Book Review: Buson, Hegel and the grim fairytale in not your kids’ Nursery Rhyme Haiku

Not Your Kids’ Nursery Rhyme Haiku

by Bona M. Santos & Susan Burch 
Velvet Dusk Publishing, 2022
46 pages, 6” x 6”
ISBN 979-8846494053
$8.99 on Amazon.

Reviewed by Jerome Berglund

 

The idea of dialectics posits that systems are strengthened, energized, perpetuated through a constant tug-of-war, ever shifting one direction or the other along a horizontal axis, gravitating at varying speeds back and forth between two opposite polarities. 

In his lifetime, the fourth arguably most prominent godfather of the haiku arts Masaoka Shiki, steeped in the longstanding traditions of their predecessors and immersed in prevailing literary practices of his day, represents a remarkable case study in this fascinating ebbing and flowing phenomenon, both in terms of criticism and practice, and in the practitioners’ own mercurial preferences and tastes – which in certain senses can be discerned to follow a full and dramatic 360-degree arc of sorts, to effect a horseshoe pattern unexpectedly, dragging an entire community from one end of the spectrum to the other before personally continuing on and tracing an Enso loop to conclude nearer to where he had started from. 

Jerome Berglund

The consummate contrarian and dissenter, Shiki initially articulated palpable disgust at the prevalent tendencies toward coarse ribaldry and punny ‘desk haiku’ which were most commonplace amongst his era’s contemporary practitioners, and led a vociferous campaign encouraging a return to the concrete, immediate, authentic school of depicting nature subjects experienced firsthand and described simply in clear, plain language without excessive ornamentation.   

But this slice-of-minutia ‘shasei’ Masaoka argued vehemently for, and the philosophy’s idol and paragon Matsuo Basho, in his later years Shiki ultimately grew disenchanted with.  Rather, that D’artagnan gradually transformed into a staunch advocate for the musketeer in whom he perceived the greatest divergence from such supposed ideals, Yosa Buson.  If we understand the ‘sketch from life’, emulating shajitsu or ‘reality’, as one end of our haiku continuum, it behooves our scholars to ask ourselves, where does the furthest alternative lie? 

Among many tactics Buson was praised for, by Shiki in prominent editorials he penned and disseminated, were the haijin’s audacity in incorporating deftly – while adhering to the conventional structure and expectations of the institution, without straying from kigo or cutting mechanisms or ostensibly tangible material – the most diverse array of eloquent and provocative allusions, expertly weaving in homages to rich folklore and theology, imagining historical scenes introducing unprecedented drama, reinstating a potent brand of mystery or ‘yugen’ into painterly compositions in a fashion relatively impractical to aspire towards when relying purely upon prosaic vérité vignettes and documentarian verbiage. 

Could we interrogate Shiki in his mature years, with a lifetime of experience under his belt, one might expect him to be no less enamored with a new collaborative collection of monoku released this year by the incomparable Susan Burch and Bona M. Santos, Nursery Rhyme Haiku, with the disclaimer not your kids’ emblazoned above in red letters somewhat ominously.  A seminal introduction preceding the thirty one-liner poems collected, by always riveting Alan Summers — in itself a spectacular  treatise on the history of nursery rhymes and their continued relevance to the English, French and German cultures — includes Call of the Page founder among other things expounding upon the multiple levels a children’s story works at simultaneously, like a Simsons cartoon at once appealing both to juvenile viewership and the parent presumably doing the entertaining, containing parallel strands of communication via subtext continuously, with areas of mutual appreciating overlapping like a Venn diagram.  

Thus, with the same invention and bravado with which Buson invoked proverbial rabbits on the moon making rice cakes these haikuists employ and plug into a rogues’ gallery of archetypes, allowing with great brevity and economy to tap deeply loaded meanings and associations, and in a process not dissimilar to infinitely modifiable ‘memes’ of internet culture to resituate these familiar characters and stories to the most intense, unexpected, serious modern contexts of their indeed quite adult and subversive topics, transmitting significant considerations, some of which might well be slapped with a parental advisory sticker, or scheduled in the ‘watershed’ for British Broadcasting (R-rated premium cable channels, by American definitions). 

Bona M. Santos channels her hard science know-how (“star light star bright Big Brother satellites”) from a background in marine research, and a keen awareness of the crumbling infrastructure endemic to our age (“a dam spills over rain rain go away”) while Vice President of the Tanka Society of America Susan Burch brings her patented smoldering irreverence and razor-sharp wit – previously displayed in the chapbook Angry Tanka – to a wide range of important themes such as body dysmorphia (“Jack Sprat my anorexia eats me”) and discrimination in the workplace and academia (“ageism Old Mother Goose denied tenure”).

What makes every piece in this crackling volume truly shine, remain in a reader’s mind to be turned over at length like a Rubik’s cube, get pondered satisfyingly as riddle or koan, is precisely the dreaming room space each leaves for the reader to ‘complete the poem’ in their heads and fertile imaginations, an infinite number of valid and intriguing ways.  The open-ended ma these works exhibit thrillingly promises contents will charm, captivate, puzzle the adventurous reader in most pleasant manners, and that like a David Lynch film or Beatles lyric, the intentions, takeaway, message of each tight sword stroke of verse may be debated, speculated upon, and relished subjectively for a highly productive and edifying experience.     

It’s truly exciting to watch the relatively youthful English haiku establishment as it undergoes analogous metamorphoses curiously parallel to those vicissitudes which swept in and out across the landscape of the tradition’s origins.  There will always be hospitable places for the omniscient, environmental studies so beloved by classicist haiku purists.  But it is equally inspiring to observe what renegades of the haikai avant-garde get up to in the short form fringes, throughout pages of innovative, cutting edge gendai, PostKu or tanshi markets like Bones, Under the Basho, Five Fleas, Bamboo Hut.  In an epoch of plurality and egalitarianism, we’re enormously fortunate to inhabit a disparate community teeming with so many thriving options, distinctive and variegated approaches.

If you possess a wicked sense of humor, are interested in scathing satire and thought provoking inquiry, retain fond memories of nursery iconography and are amenable to its profaning, are passionate about the sleek monoku style pioneered by Jim Kacian, prioritize human decency, female empowerment and emancipation, relish didactic Alan Summers tutelage, then this is a book you want to investigate.  Despite the explicit prohibition, your kid might in fact truly enjoy and learn from the text also!  (But read it yourself first, because there are definitely risqué moments…)  An important collection deserving of recognition and attention.

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