Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
On Penny Harter's One Bowl
One Bowl by Penny Harter. Great Britain: Snapshot Press, 2012, ebook at Snapshot Press, 20 pp.
When asked to review this eChapbook, published by Snapshot Press, I had some reservations. I will be honest; I am an unashamed lover of the book as a physical object. And with haiku and haibun I like to spend a significant amount of time with the words, to catch the breath of the poet and fall into their rhythms. I was worried that the electronic format would not allow me to make such a deep connection, but with work as strong as Harter's and the crystal clear design work of John Barlow, these worries quickly left me.
Penny Harter is one of our finest living writers and teachers of Japanese forms. With four previous collections and numerous anthology appearances, it was a thrill to spend time with this new body of poems. Harter's work has previously been described as "direct, lyrical, light-filled" (Catherine Doty) with the power to remind us that "the wheel of existence rolls onward, and we with it, no matter what comes" (Susan Tweit). These descriptions are true of the work in One Bowl.
Written following the passing of her husband, William J. Higginson, One Bowl is an exploration of life's fragilities. The opening poem, "Estell Manor State Park," leads us deep into a gray day, where "oaks arced full over trails that faded into green or snaked into a density of swamp and lichened trunks." As we walk down that trail, a dead limb is tossed "full weight" at our feet and we are left to ask, what if . . . as our heartbeat quickens. It is this moment that opens the reader up to the thinness of life that resonates in Harter's poems.
In "After the Blizzard," "memories slip through fingers like rosary beads" as deep snow presses against the windows. In the starkness of this image, Harter lets the light of her husband in. She remembers slow dancing, "my head leaning on my love's shoulder, our arms wrapped around each other." This intimacy is further illuminated by the closing haiku:
mating, the monarchs
seem one butterfly—
wings upon wings
but it is the line, "I want to dance like that again," that leaves you with an ache as deep as the snow.
This balance of darkness and light is breathtaking and gives each poem a grounded radiance.
Two poems that continue to make my pulse race are "Against the Cold" and "The Meaning of Life." Individually, these poems are polished and complete, but together, they form the very heart of the book.
In "Against the Cold," we leave the grief support group's circle after sharing "the hard work of grieving" and a slice of "blueberry and cherry pie." On the road home,
are staring into mine from
my baby picture
This startling image is the bridge to the opening lines of "The Meaning of Life":
I sit in my stalled car by the side of the icy road, hazard lights blinking and all the doors locked. I am savoring the meaning of life that burst behind my eyes as I drove down the highway into the setting winter sun.
There is a flash of joy in this moment as she sits, her pulse "beating in time with the red warning flashes." This flash is quickly extinguished though as we realise how she arrived at this point:
I deliberately let my hands leave the steering wheel, allowed the car to skate sideways across black ice.
There is purity in the devastating power of this line.
The poems that follow take us away from this moment and move toward the coast, which acts as a metaphor for light. "Adagio Sostenuto" reconnects us with the joys and uninhibited passion of love:
Decades older now, I live by the sea, sift sand through my fingers and lower my hands into the rippling surf, searching for the perfect shell that shows itself briefly before going under the next wave.
Now my hands play you, paced to your sleeping breath, lingering on the contours of your face, your cool torso and limbs. And your hands skim my flesh, delicately tracing the shell-like curves of my ears, the slopes of my breasts.
and the closing haiku in "Low Tide" is Harter at her most playful:
breasts and male genitals
drawn side-by-side in wet sand—
a child runs through them
From these innocent steps, we arrive at the closing poem, "One Bowl." Simply put, this poem is a masterpiece.
As I load the dishwasher this evening, I think about how it would be to have one bowl, one fork, one spoon, one knife, one cup . . . and one small shelf to keep them on.
But which bowl?
In this final poem, her late husband returns to help make the decision:
A small bowl my late husband bought at a private school crafts fair thirty-five years ago, its form born from a student shaping clay on a wheel.
And what seems like a seemingly insignificant moment of creation takes on the insurmountable force of gravity:
One bowl, one spiral on a potter's wheel, one orbit of a planet round its host, pulling the spectra of a star's gaseous fire from red to blue, and back. One bowl, one arm of the Milky Way slowly wheeling through the unfinished round of the sky in the iris of your eye.
As I left the pages of One Bowl, I continued to spin in the orbit of this closing image. Such is the force of Harter's words.