Chiswick, London, England
On Sean O'Connor's Let Silence Speak
Let Silence Speak: Haiku and Haibun by Sean O'Connor. Pb, 90pp. Alba Publishing, 2016. US$14. ISBN 978-1-910185-3-8.
Dublin-born Sean O'Connor is something of a busy all-rounder. Over the past 35 years he has travelled widely as a musician, notably in folk music, and as a published writer and poet. An editor of Haiku Spirit and co-author of Pilgrim Foxes, his haiku have been published widely, translated into several languages and appeared in nine anthologies. So it's a bit of a surprise to find Let Silence Speak, a selection of his haiku and haibun written over 20 years, is in fact his first independent collection.
On the other hand he has also been occupied with acquiring a distinction in International Studies from Trinity College, Dublin, is an honours graduate in psychiatric nursing, and has studied psychotherapy, business management and journalism. He is also a practitioner of Soto Zen, a traditional sect of Japanese Buddhism, and this book is dedicated to his friend and fellow practitioner, the late Ken Jones.
Another writer friend, Jim Norton, introduces the book with the observation: "Never one to rush into anything, I attribute his reticence to the depth at which he connects with the way of haiku as a spiritual practice which lies close to his heart, and so is not easily displayed."
Sean O'Connor himself observes: "This book is based on real events. Nothing is contrived. When I write that an old lady died as I was taking her pulse, it literally happened. It all happened." This particular poem, "Mary," is especially moving when read aloud, as Sean O'Connor did recently on television:
Spring at its height . . . And right behind the nursing home, sheep are lambing . . .
Her life of ninety years, almost exactly, ends in the hour before dawn. Sitting by her bed in the dying room. Hand on Hand. The smell of candles. The fragile glow . . . laboured breathing nearing the end. The beginning. The unknowing.
her last breath
in the silence
The collection covers 16 chapters or, rather, subjects, since some amount to barely a page. These include an impression (perhaps not too inspired) of Pennsylvania:
cluttered Amish shop
of the faceless dolls
Another features a visit to New York:
from this river-bank
the enormity of Manhattan
A visit to Bucharest illustrates its darker side:
above its new façade
old bullet holes
The longest, and very emotional haibun, "A Huge Firework," is a six-page tribute to Kevin Gormley, a nursing friend with whom Sean O'Connor trained. In it he talks to his friend of their adventures in Milan and Venice and of the deep companionship they shared, until his friend's final moments:
deepening the silence
at work when he died
my finger on the staff board
wipes off his name
If death features quite frequently in this collection, it does so with an empathy and understanding he doubtless carries from his nursing years.
However, the strongest influence in Sean O'Connor's writing comes from the five years he spent in Japan, living with his wife Junko in a traditional Japanese house in a rural village, working as a musician. He was there in March 2011, when the country suffered a disastrous earthquake and tsunami, one of its biggest in modern times. Although away from the epicentre of the crisis, he admits "we were all very much affected by the event." As a result he recorded a single in both English and Japanese, and released it with proceeds going to the Japan Red Cross.
He also pulls no punches in writing about the experience:
this morning's earthquake
a whole mountain
cut in half
fear of radiation
at the fishmongers
As to the title of the book, Let Silence Speak, Sean O'Connor explains: "It is a phrase I have been using for some years when leading groups in Zen meditation." He also used the words during a "living wake" when his friend Ken Jones was first diagnosed with cancer: "Ken loved the phrase and I have always thought of when uttering it through the years."
Sean O'Connor and Junko are back in Ireland, living in Tipperary, but emotionally much of his fascination and thinking is currently about Japan. He suggests that a second collection that focuses on haiku written in Japan is planned for a later date. It will be worth waiting for. Let Silence Speak explains a great deal about the author and his insight into the human condition.