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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 2, June 2018
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Tony Beyer
New Plymouth, New Zealand

Review of Kala Ramesh, Beyond the Horizon Beyond: Haiku & Haibun

Kala Ramesh, Beyond the Horizon Beyond: Haiku & Haibun, Vishwakarma Publications, Pune, India, 2017, 177 pp, ISBN 978-93-86455-01-7.

Since I began taking a serious interest in English-language haiku, tanka and haibun, around the late 1990s, I have been conscious of frequently admiring the work of Kala Ramesh. The extent and success of her contribution is attested to in the detailed acknowledgements pages in this new collected volume. Appearances on the page and online, from Acorn to World Haiku Review, and everywhere between, have represented her achievement. All this makes hers a familiar voice, enhanced now by her own perception and arrangement, supported by an illuminating preface and other editorial material.

As a starting point, we have here the unusual case of an Asian haiku poet who is neither Japanese nor a Buddhist. Deliberately arranged to correspond to the five elements of Hindu cosmology, rather than the traditional four seasons, her haiku record the journey of her “cultural memory." Ether, air, fire, water and earth: the first of these, apparently a synthesis of the others, is the most surprising to readers accustomed to Western ideas. Each element in turn is linked to corresponding human senses and physical states or intellectual concepts.

Earth (Prithvi) is most closely associated with the physical, giving rise to haiku of intense observation but also a quietly humorous human presence. But these poems are not confined to the page. Kala Ramesh has an acute ear for the sounds of language, trained by musical experience. Listen to the tight control of consonant sounds in a single example:

Devi temple …
along with the ants
I enter barefoot

The hallmarks of culture and tradition are present here, too.

Nor are cultural signifiers limited to Indian or Japanese references. The Water (Jalam) section of haiku begins with a direct reference to Monet:

sans shore
horizon or sky: I am
a waterlily

In the Fire (Agni) group, where the element is both creator and destroyer, the interrelation between human and natural worlds is most powerfully expressed. The tone again is exact and the handling of form deft in its mastery. On facing pages, diverse occasions, engaging various levels of emotion, demonstrate a continuity of understanding:

ice cream season
I must have been
a dog once

bone density …
the branch crumbles
after the forest fire

The sensibility in both these cases is unmistakably modern, and yet as ancient as human awareness of the conditions of existence. Admirable for their depth of thought and vigorous expression, Kala Ramesh’s haiku are without doubt a major addition to the genre in English. Her approach to haibun is summarised in her quotation of Nobuyuki Yuasa: “the prose deepens the understanding of the poetry, and the poetry gives greater energy to the prose." How she goes about this is clear from the forty-one haibun (one in verse) which conclude her collection. Their role in her cultural and historical journey is suggested by some of the titles: ‘The Sutra," "Aditya – The Sun God." ‘Temple Ponds and Lotus Pads," "Burmese Evacuation, 1942" (a recollection from her mother’s life), "Heirloom," "Arranged Marriage" and ‘The Blue Jacaranda." On the other hand, "LOC" (for Line of Control) refers to very real political boundaries in present-day Kashmir.

At the core of Kala Ramesh’s activity as a haibun practitioner is the use of juxtaposition to register the complexities of being; the persistent oppositions and balances between one and many, nothing and everything, nature and human nature, and above and below. The last of these is not as simple as it seems. Layered meaning and intuition can best be appreciated by citing one of her texts in full:

All That’s Left

The cow dung paste caressingly patted in her hands and slapped across the outside walls to dry in the scorching Chennai heat, this mother to seven children moves on to other chores until the day comes to an end, her tiny corner kept ready for the family’s early morning bowl of thin ragi porridge. She rests her tired feet on a stiff cotton pillow, as her body yields to the soft korai grass mat spread on the mud floor.

the desert …
and all that’s left, the sky
with all her stars

All that’s left is a great deal indeed, pivoted around the delightfully chosen female pronoun in the poem and certainly energising the preceding prose passage. Above and below, the limitless and the only apparently limited, belong inseparably together. Again and again throughout this fine book, I found myself surprised, illuminated and informed. Its beautiful poems and richly detailed prose open knowledge of the world that had hitherto been opaque to me, either because of laziness or because of the spurious priority of my own cultural assumptions. Kala Ramesh does not allow this sort of stance to continue. Her work awakens and expands consciousness, provoking thought and a refreshing humility of attitude. This, surely, is one of the main things literature is for.

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