blue balloon: a collection of haiku and senryu by Grant Cauldwell, Collective Effort Press, Melbourne 2021 was virtually launched by Kevin Brophy on 20 January 2021.
corona virus — people wearing masks outside the bank
at my father’s funeral — my stepmother’s sons carry the coffin
A woman crossing the street in the rain — chased by leaves
My first reaction to these brief and brilliant impressions is pleasure, and it is pleasure of a particular kind. I am not sure how many words in the English language there are for the different kinds of pleasure we can experience, but I do know that over the course of the twentieth century medical researchers spent many years investigating the range of words we attach to pain. At the pinnacle of this decades-long inquiry in 1975 the McGill University published its Pain Questionnaire using 98 different words descriptive of pain divided into 16 sub-categories and listed according to intensity in order to assist respondents to identify their own particular kind, category and degree of pain. I don’t have access to a pleasure questionnaire of any such sophistication in order to identify what exactly it is I feel upon reading these Caldwellian artefacts, but perhaps the nearest I can come is to open up my thesaurus. There I find sixteen different words for the various nuances in the meaning of pleasure: some are enjoyment, delectation, gladness, rapture, glee, enchantment—but not one that points exactly to what these haiku do to this reader. Perhaps enchantment comes close because of its link to song (and there is a rhythm and a mental music going on in these poems), a link to the suggestion that incantation transports us into another state of being.
half an apple
on my desk —
alleyway entrance —
shopkeepers in their aprons
talk and smoke in the rain
Though these haiku and senryu do charm, Grant Caldwell is not the kind of writer Samuel Johnson despised when he dismissed those writers who please ‘principally by not offending’. The pleasure experienced at reading these poems is not any one-dimensional relief from the usual complexities and difficulties of life. They offer more than that. At first I thought the pleasure these poems offer is in their power to jolt a reader back to life for a few seconds, maybe for longer. They do that, and that is part of the pleasure they offer, but they’re more than that as well because they are by force of their numbers and their variety in blue balloon a call not just to song, but to discipline, or to a homage to the discipline of noticing and valuing. They are elegies too, because we know with each one that this was a moment caught, but in fact only partially caught, though in the catching of it, there is this gesture towards a possible infinity of details and a possibly maddening series of meanings and moments each moment might contain. This is the kind of pleasure that makes you want to open your eyes and close your eyes at the same time. What is the word for that kind of pleasure? Is there a word for that?
open window —
turns the blades
of a fan
reading bad poetry
a woman passes beneath my window
leaving the house —
on the doormat
Let’s try to get at the effect of these poems from another angle. In 1949, Fernand Braudel published what became a famous history of the Mediterranean. He centred his history on the climate and geography of the Mediterranean—across a span of time so immense that any change happens so slowly it almost doesn’t happen, and a span that makes any civilisation and within it any individual life look like little more than foam on the crest of a wave. He said he wanted to write a history that ‘almost stands still’. It wasn’t that small events and individual lives didn’t matter, it was that Braudel wanted events to be perceived from within the deepest possible context. I think this approach Braudel had to a timeless history points to another aspect of the kind of pleasure these haiku can generate for a reader: I think that they can, at their best, bring to a reader the kind of relief that we all need, a relief released by putting what we are, what we think we know, and what we experience into two states at the same time: one, a state where the smallest detail comes alive, and another state where we appreciate anew that the point of everything is never in the details but in a wider, deeper, higher, almost limitless context for those details. There is, when a haiku works, such a considerable stillness around it, that the thing itself almost ceases to be, falling into silence, while at the same time that haiku can expand and resonate to enliven that stillness and fill that silence in a most satisfactory way. Listen to how the small and the large, the low and the high, the near and the far, the contained and the expansive co-exist so easily and naturally in a Caldwell haiku:
in the pond —
a dead branch breaks
the moon in fragments
on the pavement
three lost jigsaw pieces —
white clouds at night —
your dark hair
in the fire light
Yes, here the passing moment is noted concisely and imaginatively—and allowed to pass, and yes, a stillness at the heart of this noticing makes it, impossibly, timeless. This is not an uncomplicated pleasure, and it is a pleasure for a reader to be taken into such states.
I don’t want to give the impression that these poems might have designs on you, or that they are programmatic. We know that the haiku is a tight form, restricted by strong conventions. So is a rock and roll song. We know too that form gives rise to art, and paradoxically to its freedom. These wild little poems, packed with spontaneity are in fact free to go anywhere, and they do, and my guess is they sometimes took the poet with them. I love it that through Grant’s haiku we can see and grin at
sharpening their beaks
on a tv aerial
and we can nod dismally and hilariously along with the poet when
opening the door
to let a fly out —
two more fly in
Maybe the many-faceted pleasure offered in these poems is a type of unpleasure that only works when critique and curiosity, optimism and pessimism are brought into the same room. I came across a line in a poem by Thomas Hardy last week that I thought was a very Caldwellian moment. As many of you might know, Grant completed his PhD with a thesis on, among other things, the notion of ‘unintention’ in the impulse towards lyric composition. The lines in Hardy’s poem go:
…… death will not appal One who, past doubting all, Waits in unhope. ......... - from ‘In Tenebris’, 1901
Unhope, like unintention and unpleasure, might be places we can only ever wait in briefly, but hopefully long enough to write a haiku or read one.
There is a lot more that could be said about blue balloon in praise of its beauty, its strength, its consistency, its sensitivity, and the achievement of craft and skill evident in the poetry, but I am sure that whatever I say could not match the experience of reading it, and much more than what I could say about it will be discovered by those who read it. I commend it to you as a page-turner and a thought-stopper.
Finally, I want to acknowledge Grant as someone I’ve known for many decades as a passable card player, a sometimes scratchy friend, and always as a writer whose commitment is deep, whose generosity is unquestioned, and whose breadth of work is astounding, stretching from memoir to fiction, to scholarship and to poetry. These haiku carry the weight of those decades of work and learning with panache and humor and humility. Buying this book might be the smartest decision you make in 2021.
– Kevin Brophy
Kevin Brophy’s latest book is the poetry collection, In This part of the World (MPU Inc). Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne, he was poet in residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris, 2019-20. In 2022, Finlay Lloyd Press will be publishing his second collection of short fiction.