Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review of Graham Nunn's MEASURING THE DEPTH

Measuring the Depth, Graham Nunn. Tasmania, Pardalote Press, 2005. 60 pp. RRP: $AUS18.50. ISBN: O 9578436 6 6.

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

The biographical notes at the back of Graham Nunn’s latest collection of haiku and haibun, Measuring the Depth, state that he is “a Brisbane-based writer, current director of the Queensland Poetry Festival: spoken in one strange word ( and founding member of local performance group, Speed Poets (” Graham is also secretary of the Australian web site HaikuOz.

Measuring the Depth is Nunn’s second collection of poetry, his first being A Zen Firecracker: selected haiku. In this volume Nunn concentrates on haibun and also presents several pages of haiku that are consistent with his earlier themes. The haibun, with their crisp syntax, clear images and simple style, are mostly a page in length, and focus on a single personal event or impression, while one or two are somewhat longer pieces (2 to 4 pages) that combine narrative episodes in a kind of multiple-exposure.

Poets in ancient times were storytellers, as we know from Beowulf and other epics, that were recited by the poet at large gatherings. Story is also a feature of haibun, which is a Japanese form of poetry from the Japanese hai, from the word haikai, and bun – writings, which refers to the style Basho used in his travel journals. The device of combining prose with haiku, tanka or other forms of poetry enables the poem to act as a torque point, where the attention given to one small aspect of the narrative demands a greater attention as a contrast with the prose. Alongside the narrative of the poem, other frames of reference are allowed to operate. This is a feature of haibun that especially attracts the reader – not just the local situation of a poem, but the larger story, too, which may be obvious or suppressed. How complex, after all, are our stories? In Nunn’s haibun “Brisbane River Blues,” a “sax player lets loose with a melancholy blues riff.” In other haibun, the poet writes poems in a mall, a father and daughter play in a storm, a lover remembers first love. The details may vary endlessly, but the stories themselves – or the structure of these stories: beginning, middle, end - remains the same.

Nunn’s style derives from these personal narratives, but perhaps even more from his surroundings, the larger schemes he brings in to play in his poetry – the worldly material by which he measures his life. This dynamic gives his haibun its distinctive appeal. What’s fascinating is the manner with which he matches story and haiku, the larger narrative with its counterpoint “moment in time”, as in this excerpt from the haibun “Saturday Night for Poets”:

And I belong nowhere . . .
Scribbling madly to make sense of it all.

this poem
reading itself
city lights

Nunn uses a traditional and recognisable narrative method, using many of the story-telling techniques with which the reader will be familiar. We encounter real people: a sax player, busker, child, poet, father, etc. as they undergo dramatic events in their lives. Since his 2003 collection of haiku A Zen Firecracker: selected haiku, Nunn has won several awards and been instrumental in the oral and performance traditions. For him the telling of the tale is a delightful task. Just so, I have been delighted by his haibun – his tales of the ocean and beach, boats and fishermen, deep-sea fishing, the beauty of a Balinese village, city streets and moments shared with his children.

In the poem “Fishing with Dad,” for example, the dominant subject is the connection between father and son and the secondary theme is the way in which the various avenues of this relationship are explored:

Bruised and sunburnt we struggle onto the jetty. While we sort the fish the memories flood back. We shake hands and say “see you again,” knowing it’s unlikely.

in the car
the stories stretch
all the way home

The speaker in these haibun has learned to recall or intuit the most ancient of mysteries, especially those of mutual attraction, as we see in this extract from “Following the Rules of Trolleyology”:

She’s buying oysters . . .

down the aisle
eyes and perfume
. . . linger

Nunn’s suburban milieu is as well expressed as his superb natural settings. In “Howling”, Nunn rides his memory to the city streets where,

My friend flashes me his its-going-to-be-a-big-night smile. We order . . .

black with one
full moon
over Brisbane

but now that he has evolved into a family man and homeowner, a civilized neighbour and a father who enjoys playing with his son in an abandoned boat (“Going Upriver”); “Going upriver and the sweat is gathering on my brow. The high tide eating away at the sandbank, making the dune grass tremble.”

Both in syntax and theme, Nunn’s haibun are powerful. With his superb timing, his compressed narrative, as well as the clarity of his haiku, Nunn has deepened his portrayal of Australia. Such are the tactics and successes of his best haibun. Here is part iii of “Bali Sunrise”:

Another humid morning and I am up with the roosters, shaving the bristles from my tired face. The animal I have only heard has eaten the banana from my fruit bowl and left the black skin for the ants. The sky is hazy, depthless. Standing before the mirror I muse on my time here. I am a solitary Adam, in a foreign paradise.

far from home
a stranger cries
in the stillness

In this volume Nunn’s haiku focus on the here and now. They show us how marvellous life is, and not what we have been taught is true or think we believe is true. They are written from experience, not from beliefs or ideas. “Wet Season” is a haiku sequence that revels in the humidity, insect song and warm breezes of Bali:

leaving Bali
the wet season begins

The haiku that are interspersed between the haibun form a kind of interlude in which one can absorb the haibun before coming upon the observations and imagery contained in the haiku. In this volume many fine haiku sit together in a well-balanced layout. A couple of favourites draw me back again and again:

winter drizzle
my daughter plays
with last holiday’s shells

early morning
spitting the flesh
of the mango

Everything is pared down to the barest essentials, but the haiku and haibun move intensely through their paces to bring the reader an exact pleasure. Because the longer works are such carefully constructed pieces it’s impossible to quote from them fairly. I can only state my sense that they represent something bold and balanced, that they feel right and are very much part of his aesthetics.

Pardalote Press has presented Nunn’s poetry as it deserves. Measuring the Depth should establish his place of one of the foremost haibun poets of Australia, and this is a collection the reader will return to with increasing pleasure.

reviewed by Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand
first published in Stylus Poetry Journal, March 2006

No comments: