After the Eclipse
Jack Barry. After the Eclipse. Ashfield, MA: Down-to-Earth Books, 2011, 72 pp., perfect softbound, 5 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄4, ISBNs 1-878115-34-0 and 978-1-878115-14-0, 14.95 USD, <http://spinninglobe.net/spinninglobe_html/allbooks.htm>.
This is a well produced book, Barry’s third, and maintains the high standard of quality set by most haiku publications. It consists of just over a hundred previously unpublished poems and, although Barry calls all of them haiku, there are around twenty senryu. The vast majority are written in three lines with one line and vertical variations, and one two-liner.
The formal characteristics of the poems follow the established norms of contemporary Western haiku; and there are one or two poems placed in the upper two-thirds of each page giving them the space they need to breathe in notwithstanding the oversized page numbers.
The poems are carefully arranged to flow with the seasons from spring to spring. Throughout there are sequences or narratives, repeated images and themes, related or juxtaposed poems on the same page or opposite each other; all of which add to the work as a whole.
Barry is good with language particularly sound, rhythm, cadence and lineation. In the three line poems he varies line length, although the longer middle line is, as always, dominant. Similarly, the short–long rhythm (one line then two), which is the most common rhythm in contemporary Western haiku, is the one he uses the most. However, there are enough poems with a long–short rhythm and other variations, such as the one-liners, that prevent the inevitable monotony that results when an identical form or structure is endlessly repeated. On the whole, the book reads well from cover to cover although the similarity in subject matter, mood and tone does, at times, become repetitive.
Around half of the poems are weak, light and/or familiar: too many in one collection and too many to be sustained by the work as a whole, even though in the remaining poems Barry maintains a high standard and a number of them are excellent. The problem is that he chooses to write traditional haiku with its long history to be measured against in which freshness, let alone originality, is hard to achieve; and he restricts the scope of his work by focusing on suchness (the thing as it is) as the underlying principle of his poems as if it were an end in itself rather than just one of a number of Japanese aesthetic principles that inform technique.
Regardless of the cause, too many poems are mere description, trite, obvious and momentary at best, such as these senryu: wedding day / wrinkles in the groom’s / white tux; boy Marine wipes a tear it was just the wind; almost midnight / circles under / the waitress’s eyes; straightening the picture / your crooked smile; or these haiku: a patch of blue / between clouds / the newborn’s eyes; daylight moon / the grazing cow’s / tight udder; screen door hangs open summer wind; empty chair rocks itself winter wind.
Barry writes senryu that stand well on their own but gain from belonging to a particular season, which means they can be read as haiku, and from being part of some narrative or larger context. This senryu occurs in the winter funeral sequence. Based on the preceding poem, it is a moonlit night at precisely “zero degrees,” the temperature at which water changes its physical state to ice but in nature tends to exist as both:
washing the body
dust floats in the empty room
While writing about dust floating in empty (winter) rooms and death may not be that original, the cleansing of the body, the third line with its touch of humour, the Biblical and Buddhist allusions with their metaphorical, symbolic and metaphysical implications, and the writing itself, make this an excellent poem. It has that deep mysterious ineffable quality making it an especially good example of yugen. It is also an excellent example of suchness since the poem is a pure physical description that gives rise to thoughts, ideas and emotions—although in this poem, as in most of them, Barry’s emotional responses are rather subdued—typical of most traditional haiku. Only once does he directly express his emotion. It is in the last poem in the book, a senryu, modern to contemporary in style, and preceded by three spring haiku concerning the arrival of spring, a boy on a bicycle and a newborn child:
still in love clattering silverware
Barry uses all but one of his senses (taste) in his images and often more than one in a given poem, which is all too rare in haiku; and this poem involves no less then three: sight, sound and touch. The poem also demonstrates his skill with sound. Although domestic love is a common theme and “still in love” potentially trite, this is a very fine poem and a fine ending to the book, especially since the poem is both a beginning (spring) and an end.
If we compare this poem with Alexis Rotella’s: Trying to forget him/stabbing/the potatoes,* we can see why it is more effective to make the reader feel emotion rather than to state it. Also, Barry never comes close to such intensity in his work and he never deals with the negative or darker side of things: both familiar criticisms of traditional haiku.
Despite the familiarity, sameness and detachment in his work, and the rather large number of failed poems, Barry is a good writer and it is the quality of the rest of the poems that make this a book worth reading. The following are some of my favourites:
water snake winds
across the whole pond
the catbird’s endless song
rain on new leaves
the homeless woman
holds out her hand
tiny bird tracks
the trickle deep inside
the frozen stream
two widows laughing
in the yellow birch
closing the garden gate
are already gone