marlene mountain



Marlene Morelock Wills, 'the old tin roof' haiku, senryu, dadaku [1976]

Reviewed by Cor van den Heuvel

A new star has risen in the bright, but as yet little known, constellation of American haiku. Though not yet of their magnitude, this, her first book of poetry, places Marlene Wills in the same distinguished class of imaginative craftsmen as Alan Pizzarelli, Michael McClintock, and Anita Virgil—three of that constellation’s most innovative poets. Her techniques and far-reaching game playing with words—the way they look on the page as well as the image-juggling they perform in the mind—reveal the influence of Virgil and Pizzarelli, but what she accomplishes with them is uniquely her own.

Her haiku one-liners are some of the best in 'the business,' particularly in the way that the shape of the one line often echoes the sensory image within the poem:

at dusk hot water from the hose

The poem like the hose is one line. Yet this simple line holds an awesome mystery within it, in much the same way as the atom contains the mystery of nuclear power. for we can feel flowing from the dark hose of the poem, the strange presence of the afternoon sun though it has already faded far beyond the horizon.

Of course the poem itself is not concerned with such pretentious ruminations. It simply presentss a commn, ordinary experience in common, ordinary language language—and yet somehow, through its very simplicity, it takes us back to the fresh wonder we felt when as a child we first lived that experience.

This simple delight in the way 'ordinary' things occur is more obvious in
gosling following its neck to the bug

or in

my neighbor’s rooster hops     the I throw

where the stick becomes the rooster, the line becomes the hop and the stick. The poem at once embodies and makes fun of the oft-quoted definition of haiku that it makes all things one and so unites Man and Nature. But perhaps I’m overburdening the poor rooster with my own 'shtick.'
Concrete haiku—such as the rooster piece—are not usually recognizable as poems when read aloud. It is the graphic, visual effect that raises them to art. Another, more extreme, example is

r o g
f             frog *

where the letters recreate the frog’s jump—and, more significantly, allow us to see, in the second printing of the word, how the frog is actually bunched-up ready to leap within the word itself! Just as we always see it on the page—and yet at the same time, as we’ve never seen it before.

h o o t

we see how a bird can look out of its own name in other ways than in the dictionary sense, simply by rearranging the letters. With such creative playfullness, Marlene Wills tugs at our ordinary conceptions of the philological and ontological and unravels them into laughter.

In a haiku using only the word 'crow and a single rectangular rule boxing the horizontal page—which I don’t care to try to reproduce here for fear of screwing it up—she stretches out the spacing of the letters and places them so you actually see a crow flying out of the woods at dawn.

She does these things—this word magic—without any special typefaces or drawings, using only a single, simple typeface not far removed from that of a typewriter, or 'tapwriter' as she calls it in one poem. She is, however, also an accomplished artist and photographer and one can see how her skills in those graphic arts have been transformed and put to use here. Those who have followed the American haiku movement will know her drawings and photographs already—for she has illustrated several book of haiku by her husband John Wills. Their most notable collaboration was on river, one of the most important books of haiku to yet appear in this country. Her sumie-like sketches for that book (done with unusual tools such as match-book covers for brushes) have been the most succesful examples of the art of haiga (haiku and picture illuminating each other) to so far appear in the West.

Marlene’s haiku show little resemblance to her husband’s. However in one respect their writings are similar—both take us back to the earth. This is probably because in their own lives they have physically gone back to the earth. For the past several years they have made their home in the mountains of Tennessee, trying to raise much of their own food from the land.
One of the poems in the old tin roof which typifies for me this sense of getting back to the earth is

leaf mold

I imagine myself deep in the woods (on or among mountains)—perhaps taking a rest during a hike—sitting beneath the tree, and carelessly, and at the same time sensuously, digging through the leaves with one hand. Feeling down to the damp coolness of the leaf mold, I’m vaguely reminded that here are the remains of many past years. But the primary experience is one of immediate awareness of the moldering, returning into the earth, leaves, themselves, their secret wetness against my skin. Digging still deeper, I touch the stone underneath, the cool heart of the earth—and I feel a strange unity with it, which extends outward to include the universe. And in the next poem in her book, the poet turns to the 'wide sky,' which, for me, becomes a meaningful juxtaposition.

In fact, the poems are often enriched by what comes before and after them. Each poem is printed on its own right-hand page, and the order in which they follow one another appears to be well planned. for example, the poem which comes before the 'frog' poem I’ve already quoted is

m m

Like the frog poem, this lets you see one word in two different ways. But at the same time it sets up a romantic, impressionistic scene of reflected moonlight which is 'shattered' on the next page by the frog’s leap. This, in turn, comically echoes the famous splash in Basho’s 'old pond.'
The senryu are generally good. Here is one:

first day of school
the bus slows . . .
empty cabin

I think the so-called 'dadaku'—which I guess includes the surrealist-like parody on TV commercials and the 'jokes' on Zen, as well as the 'mama-dada' pun—could have been left out. But since the author hasn’t indicated which is which, perhaps some of the word games I liked as 'concrete haiku' she would call 'dadaku.'

The bad jokes are very few in this book of about a hundred poems, however, so if you love the earth, and you love words, you’ll love this book.
Some Afterthoughts

'How can you call these poems ‘haiku’? They’re not in 5-7-5 syllables, why they’re not even in three lines!' (The book does have some three-line haiku.)

Much of modern haiku has gone through an evolution which has taken it out of the traditional form into something more organic, more flexible—in Japan as well as in the west. Cookie-cutter metrics do not embody the essence of haiku. The 'taste' of haiku comes from its delight in the simple experience of existence itself. Direct, immediate, now! This joy in and for the world comes through the senses. Joy in the sight of a frog jumping—and not jumping. [In Marlene Wills haiku. In Bash_, it’s the sound of the frog jumping.] Delight in the sight of moonlight stretched out on the water.

Recreating such aspects of existence out of a few words, the reader has an experience which is analogous to that in which the spirit of the universe must feel with its creation. Metaphor is rare in haiku, perhaps because the haiku experience itself is a subconscious
metaphorical act—the ontological thrust of the words, in a sense, becomes—in the mind—actual objectss one can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.

However, this is only one aspect of the 'taste' of haiku—an aspect of the 'objective' side. There is also the 'subjective' side: an emotional complex which includes—besides the delight in things for themselves—a feeling of oneness with Nature, or, as some would prefer to say, with all of existence.

The emotional complex will vary, of course, with the kind of haiku one is experiencing. It will depend upon the kinds of images presented and the kinds of associations
set up within or between them. Haiku may evoke any human emotion—though even sorrow, or loneliness, will be intermingled, or transmuted by, that sense of joy.

'What is a haiku?' is as hard to answer as 'What is a poem?' And I’m not kidding myself that I’ve answered it. But that there is something distinctive and non-metric about haiku that sets it apart from other poems is, in my mind, incontestable. The difficulty many good haiku poets experience in trying to write other kinds of poetry and the stumbling efforts of poets successful in other genres when they attempt haiku are startling confirmations of that distinction.


frog visual somewhat incorrect due to computer

review unpublished