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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1
 
 

Jack Fruit Moon
by Robert D. Wilson
A Review by Linda Papanicolaou

 

return me
dragon to the
elephant
grass field of
too much time

With this invocation begins this remarkable new collection of poetry. Issued as a trade paperback by Modern English Tanka press, it is the largest collection yet of Robert Wilson's published art and poetry. For those of us who have been following the development of this author's writing through his participation and leadership in online poetry forums and in his earlier publications (Vietnam Ruminations, serialized in World Haiku Review, 2001 and Tanka Fields, White Egret Press, Groveland CA 2006), Jack Fruit Moon is a revelation. Of its 204 pages, 165 are poetry. There is a foreword by Sanford Goldstein and a preface by Steven D. Carter. The author's own introduction is a brief, colorful autobiography that shows just where the poems come from.

cockroaches
are early risers. . .
jack fruit moon!

Written and compiled following the author's retirement from school teaching in California and his move to live full-time in the Philippines, Jack Fruit Moon is replete with local color. There's a glossary in back where you'll learn that the jack fruit itself is large and looks like a cross between a melon and a toad's back. Carabao, which wander through many of the poems, are water buffalo; balut is a cooked chicken egg with embryo, and halo halo is a dessert made from fruit, beans, crushed ice, milk, flan and soy beans.

Telescope these into images of the stars, moon, rain, clouds and dreams that are the more common signifiers of poetry, and the result is a surreal world in which "rationalism . . . is turned upside down or is sent whirling as on an endless merry-go-round" (Goldstein, p. 5). "The world the poems present is a porous one where people and things drift on breezes, pass through each other, dance around each other, or merge into sparkling scenes that often begin in quotidian reality but end up—well, somewhere else. . . for what these poems do is to allow us to witness something—something recognizable, but distinctive and unexpected—coming into being in words" (Carter, pp. 8, 9).

The imagery is complex. The poem may be a simple shasei:

humid night. . .
her address on a crumpled
piece of paper

Or its meaning is more open but the poem can still be easily visualized:

at night
she bathes me . . .
apricot moon

"What is a 'tall whisper'?" asked Carter rhetorically of one poem. "I don't know. I'm not sure that I care. I just love the words . . . " (Carter, Preface, p. 110). Indeed, one can simply read the book and love the words, though it's also instructive to probe and see if they will yield up the meanings they may have had for the author. It's instructive, for instance, to realize that 'Return me/dragon,' quoted at the beginning of this review, is an amalgam of images from Vietnam Ruminations part III (www.worldhaikureview.org/1-3/pages/whcvanguard_wilson4.shtml):

in the elephant grass,
spent shells
made of skin

tunnels everywhere—
not a seasonal worker,
the dragon

And with this, we realize that much of the imagery in the book is from the realm of memory. A soldier comes and goes, as does the dragon, a reminder that for the author, this return to Asia is the closing of a circle.

in bed
listening to rats scurry
across the
tin roof of an
old war movie

In an inside blurb for the book, Ikuyo Yoshimura recalls that "Vietnam Ruminations. . . gave us a strong punch, challenging our lukewarm living." So does Jack Fruit Moon. Inhabiting the book are Philippine street vendors, fish mongers, squabbling neighbors and children who will never see their own dreams come true. They may go about their tasks "without asking for our sympathy" (Goldstein p 6) but in letting themselves be shown within these pages, they do so with the dignity and humor that's typical of any small town's citizens, here or there. Third World poverty? It is there aplenty—the book bears honest witness to muddy streets, non-existent sanitation, and hospitals with cockroaches, cats and pools of water in the patient wards. Writes the poet who has chosen to share this life with them:

i saw
their maid under
the table,
piecing together
mirrors . . .

how does it
feel to wake up
at night
beneath a table in
anyone's dream?

Robert makes it all look so easy, as if poems simply flow from his pen, but that belies the study and craft that underlies his writing. Here, as always, he pushes envelopes. Those of us who've followed him in online workshop groups know about his explorations in strings of tanka combined with haiku. Generally, the poems have been posted in clusters with others written at the time. The result is an airy, play of rhythm and images where each poem retains its own integrity while linking to others in the string.

In Jack Fruit Moon, the author has laid down a structure: Throughout the book, the poems are regularly four to a page, haiku alternating with tanka. The string is book-length, punctuated at varying intervals with photographs and photo haiga. Like music, this sets a beat through which the poems ebb and flow in riffs and layers. As one reads deeper into the book, beginnings and endings disappear and there is only a boundless sea of imagery. Thoughts, dreams and memories, poems, words, sounds and images surface, resurface in endless repetition and variation, sometimes forming page-length strings within a string, other times recalling sounds and images from pages back. Sometimes the riff is varied, sometimes unchanged. The effect is a text that has cast itself free of linearity. Each poem offers itself not in a string but in a matrix of all that surrounds it, up, down, backwards and forwards on the page spread. It is a dazzling reminder that we have barely tapped the possibilities of English language haiku and tanka, either as short-form or as linked verses.

For those of us who have been following Robert since he began to tell us of the killing fields in Vietnam Ruminations, through the troubled dreams of Tanka Fields, Jack Fruit Moon brings a sort of closure to the triad. To be sure, Vietnam is there throughout the book. He tells us that he still suffers from PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome), but in the poetry at least, one senses a coming-to-terms. Perhaps it's living among the poorest of the poor in Asia that lends perspective; perhaps, in part, the natural result of age and experience:

I'm getting
older, feeling what
my father
felt when he wore
pointed cowboy boots

Without giving away the ending to Jack Fruit Moon, let me just say that the book concludes marvelously with a haiku on this very subject—age. It's about an autumn fly but oddly upbeat, and it sits in the uppermost position of the final page, conspicuously above a space with room for more poems—a reminder that there's more to come. . .

 


Jack Fruit Moon
by Robert D. Wilson
Modern English Tanka Press
2009 $16.95 USD
PO Box 43717
Baltimore, MD 21236 USA
ISBN 978-0-9817-6914-1
www.modernenglishtankapress.com