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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1

Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku
by John Barlow and Matthew Paul
A Review by Johnye Strickland


This book might well be called a hybrid—it is really two books, combined in an innovative way. The one I was expecting to find, a book of haiku about birds, written or selected by British haiku poet/editors John Barlow and Matthew Paul; and the one I was surprised, but delighted, to find, a bird lover's companion guide to the 131 species included in the book. The "Foreword" is by Stephen Moss, whose literary background from Cambridge and current career as a writer and broadcaster about birds with the BBC Natural History Unit at Bristol, allows him to give insight into both the British love of nature—especially birds; and the long tradition of birds in British poetry.

In addition to the poems, a significant number of the 204 haiku pages include black and white photographs of the birds. But I found this was not enough. I wanted to see a picture of every bird—especially those I was not familiar with. I interrupted my reading for a trip to the local book store, hoping to find the British equivalent to my Guide to the Birds of North America. No such luck. I will have to order it. However, I did find pictures, even videos, by googling. (And they were in color!) What this taught me was that while I am deeply interested in haiku, I am apparently more deeply interested in birds. Which fits right in with the opening paragraph of the "Introduction":

The short poems in Wing Beats offer insight into the heart of the lives, behavior and characteristics of British birds. Moreover, being haiku, they often contain underlying insight into the heart of our own lives as well. They celebrate the ordinary everydayness of birds and humans, the sometimes fleeting moments when our continuous use of a shared environment intersects. (John Barlow and Matthew Paul, p.13).

Here are a few of my favorite haiku, and favorite birds:

river fog . . .
the sound of geese
coming in from the sea (p. 24)
          John Barlow

startled in tall grass
the pheasant's wing-beat
faster than my heart (p. 48)
          Jackie Hardy

bitter winds
each cormorant upright
on an orange buoy (p.54)
          Matthew Paul

twilight . . .
a barn owl
ghosts the brook (p. 116)
          John Barlow

tethered horse—
the zip of parakeets
around a willow (p. 114)
          Matthew Paul

damp afternoon
an old man shares his sandwich
with a pigeon (p. 110)
          John Crook

Every one of these haiku touches something deep within me. I especially like the one about the barn owl, because of the suggestion of mystery with the word "ghosts"; the one with the tethered horse, because in my experience it has been the parakeets who were tethered; and the "damp afternoon," reminding me how often we interact with the ever present urban pigeon.

The last hundred pages of the book contain very useful appendices on "Taxonomy," "English Names," "Scientific Names," "Season Words" (21 pages!), "British Status and Season Word List" (42 pages), and one on "The Compilation Process." There are also copious notes and sources, and a brief bibliography on both "Birds and Natural History" and "Haiku." All in all, a rather impressive work. And one that will invite rereading every time I am inclined to write my own bird haiku.


Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku
by John Barlow and Matthew Paul
Illustrations by Sean Gray
Snapshot Press 2008
PO Box 132
Waterloo, Liverpool L22 8WZ
ISBN 978-1-903543-24-5
Hard Cover 15.99