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October 2016, vol 12 no 3

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Book Review: Amanda Bell's Undercurrents, Alba Publishing, 2016

Bob Lucky

Amanda Bell's Undercurrents is a collection of 15 haibun and 14 haiku sequences that explore the geography of assorted Irish rivers and their emotional and psychological reverberations. There is currently a short print-run of a second edition with a select index of rivers, places, flora and fauna. (In future editions, a map would be nice.)

As with any collection of haibun these days, one could spend a good deal of a review exploring exactly what a haibun is. In a recent review of Undercurrents, Billy Mills, after the obligatory it's-a-form-of-mixed-prose-and-verse, notes that "It’s a highly flexible form that allows the poet to blend the inner and outer paths that any journey involves, and to seamlessly incorporate memory, history and immediate sensation into the text." This seems to miss the point. However, I do feel it is what many new to the form think, which leads to some fairly mediocre hybrid poems being paraded about as haibun. On the other hand, Dan Gilmore, the American poet, has enthusiastically embraced haibun, and his work is well worth a read even if it appears his idea of a haiku doesn't extend beyond three lines. Choose your battles . . . .

Bell does know what a traditional, if there is such a thing, English-language haibun is, and she writes some excellent haiku. In her preface, she explains that the haiku sequences in the book are "woven between the haibun" and are "variations on a theme, responses to some aspect of the preceding haibun." That last bit makes me wonder if the sequences aren't in fact part of the haibun to which they're attached. It's difficult not to read them that way.

Rivers are good symbols for journeys. Bell uses this to weave her personal journey with the paths of several Irish rivers (cf Mill's quote above). As life is known to change course, so the rivers in this collection include the relatively wild and free and those that have been diverted, dammed, and even forced underground. I wish more of the haibun had stayed the course with the interplay of rivers and life, the psychogeographical theme of the collection. Too often, the prose is mere reportage; it's unfortunate that the opening haibun reads like a school history report. The tone is flat. Nothing happens, and the prose isn’t strong enough lyrically to stand alone. The problem with many haibun that merely describe a landscape or recount a series of events is that the description tends to be exposition for a story that never materializes.

A sparkling exception to this is "Preserved." The first prose block contains beautifully descriptive nature writing. In the second prose block, 'the walker' in the haibun becomes personalized: "Bog gives way to stone, moss to gorse, cotton to thorn. By ear, I locate a mountain stream." It's at this point the reader has an emotional investment in the narrative. In fact, it's where the narrative begins. A few of the haibun in this collection are structured in this way: a block of prose exposition/description of a riverine scene; a haiku; a block of prose narrative, a personal tale; and a capping haiku (if we ignore the haiku sequence that follows). "Between the Bridges" and "Swiftly Flowing Water," a tale of a widowed grandmother's dog (minus the inter-prose haiku), follow this pattern. The haibun that more tightly interweave these strands – "Grazing," "Gravel Beds" and "Casting Off" (the only haibun not followed by a haiku sequence) – instead of chunking them are the more appealing to me.

Undercurrents was with me all summer and I read it front to back several times. I imagine I'll read it again, as I think Bell has something to teach us about the relationship between the prose and the haiku in haibun. I'm not keen on some of the prose. However, strong haiku carry many of these haibun. And when it comes to that occasionally elusive so-called link-and-shift, there's rarely a wrong note. This is a collection that bears rereading and study.

Here's the closing haibun in Undercurents:

Casting Off

The Callow Water Scheme in East Mayo frequently issues boil-orders. As a result, local shops do good business selling large, square two-litre bottles of potable water. These accumulate quickly. When my daughters were four and seven we built a raft by cramming the space in the middle of a wooden pallet with empty water bottles, and launched it in the Spaddagh River, a small spawning stream running into the Moy.

It was late August; the air was thick with seeds and midges and the smell of cattle. The raft soon ran aground on a muddy bank where livestock came to drink. In their matching floral bathing suits, the girls daubed one another with fresh green dung, and draped riverweed about their heads and shoulders, transforming themselves into naiads.

scent of meadowsweet –
swallows readying themselves
for flight

Amanda Bell, Undercurrents: A psychogeography of Irish rivers in haibun and haiku, Alba Publishing, Paperback, June 2016, 72pp, ISBN 9781910185353, To order, email: info@albapublishing.com.