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A Review of: Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida
by Richard Carter

About four centuries ago, a middle-aged poet was trekking along a rough country road north of Tokyo. Relying on the hospitality of strangers, and open to the weather's fitful moods, he delighted in what he saw, smelled and heard: rainwater on leaves; frog splash in a pond; mountains in the distance; cragged mossy temples. The traveller-known as Basho (1644-1694)-was an acute observer whose poems attract readers with their vivid precision and brevity. Here are two examples:

"The morning glories
Bloom, securing the gate
In the old fence.

This first fallen snow
Is barely enough to bend
The jonquil leaves."

Notice in the first haiku the double meaning of "securing": flowers literally clutch the gate while figuratively protecting age. The second haiku works like a slowly unfolding photograph. Basho contrasts the light weight of the snowflakes-"first fallen" and "barely" enough-with the upward struggle of the leaves. He focuses on particulars; but he does so with such intensity that these nouns-morning glories, old fence, snow, jonquil leaves-radiate a bright fusion of literal and figurative fact.
I mention Basho because the three poets under review also approach reality through a focus on particulars. Just how they achieve this close-up, however, differs widely. Roo Borson's Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida is a response to decay and death; Steven Heighton's The Address Book votes for vitality; and David Manicom's collection The Burning Eaves strives throughout its pages to sense unity in nature. What these poets share, most of the time, is an attention to what is real, either in the outer world or in the inner life.
Roo Borson's new collection, Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida, is actually an explicit tribute to Basho, whom she discusses in the title piece at the book's end. Like him, Borson prefers accurate, faithful depiction to lush description, and in several poems this intensity is astonishing. Here is the untitled piece at the end of the prose story "A bit of history":

"On the last night of the year
the swans set sail at evening.
Then among the boats and fireworks
we can see the black water,
the city in the river.
That's where all our life is,
beyond the grief and failure,
the wake among the reeds.

Down there
down there
what is that place now
but a hill studded with lights
and a pine tree that doesn't move with the wind?
Wherever there is summer,
Wherever the crickets sing to it,
that place is.
But longing is a wind that blows through you,
and like the pine
that is nowhere
you do not move."

How simply and easily Borson relates a Japanese new year's eve by the river, "the city [reflected] in the river", and the sudden thought that "That's where all our life is". The river "down there", like a "pine tree that doesn't move with the wind", hints at permanence outlasting human lives, fireworks and the annual migrations of swans. In the final three lines, longing resists this "wake among the reeds", firing two lines of three stresses before emptiness steps in and stifles the number of stresses to two. With a calm indifference echoing nature itself, Borson exposes the death that circles the speaker. An equally potent poem at the end of "Autumn record" has a similar theme:

"When no one is present,
but it appears that someone is present,
autumn is here."

I love the unpretentious simplicity of this poem, and the agility that conveys the frightful certainty of death with such gentleness. The second line runs longer than the first, just enough to hint at an unknown and unnerve the reader. The third line completes the thought with such calm brevity that death and decay seem natural, and therefore less frightening.
The one problem with this book is that Borson's attentive precision can seem dull or precious when her attention lapses into indulgence.

"I had never expected poetry to provide for anything beyond itself, but now I feel unhappy with poetry-or with myself-for not exceeding those expectations. The feeling is the feeling of reaching the end of Montale's poems to his dead wife just as it's becoming too dark to read, the lights coming on in the city below just as the stars too are coming out, as you wait for someone you love and depend on to be finished with some chore and come back with the car . . ."
-Roo Borson, from "Autumn record"

This example is immediately self-indulgent-Borson is talking about poetry-but next she begins talking to the reader in the second person. The writing, however, gets mired. How many people have actually experienced the feeling of "reaching the end of Montale's poems to his dead wife" just as it's becoming too dark to read, lights are flickering on in the city, and they wait for someone they love to return home? Borson, has, for sure. But the feeling she writes of is pinned to so many specifics-and hampered by so much vagueness-that a surface familiarity freezes over any depth she might have been trying to tap.

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