Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand
On James Norton's The Fragrance of Dust
The Fragrance of Dust: Haiku Stories Poems by James Norton. Uxbridge, Alba Publishing, 2012. Paperback, 102 pp. € 15.00, US $16.00, UK £12.00. ISBN: 978-0-9551254-8-5.
James Norton worked in the field of therapeutic horticulture for the past 13 years and teaches within the Shambala Buddhist community. He has been an editor and is a founder member of Haiku Ireland and the Redthread Haiku Sangha. The Fragrance of Dust is his second collection of haiku and haibun.
Norton is a thinker, a lover of the lyric line, so it is that certain words can be applied to his writing: modest, assured, precise and finished. This is a poet who likes structure. His collection is subdivided into nine sections, and the sections include haiku, poems and haibun.
The Fragrance of Dust invites its readers in with "Owl House Days," the section opening with the haiku:
She walks her horses
up the long hill, three heads
bowed to the rain
The haiku is followed by a poem and a rensaku, "Rook rensaku." The opening lines immediately taking the reader into the heart of the experience:
Roar of the beaters from the wood
in the garden leaves fly
from our rakes
"Three Abandonments" contains three poems: "Portrait of an Ox and Unicorn," "Crazy Diamond" and "Mute Celestial." "Doublin' Back" opens with four haiku which lead on to three haibun, several haiku, three more haibun, three haiku and two more haibun. The haibun feature vivid vignettes about two well-known Irish poets—a homage to Yeats and Joyce, for example, in this excerpt from "Sandscript":
Baby William Butler Yeats was wheeled in a carriage through these streets. Young Stephen Dedalus strode into eternity along this strand. There Bloom ever wanders, ogles Gertie while his Molly plays. Which is real, who imagines?
mirrored in sky-pools
Hand in hand
two tiny figures
The sea disappears eastward each day and comes back speaking in tongues, cries of seabirds voice unsayables, the waters riddle answers in sandscript and each night erase.
It's a magnificent haibun in which the sound of the sea mirrors Joyce's riddling words and expressions.
"Between Bridges" takes us on an early morning walk through the streets of Dublin, where Bloom spent his waking hours:
A Sunday morning in early July after a night of warm rain, clouds promising more, the air tumescent with scents. At Lansdowne Bridge on impulse cycle upstream along the Dodder—An Dothra, the Flood—towards Ball's Bridge.
The contrasts in the haibun are a delight, while well-placed detail evokes a world that is surely passing, along with the donkey rides that are mentioned in "Knockree":
City children holidaying. There am I in sepia, seated on a donkey, its ears back, not pleased. No more I am myself, braving it, but her arm around me and she smiling. Happy then.
The next section, "Westerlies," is composed of a haiku sequence, individual haiku and seven poems. The poems serve to illustrate another facet of Norton's writing: his tendency for lyric phrases and cadences. Here we have the grace of lines and stanzas, the imagery and intensity of diction, as we see, for example, in the final two verses from "At Thoor Ballylee" (Thoor, meaning tower, once the home of the poet W. B. Yeats):
The tumbled mill.
Out back a damson:
The sounding water rushes on.
In "Another Country," two haibun are dedicated to friends: the first, "Welsh Rarebit," to the eminent haibun poet, Ken Jones, and his wife Norah, and the second, "One for the Slate," to Jane and Mickie. "Welsh Rarebit" is a lovely example of the poet's recollection of a visit to Jones and his wife in Cym Rheidol. It is a vignette of the poet's love of history and nature, reinforced by perfect precision, as we see in this final paragraph and following haiku:
Something shifts. The truth of being as it is. Place and moment gather into completeness. We limp back to Plas Plwca as night falls.
two skeletons embrace
Three haibun and several individual haiku are grouped under the heading "Aragonese." The first of these, "Romerias 1, 2 & 3," is particularly good. It focuses on a visit overseas to see a sculptor friend. The haibun is constructed in beautiful shapes, sound and tone; here is the haiku and opening paragraph from the first section with its frustration at airport holdups brilliantly evoked:
hearing silence in each creak
and fading footfall
Bedlam at the airport. It seems we all want to leave. Security can't cope. I miss the flight, and ring to say no go. Then I'm on standby. Six hours to explore Departures.
In the second haibun, "A Tear of the Sun," the poet is in a Spanish supermarket "stocking up for a week of mountain solitude, in flight from Christmas jingles." And in the third haibun, "Ruta Orwell," he writes:
The trenches and sandbagged redoubts are reconstructions but the scouring wind and the sense of melancholy in these hills is real.
the heroic struggle against
boredom and lice
"Warrior Cries" contains one haibun, "Leaf-bursts", and three poems. "Leaf-bursts" takes us to Poland, where
Apartments from the soviet era squat beside crumbling brick barns, greying timber houses. Implements in yards, each eloquent in its own, the broken and the useful, in rain and sunlight, idleness and labour, just as they are. Black soil of vegetable plots, turned and ready.
the sick cat
now into ginger fur
licks warm sun
The section entitled "Laborare est" contains three haibun and several individual haiku. The first haibun, "Yeh Go I," focusses on a "slow boy" and his delight in racing round a go-kart track:
The slow boy
hears it first
I put down the map and listen with him, hear nothing but trucks and cars roaring past. He stands quite still, looking at me. "You're sure?" "Yeh go I." Ok. A mile or so off the motorway, sure enough we find it, hidden in the hills.
The next haibun, "Seedling," is bravely honest in its portrayal of a marginal figure:
See him raking leaves on a winter's day, bent to his task, hoodie shadowing his face, he's a diminutive serf locked in the margins of a Book of Hours. See his absorbed expression listening to vintage reggae—he's burnin' babylon.
The last haibun in this section, "Something in the Air," is a delightful portrait of a workman; his day done, he admires his work:
Job done, he pauses in the roadway, looks about expressionless. The blower's nozzle swinging idly across the detritus of chipping randomly patterns the underlying surface. He squeezes the throttle gently. Shapes appear and dissolve. Smiles.
just a few raindrops
enough to release it
the fragrance of dust
Here are three haiku from the same section:
The little larch
still wearing its name-tag
it too turns brown
a snail's shadow
draws out the sun
two robins at a pear-bud
freeze in mid-flight
The final section, "In an Acorn Cup," contains eight poems and six pages of haiku. In "To a Fallen Swallow," a nature piece which has much to commend it, Norton's cadences seem very appropriate to the theme. Here is the first verse:
Sweeping round the office park
I find the little clochàn
fallen from the eaves, its nest
dissolved to mud and straw by winter rain.
That's a superb image—effective and memorable. In another poem, "What the Shed-boy Said," the poem records a boy's joy at not having to live in a bricks and mortar house, but in a cabin surrounded by natural sights and sounds:
Last night I heard the vixen scream;
the dogs went wild and bayed a while.
And so I thought—yeh,
blest that in a cabin dwell.
One cannot do justice to this collection in a review as it is jam-packed with material. The mapping of personalities and places is integral to the poet's vision and the confessional passages of the book are complemented well by his experiments with form. At his best, Norton blends the complex tradition of Japanese verse forms and lyric poetry into something wholly his own. His poems are both original and informed by the tradition he loves. They are also visually and aurally satisfying. This is a book that celebrates life, a book for which many readers should make time.
Editor's Note: This is a revised version of a review that first appeared in November 2012 on Graham Nunn's website, Another Lost Shark.