Allan Burns. Distant Virga. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2011, unpag. perfect softbound, 4.2 x 6.5. ISBN 978-1- 936949-08-9, US $12 + postage <http://www.redmoonpress.com>.
The title of Allan Burns's first collection of haiku gave me pause; I hadn't encountered the term virga before. The Oxford English Dictionary informs me that this refers to "streaks of precipitation that appear to hang from the undersurface of a cloud and usually evaporate before reaching the ground." This phenomenon, I learned in further research, is especially common in the western United States, including the Colorado Rockies where Burns makes his home. Precise vocabulary delineating a specific landscape: Distant Virga is well-named, since it sums up the salient features of Burns's fine collection.
For instance: There are no generic "rocks,""birds," or "bushes" in these poems; there are (to name a few more words that this book added to my vocabulary) "K-T boundaries," "stonechats," and "cholla" (a type of cactus). In fact, I counted no fewer than fifteen species of birds in fifty-one poems. Sometimes the book reads like an account of a particular journey across a wild, high landscape with an experienced guide eager to share his knowledge. The images Burns conjures up are vivid and utterly convincing; we have no doubt that he saw these things, that he heard these birds calling, that he knows his way across these canyons, that the stars he names burned over his head at night.
the dipper's shadow
follows its call
a red-tail's echo . . .
the reservoir the color
of surrounding pine
a pinecone glows
in the campfire
There can be a danger in this kind of preoccupation with painting an accurate landscape in haiku. Some of the poems in this collection, although finely observed, don't seem to offer the reader much but a nice view. This is perhaps especially true of those that treat of the natural world without any reference to how it affects, or reflects, the inner or outer lives of human beings. It can be hard for a reader to get a toehold into such poems; they may evoke the dreaded "So what?" response.
a shrike returns
to the cholla
At their best, however, Burns's poems give the reader a sense not just of the appearance but of the meaning of the landscape. They connect our own lives to the lives of these rocks, birds, and trees. They shed light—sometimes in so many words—on our experience. The two poems below, for example, seem connected both in imagery and theme. Small creatures against the backdrop of a dramatic, larger landscape dappled with light and dark—this is how we seem to ourselves, this is how the world seems to us.
climbing in shadow—
the canyon rim
finds the creek
Burns's skill at placing humans in their proper place relative to the rest of the universe—no more or less important than any other natural phenomenon—is possibly a function of the Buddhism that finds explicit expression in many of these poems.
a willow reveals
the underground stream
the slow degrees
Here a deep source of sustenance is linked to the teachings of Buddha; the slow folding and unfolding of the human form in meditation is linked to the movement of the earth around the sun. These poems hint at the possibility of human beings finding, or creating, our own meaning in the universe.
It's worth noting in this regard that Burns brings the same passion for specificity to his references to human artifacts and history that he does to his references to nature. There's no "jazz" in Distant Virga, there is (Miles Davis's) Kind of Blue. No "roads," but bridleways and T-junctions. Names are named.
from a gnarled tree
ruins of the mission cast
the only shadow
It would be unjust not to mention the added dimension that Ron Moss's abstract black-and-white paintings bring to Distant Virga. Moss's images, which evoke a landscape that is large, awe-inspiring, and mysterious, and also somehow scaled to human concerns, complement Burns's poetry perfectly. Each is paired with a one-line haiku, many of which move away from the relatively traditional haiku poetics of the bulk of the collection. Some of these are the most memorable haiku here, and perhaps point to a new, possible path for Burns's poetry. It will be interesting to see what kinds of journeys this poet takes us on in the future.
black smoke of a—no trespassing—life