sado Isle, / the River of Heaven.  Frampton’s is a perfect heaven and earth haiku: the vast infinity of the universe and the tiny finite life of the snail unfolding together after the rain. But unlike Bashõ, who sees himself as insignificant and alone in the cold expanse of the universe, Frampton reminds us that everything matters, everything belongs, and we are far from being alone.
Gallagher’s forte is the human condition and she is especially skilled at bringing us in to the intimacy of her life as if it were our own, as shown in this haiku about her mother, which contrasts well with Hekigodo’s (1873 -1937) haiku about his father:
my mother telling me more
than I want to know
Father had known,
didn’t say a word:
pampas grass in the garden 
Pampas grass (all autumn) is a beautifully ornate, tall, prolific and potentially harmful weed. The long slender leaves are razor sharp and can be bluish-green to silvery grey. The dense plume-like flowers are white and rise on tall white stems above the leaves. Once the season word is properly understood, the depth and quality of both poems is evident. 
In the last section of her book, “suspended,” we learn of her ordeal with cancer. The first and last haiku are the most poignant:
paper cranes suspended
on the solstice tree
New Year’s morning—
I cradle the egg a moment
before cracking it
There is great courage and hope in both, and a deep irony. The solstice is a celebration of the renewal of the light (life force) but also a time when we are suspended between light and dark. Further back in history some feared the sun would never return so the solstice for them was a matter of life and death. All cranes are in danger of extinction. The second poem is a profound acceptance of the way things are and at the same time life renewing: a kind of prayer. It is also a very fine poem on its own outside of the context of the poet’s illness and untimely death.
Many of Frampton’s poems also embrace the human condi- tion and in her own unique way. She was a pre-school teacher and some very fine poems emerge from this:
gentle rain . . .
apple blossom footprints
around the teacher’s desk
all the answers
in the back of the book—
What could be more delicate, more human, more full of life than a gentle spring rain, apple blossoms and the footprints of young children all around the teacher’s desk? In the second poem the humor is perhaps closer to that of the senryu than the hai in haiku but the season word reminds us that the school year is intimately related to the time of year itself. I see this poem as one of those haiku-senryu hybrids and richer for it.
I enjoyed reading and rereading both of these books; many of the poems warranted and needed to be returned to, and I will return to some of them again later. I look forward to seeing more of Frampton’s work and I will be sure to search out more of Gallagher’s.
1. Virgilio, N. Selected Haiku. Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press, 1989.
2. From “The Red Wheelbarrow” in Tomlinson, C. (ed.). William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems. New York: New Directions Books, 1985, p. 56.
3. Muldoon, P. Hopewell Haiku. Easthampton, MA: Warwick Press, 1997.
4. Basho and His Interpreters, Makoto Ueda, Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 260.
5. Modern Japanese Haiku, Makoto Ueda trans., University of Toronto Press, 1976, p. 71.
6. Pampas Grass – Cortaderia selloana <www.blueplanetbiomes.org/pam- pas_grass.htm>; Wikipedia <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortaderia_selloana.> Both accessed last on 6 Dec. 2009.