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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 4, December 2012

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Graham Nunn
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


On Steven Carter’s Pillars of Fire

Pillars of Fire by Steven Carter. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2012. Paperback, 64 pp. US $12.00. ISBN 978-0-9572592-1-8.

Retired emeritus professor of English, Steven Carter’s haiku and haibun have won many awards and prizes. His first collection of haiku and haibun, Snow Moon (Alba Publishing, 2011), received wide acclaim, and was described as, ‘Deeply insightful...’ by respected editor, Martin Lucas. With such high praise for his debut, it is good to see the publisher investing early in the follow up collection, Pillars of Fire.

Many of the poems in this collection have been previously published across the globe in a number of reputable journals such as Presence, paper wasp, Lynx and Contemporary Haibun Online, which is an early indicator of the strength of the work in this collection. Divided into three sections—Haibun, Haiku and Wasps (micro-haiku)—the book opens with 22 haibun that range in theme from family complexities, concentration camps, music, ill-fated camping trips and UFO’s.

Opening poem “Errand” is a fine example of Carter’s taut, incisive prose. Like many of the haibun in this collection, the subject matter is unsettling. “Errand” invites the reader to enter a moment between son and father-in-law, a man described by Carter as “blunt and crude.” In this moment, the son is asked to help drown a litter of kittens, a job he finds no joy in, but does not refuse, subtly illustrating the power imbalance in the relationship. As the moment unfolds, the son is handed a burlap sack to collect the kittens and then after a silent drive to the reservoir, the father-in-law asks, “Want to do it?” And in these four words, the tension of the poem is masterfully brought to a crescendo. The younger man, seeing this as a test, a strange initiation, tosses the bag “dead centre in the reservoir” and watches it disappear . . . only to turn and see his father-in-law, “leaning on the flat-bed, back turned, pretending to look assiduously into the distance.”

The complexity of family relationships is again explored in the poem “Cousins”. Here, we are introduced to Jack, who matter-of-factly informs his cousin, “You’re probably lucky your dad died young—how old were you, seven?—before he had a chance to abuse you.” The line that follows—“By abuse, Jack means physical, not sexual”—is a rare moment of overstatement from Carter, before he plunges us into the dark memory of the other cousin. Together we watch Jack Sr. chase his son around the coffee table “brandishing a phone book” shouting “faggot!”And although, when asked, the other boy has only good memories of his father, we are hit hard when told; he found his father’s body. Carter closes the poem with the illumination that both boys have been diagnosed PTSD in connection to their fathers, the final haiku, sending a ripple through the stomach . . .

entering a dark wood
unfamiliar birdsong
. . . what we might have been

There are many other fine haibun in the opening section. Some of the standouts include “Meditation” where the poet ponders heaven through the dream-image of two French butterflies named Alphonse and Alain:

Last night I dreamed I was an emperor fanning himself in a tea garden flooded with sunlight. But when I woke up, I didn’t know whether I was a butterfly dreaming he was an emperor or an emperor dreaming he was a butterfly.

Another example is “By the Pool,” where Carter meets the ghost of his twelve year old self, “supple as a seal,” performing tricks on a diving board. The closing haiku, illuminating the poet’s dark sense of humour as he wonders whether this ghost would feel that his future self might do him harm.

swimming underwater
avoiding
the deep end

And a personal favourite, “Night of the Grizzlies,” where we are witness to the devastating power of a 500 pound sow.

These are poems with drive, poems that allow us to experience the curiosities of what it means to be alive. There is a richness in this opening section that encourages one to read on, but at the same time, these are poems that invite you back to the first page to rediscover each moment.

In the second section, Carter delivers 27 haiku, presented in the traditional format of three to a page. Some of the haiku published here, conjure the imagery of what has gone before them:

lake campfire
ripples and a voice
The gods are still around

immediately transported me to the camping ground in “Night of the Grizzlies” where Julie lay bleeding, holding on to the priest’s hand. While,

distant gravestone
sunrises
I never see

brought to mind the rich imagery of “Sacred Ground,” where we are reminded that

nothing distances man from the animals—not reason, not laughter—more than the mysterious universal instinct to smother our tears.

There are also many haiku that are strikingly new:

starry sky
I think
I think I am

Here, using a combination of western and eastern thought, Carter opens us up to the vastness of the sky, while standing at the edge of his own internal landscape; the result, a poem that continues to reveal itself after repeated readings.

Poems like this are perfectly placed alongside more playful poems:

summoning a haiku
dismissing a haiku
sangria

This has a refreshing effect, and keeps the reader on their toes.

There are many other standout poems, one which I have returned to many times is

wine tasting
vineyards
quench the rain

This poem turns the image of wine tasting on its head, presenting the delightfully thirst quenching image of the rain drinking up the grapes. This is Carter at his very best.

There are, however, a handful of haiku that do not possess the same clarity and music as these poems, reading more like three fragmented lines:

Heaven’s Peak
distant glacier
our old cat yawns

This brings me to the third and final section in the book, the more experimental, “wasps” or micro-haiku.

Carter states in the introduction to this section, “many of these poems function as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a strategy which takes the ‘hermeneutical space’ approach—leaving connections between words/ideas deliberately vague or ambiguous—to the extreme of allowing words to float in space-time with no apparent anchors or ballast, save what the reader’s imagination provides.”

These are risky poems, but more often than not, Carter manages to create a resonant image:

full
moon
. . . famishing

death-day
white
blossoms

snowflakes
touching
silence

And as with most risks, occasionally they do not reach their potential:

clouds
rose-perfume
inbox

supernova
leaf-shadow
ladybug

Pillars of Fire is a book that stays with you; its finely honed images return at unexpected moments, to haunt and delight in equal measure.

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