Auckland, New Zealand
On Amanda Bell's Undercurrents
Undercurrents by Amanda Bell. Alba Publishing, Uxbridge, UK (2016). Pb, 72 pp. ISBN: 978-1-910185-35-3. €12/£9/US$14.
Undercurrents by Amanda Bell is a collection of haibun and haiku sequences woven around Irish rivers and underpinned with personal and regional history. In her Author's Preface, Amanda Bell writes: "Woven between the haibun are haiku sequences, variations on a theme, and responses to some aspect of the preceding text."
The collection begins with "What Lies Beneath," in which the poet tells us "Since the medieval period, rivers in counties Dublin and Wicklow have been diverted to feed the city's ever-growing needs." Six haiku follow the haibun in her quest to follow the River Liffey. However, this is not a travelogue, but a quest, which unfolds at several levels, both personal and cultural, as we see in the following haiku:
The river rises
Above field level—
Old well brimming
The title haibun, "Undercurrents," follows a rivulet into a small park and then underground to join the Dodder River, "by Lord Ely's Gate, an imposing arch which was one of the entrances to Rathfarnham Castle during the eighteenth century." Here, "In 1841 the body of a murdered Italian organ-grinder, Domenico Garibaldi, was found in front of the gate. No one was ever convicted of the killing."
The overarching theme of the following haiku is the emptiness of the park, an abandoned shopping trolley, a stranger and the pond—
This thread of history and personal feelings is explored in the next haibun, "Sound Wall," in which the poet writes about the Dargle and its presence in her family history:
In the early 1960s the Slazenger family took over the estate from the Wingfields. They brought with them their farm manager, my paternal grandfather. By the time I was born he had retired, but because of his long association with the estate, on Sunday visits we were given a dispensation from buying tickets to visit the waterfall.
There is a more personal note in the following haiku, which for the most part focus on family:
evenings drawing in—
father mows the lawn
for the last time
the cat on my pillow
In "Between Weirs," there is the narrator's warm engagement and interest in history expressed through her family's move to Limerick in 1976:
During the first cold winter, while still finding my feet, I discovered Mulcair River. On that first visit, the path to the weir at Ballyclough was frozen into ridges, the cut-away bank dangled icicles, and branches were weighed down by clustering ice-globes. The white water of the weir was shot through with silver bars of leaping salmon.
Here there are the memories, hinted at and summarised, yet left for the reader's imagination. There's nothing explicit. And yet, the prose is measured and closely written, building up to a memorable atmosphere. The main strength lies in the many fine embedded haiku and the power of the prose.
In "Preserved," we follow the solitary walker "faced with heather tufts, drifts of dancing cotton, and tracts of bog which betray themselves only by the shiver extending out from beneath the weight of your tread. Spongy hummocks of red and green sphagnum moss promise a firm foothold, but often deceive. Flat to the ground, star-shaped sundews lure flies with droplets of clear, gluey nectar. "Cill Aodáin" follows a trout stream, The Glore, which "converges with the deliciously named Pollagh to form the Gweestion, before entering the River Moy." Several haiku follow the haibun, of which the following are two of my favourites:
limbless orgham stones in rows
on the hill
a Roman fort
then as now
"Grazing" is a delightful scene of a family picnic, which ends:
We had parked in a gateway, and as my husband and I took our picnic lunch and fishing-tackle from the car, Elizabeth clambered the gate bars and stared down across the expanse of pasture stretching towards the river. She pointed to a herd of grazing cattle. 'Look,' she shouted, 'elephants.'
Bell's haibun are finely observed, especially those that treat of the natural world with reference to the ways in which it affects, or reflects, her inner and outer feelings. It is not difficult for the reader to gain insights into the landscape despite the fact that they might be unfamiliar with the scenes she describes. At their best, Bell's haibun give the reader a sense of not just of the landscape, but the way in which the poet is collected to rivers, birds, swans and farms. In "Seawards," for example, she ends the poem with the following sentences: All five branches discharge into the Dodder Estuary near Ringsend. It may be that the river was named for swans nesting along the sloblands before the land was reclaimed from the sea." The following haiku also connect both imagery and theme, with images of waves, low tide, fishermen, a rainswept beach and "this balmy evening / even the seagulls / stretch their legs."
The lengthy haibun "Flotsam" describes "The Poddle"—a hidden river in Dublin:
On its way, the river emerges from culverts to flow overground at Mount Argus, where the waters are split by a piece of masonry known as the Stone Boat or Tongue, built in the thirteenth century to divert a water supply for the Mayor's citizens.
Here Bell is able to meditate and connect with history, nature and human nature—"Last year a homeless man was found dead in the undergrowth." And also the fate of a hospice nurse "Cecilia de Jesus, unable to force open the door of her apartment against the rising water, was drowned."
In the final haibun, "Casting Off," Bell helps us to understand the truths of nature. In the poem, she is building a raft with her daughters by "cramming the space in the middle of a wooden pallet with empty water bottles, and launched it in the Spaddagh River, a small spawning stream running into the Moy." The poem helps us to see life as circular, where water flows from the river to the domestic ritual of the "local shops" which "do good business selling large, square two-litre bottles of potable water."
Undercurrents contains beautifully crafted work that arouses the senses and triggers a variety of emotions. Its various themes of history, geography, personal history and nature work in perfect harmony. The poems continue to resonate after repeated readings and the book is a worthwhile addition to our haibun collections.