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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 3, September 2012

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Patricia Prime
Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand


On Clare McCotter’s Black Horse Running

Black Horse Running: A collection of haiku, tanka and haibun by Clare McCotter. Uxbridge, Alba Publishing (2012) p.b. 78 pp. RRP £12.00 / €12.00 / US$16.00. ISBN 978-0-9551254-6-1.

Appropriately for a collection of mixed Japanese forms of poetry, Black Horse Running by Clare McCotter is lovely to look at and to hold. Equally appropriately, closer acquaintance reveals a collection as warm, emotional, witty, loving and clever as we’ve come to expect from McCotter’s work. The haiku and tanka mostly reflect love of nature, but others are about people, places, flowers, birds, friends, and there are even poems about medical problems, such as this tanka:

as the mammogram
begins she gathers
a secret harvest—
rhododendrons
shedding scarlet

The book also contains several pages of haiku and short poems, which are emotional, unwavering in her linguistic skills, fine distinctions and knowledge of nature and human nature, such as we see in the following two haiku:

night
a swans’ wing
everything

year’s final hour
frozen leaves
a rustle of regrets

The haibun in this volume range from very short pieces of less than thirty-seven words, plus a haiku, to a couple of two-page haibun, in which several haiku are integrated. The slighter haibun in the collection are part of the necessary mulch which produces the beautiful longer poems. What distinguishes the haibun is their distinctive use of lower-case, run-on lines with minimal punctuation, as we see in “haiku”:

guardians of small things which stop the mouth of single sometimes sleepy seconds these poems are made from the hollow sky-beached bones of gold and fire crests and willow warblers or weightless on my palm the hibiscus kissing hummingbird that vanished when softly the rains came

morning moon
old wound stirring
then the wren

While McCotter may pin down the relationship between the artifice of haibun and its emotive content, one question remains unanswered: are the subjective mental states of the author necessarily all that interesting to chart, at least for anyone other than the one doing the emoting? McCotter’s haibun have an almost claustrophobic feel to them, the lines of the poet’s thoughts unfolding on page after page in unpuctuated lines. For some readers, following these lines will be exhilarating. For others, the experience may prove distracting.

True, authentic epiphanies are found in many of the haibun where the prose and haiku are integrated in such a way that both gain by the context each provides the other, giving a pleasing unity. Such an example might be seen in “moon burial,” a poem about a turtle leaving the sea for the first time in three years. The last lines read “her sloe eyes know someday in open ocean a silken shelled harvest will grow.” “how could I not love this man and there was night in the garden,” McCotter states in “for judas,” the first haibun in the collection. It’s a poem about Judas Iscariot, and his love for Jesus. The lines strike a characteristic note. McCotter is rightly prized for her ability to honour human qualities and to celebrate the beauty of the natural world, especially that of Northern Ireland where she lives. This honouring flashes out, sometimes freckled with unusual words in several of the haibun, haiku and tanka in this collection. Although there is a glossary in the back of the book to aid the reader, there are several words we may not recognize, such as “slummocking,” “salanstone,” “couchant,” “ringle-eyed,” “lintwhite,” “sprent,” “schille,” “teveryah,” “sweven” and many more.

McCotter is to be prized too for her linguistic skill, her “run-on” prose and the simplicity of her haiku. “horse dream” and “female blackbird” show her in this vein, as does the lengthier haibun “night recitals” which is dedicated to the memory of Katie McGill, where she asks

what would you have made of your funeral would you have thought we should have said a word or two or more for you recalling plush nights

The concern with capturing the truth of story-telling is central to the haibun, giving us statements like “this sea is a harp its beach schille deposits of aeolian rhythms—sands where no sleep ever comes for always further back we lie among the belemnites” (“belemnites”) or “I insisted it was gone could such a vacancy fill itself? Were you a miracle bird?” (“hypnotist”). But the search for truth also powers other haibun, poems such as “whale rider” and the longer haibun “like himself,” in memory of Murt McGill, which concludes

scented and shrouded on white satin under the scrutiny of a crucified jesus and a welcoming virgin the snow fall of masses still to be said and there against the wall that lean keen-eyed sentinel the coffin’s lid Murtagh on the name-plate doesn’t he look like himself soft on a neighbour’s tongue.

The prose in these haibun has both content and meaning, the haiku providing a tangential meaning to the prose. We are enriched by the poet’s thoughts and experiences and her responses to the memory of loved ones. Several of the haibun are dedicated to people known by the poet, i.e., Phil McCotter and Martina Lowery; others are dedicated to the memory of Katie McGill, Murt McGill, Tony and Jim McGill, Sean McCotter and Sinead McGill.

Although the narrative style of the haibun remains the same throughout the collection, there are elements of anecdote, character portrait, vignettes of life and nature reflected in the prose. “horse dream” is about a chestnut mare; “female blackbird” describes an unnamed bird; “soul bird” depicts a white bird and “whale rider” a baleen whale, while “earth raven” and “dead desert flower” pay tribute to the glories of nature. Much of the authenticity of McCotter’s work comes from the reader accepting the polished and focused imagery, the emotional breadth of the poems and their insight into nature and human nature.

McCotter has gathered an impressive number of poems together of superb quality. She has presented them in a beautiful book, worthy of the poet and her work, and one that invites the reader to read and reread.

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