Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

by Kirsty Karkow
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Due to digitalization and the ease of publishing today, poets are self publishing books at a record rate. Copies come across my desk at a steady current. The majority are unmemorable, some are appalling. Perhaps this is the reason books of Japanese short form poetry written by North American poets sell minimal copies. One well known small press publisher told me that a book of haiku or tanka selling three hundred copies is considered a best seller. It's a different story in Japan. Tawara Machi's book of tanka alone sold several million copies.

Part of the problem in the United States is how haiku is taught in the public school system. As a teacher, I've yet to see a textbook that adequately explains haiku and its rudiments.

Two days ago, I received a copy in the mail of Kirsty Karkow's new book of Japanese short form poetry, Shorelines. A fan of Kirsty's poetry, I didn't put it on my list of books to read later. The presentation was second to none and the people at Black Cat Press are to be commended. A good presentation is an invitation to open a book.

Karkow's book is a collection of superbly written haiku, tanka, and haibun. You see in them a respect for those who gave us the genres, and a skill that goes beyond the ability to craft a good poem. States Australian Haiku Society President Beverley George in the book's Foreword, "Kirsty Karkow's work demonstrates this respect as well as a contemporary viability that flows beyond the community of poets writing tanka and related genres into the lives of any reader keen to observe the marvels and the quirks of all that lies around us." Karkow's book is a rare gem. I couldn't put it down and when I was finished, I read through it again. Her poems came alive, connected with my heart, and left an indelible imprint, in a way that calls to mind the reason for the popularity of Tawara Machi's bestseller Salad Anniversary. Unpretentious, Machi's tanka connects with the masses, allowing readers to identify with the subjects she writes about:

of life where one on one
always makes two
showers down on me
this December Day

Tawara Machi

once I wrote
of sailing out to sea
on windswept waves
now as a late tide falls
my poems lie on the shore

Kirsty Karkow

In this tanka, Karkow waxes autobiographical, bringing us into a world many can relate to; one that stimulates interpretations indigenous to one's individual social context. Karkow lives on the Atlantic coast of Maine, near the Canadian border, in a peaceful saltwater inlet rife with wildlife, where seasons are truly seasons. An avid sailor, the poet and her husband owned a sailboat that transported them to faraway places. Eventually, and with sadness, they sold their boat, Freya. Karkow now occupies her time composing poetry, serving as a Hospice volunteer, gardening, going for walks, and gliding across the inlet in a kayak or canoe. As we age, we sometimes cannot do what we used to do as a younger person. Karkow addresses this in the above tanka. She no longer sails the seas in her beloved Freya. Undaunted, she writes about the life she experiences on the shoreline. The late tide may be falling, but Kirsty Karkow is wading in the inlet beside her home celebrating all that she sees and experiences.

wrist deep
in aromatic loam
new potatoes

Karkow digs deep into the soil to harvest the potatoes she planted the previous year. The scent of the loam is scintillating. It's not just soil to her. It's a life source. She is communing with the earth, interacting with her surroundings in a way those who buy produce at a grocery store cannot ascertain or experience; a spiritual moment. Karkow reminds us that one is never too old to experience the newness of life.

Kirsty's haibun are striking and, like her tanka and haiku, they connect with the reader's sense of experience and emotional sensitivity.

All Too Clear

New water flows where ice once ruled.
Ellesmere Island and the world diminish, a
section at a time. A National Geographic
documentary shows all-too-clear pictures of
Arctic melting. What will happen to the
polar bears?

Bears that are a perfection of solitude . . .
bears with air in every hair . . . bears who
pace the endless snow.

Over the years, how many of these animals
have I shaped in clay, wet fingers working
every curve until the form seemed right?
How many times have I fretted at the kiln's
awful heat? How often have I pondered this
strange relationship?

his arm around me
we watch a piece of glacier
break away

There are gems in every book of poetry but rare is the book containing a chest of gems, all of them glistening. Kirsty Karkow is one of the English-speaking world's finest poets. Purchase a first edition copy of Shorelines. Karkow's book will sell fast and help to elevate the desirability of Japanese short form poetry books in North American bookstores.

a poet's bench?
perhaps he is right
I'll sit awhile . . .
alert to any damselfly
that pauses on my knee

by Kirsty Karkow
Black Cat Press
ISBN 0-9766407-5-9