Swamp Candles

by Jack Barry



(also by Jack)


What, more haiku? You might think that a world staggering under its own weight couldn't bear even one more "slim volume." Maybe it's because I'm left-handed, but I think that efforts such as these - solitary, slow, unpaid and barely noticed - can do more to lift to the world than drag it down.

Here is where I could hold forth on the necessity of honest literature, how humans need language to make meaning, how a culture as venerable as the Australian Aborigines actually sang their world into its very existence! If that seemed too far fetched I'd point out that to this day all we "modern people" are still dead dependent on words, which flesh out what would otherwise be a world of shadowy feelings and unnamed objects.

But this is just a little book of haiku. Haiku, of course, is the atom of the literary world, the smallest form that can stand on its own. Not only does that make it handy to write, it also makes it ideally suited for helping notice this blooming, buzzing confusion; haiku is for saying what is, before that moment disappears as if it had never occurred. So a book like this is a record of otherwise lost moments, and every lost moment, every fleeting interaction that disappears without notice renders our world that much less interesting, that much less vital, that much closer to being trampled by feet that aren’t watching. It is to this steady trampling - the ignorance, indifference, the scorn for life that is barbarism - that I address this book, enlisting the quiet power of haiku to help save our lovely little blue and green planet.

Of course, that's a lot to ask from such little poems. But I once read a book by Thor Heyerdahl about his expedition to Easter Island. Being a practical man, Mr. Heyerdahl was stumped by all those statues, some of which are forty feet tall and weigh up to fifty tons, dragged for miles and erected by people who'd never even heard of a horse. After much prodding he got a few of the older islanders to hint that they might know the secret, and one sunny South Pacific day they set out to show him what they knew. In full view of the modern, color-photographed world, those Easter Islanders managed to raise one of the fallen statues, using no more than a couple of long poles and bushels of little stones.

It was the little stones that got my interest. Using the poles as levers, the old men pried the block until it jerked high enough to admit one small stone. Then they heaved some more, squeezing a second stone beside the first, continuing the process for days, weeks, one small stone on top of the other until, at last, that long-fallen statue stood again.

The weight of human indifference is just as heavy as those forbidding faces. I feel it every time I squeeze into the morning traffic, hear the blaring radio, read the blaring paper. And yes, saving a planet's a lot to ask from a few tiny poems. But what do we have, if we don't have poetry? So please sit back, make yourself comfortable, while I take aim and toss out my first handful of little stones,,,

November '05

And here's a review of Jack's gorgeous haikus by Bruce Ross, member of the Haiku Society of America, from Frogpond XXX:2, pp. 76-77.

Barry, Jack, Swamp Candles, (Down-to-Earth Books, P.O. Box 488, Ashfield, Massachusetts, 413-628-0227. ISBN 878115227. 86 pp., perfect bound. Inquire with the publisher.

Writing haiku is not that human mind catches nature: nature has caught human mind.
...............................................................................................Akira Oomine........

The contemporary haiku master Akira Oomine has set up a standard for haiku in line with traditional Japanese thought about the form. If one were to examine most Japanese haiku published today, by far the majority follows such a definition. This a definition. This is not the case in contemporary American haiku while a majority of the non-Japanese world haiku follows the traditional line.

Akira Oomine cites Basho on what haiku is essentially; the way of haiku follows the revolution of nature, including human life and death. (Personal letter from one of his disciples.)

Although Jack Barry has apparently been publishing haiku for the last ten years I have only recently begun to see his work in major print and online journals. He is squarely in the traditional line of haiku; what he calls "a nature-based art form." He lives in the rural area of Western Massachusetts and his haiku reflect the agrarian surroundings there.

Haiku was formulated in an agrarian culture whose spiritual ideology was based on the revolutions of nature and their enacting agents. Look at a contemporary Japanese listing of annual celebrations and rituals for the truth of this.

So unlike the traditional tanka that centers on the mind (emotion) as does most other forms of Japanese poetry, traditional haiku is centered on nature (feeling). Nature is felt in some way by the poet. They are drawn in some way to feel a given moment. As Barry states in his introduction:

. . .haiku is for saying what is, before that moment disappears. . . . every lost moment, every fleeting interaction that disappears without notice renders our world that much less interesting, that much less vital, that much closer to being trampled by feet that aren't watching. (Introduction, p.1)

He is clearly disturbed by what he perceives as the mutation of American haiku into "yet another human-based reflection." (Personal letter from Barry):

Is he another extension of the Agrarian Movement in last century's American poetry or has he picked up the available path in the natural world that is the essence of haiku? Unfortunately, one would have to examine the whys and wherefores of American poetics (as opposed to haiku poetics), the post-modern condition, and the distinctions of thought, emotion, and feeling (and, dare I say, politics) to unravel why there is a question here or why such nature-based poetry is declaimed as reactionary.

But the keenness of Barry's openness in nature speak for themselves, many times in ways not seen in haiku before:

..............New Year's morning                              almost dark

..............starting the fire                                   .blinking snowflakes

..............with last night's coals                           I can't see


..............warm cat                                             thunder passes

..............sniffs the cold cat                                 without rain

..............coming in                                            waiting for you sunrise                                           the beaver's wake

..............the great blue heron's                           touches both shores

..............muddy knees                                        first drops of rain


Overall, the haiku in this volume are like this. And they reflect the developing of a fine nature-based haiku sensibility.

Bruce Ross


Click here to go back to the bookstore. You can also read a few more of Jack's haikus by clicking on the title of the book below the image.