Shaped by the Wind, by Ferris Gilli (Liverpool, England: Snapshot Press, 2006). 80 pages; 5 x 7 . Semigloss color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-903543-16-0. $20.00 from the publisher.
Ferris Gilli, the author of Shaped by the Wind was, at the last moment, unable to attend last summer’s Haiku North America conference in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Snapshot Press authors were scheduled to read on Saturday night — and as they gathered to practice, Roberta Beary (who, despite her protestations to the contrary, is more bossy than I am) pointed a forefinger at me and proclaimed, “Anita, you will be Ferris Gilli?!?” And so it was that I ended up reading Ferris Gilli’s poems as if I were she. The challenge was to do justice to her work even though I had never met her and didn’t know anything about her (at first I wasn’t even entirely sure that Ferris wasn’t a “he”!). How was I going to be able to speak in her voice? The editor of Snapshot Press had selected the poems to be read and prepared a script for the entire group, and because Snapshot Press’s shipment from England hadn’t arrived (and, sadly, thanks to U.S. customs, never did), I had access only to this limited selection of her work.
As I started to practice with the Snapshot group, however, and repeatedly read Ferris’s haiku out loud, the “voice” of the poems took over and I began to feel that I understood her. Her haiku are not abstract musings; they are poems with deep roots in a consistent and palpable reality (of experience, flora and fauna) stemming from the rural south of the United States of America — and they are definitely the poems of a woman.
Since I had experienced Ferris Gilli’s poems in this rather unusual way, it seemed natural that I be asked to use this unique perspective to review her book (which is, incidentally, beautifully designed, as are all of John Barlow’s productions). As I turned to the first page, it was not a surprise to learn that Ferris was born and raised in Georgia, and that no matter where she lives, “her heart remains in the Deep South.” This is not to say that all of her poems deal exclusively with rural matters; they deal with a full range of universal emotions such as love, jealousy, heartbreak, birth, death, wistful regret. And at the heart of each poem are the voice and the overarching perspective of a woman of the South with a deep appreciation of both nature and the human condition.
There are 70 poems in this volume (one per page) and although the voice is distinct, the images are rich and varied. There are references to approximately 58 different varieties of plants and animals: 15 birds (which is not surprising given that Ferris Gilli and her husband are avid birders), 10 animals, 6 reptiles and a fish, 12 flowers, 6 insects, 5 trees, and 3 vegetables! Repetition is minimal (the cat wins with three mentions!). Two poems could have been improved had the “tree” been identified (e.g., “an old tree split / right through the heart / first loon song”), but that is a mere quibble. At least eight poems deal exclusively with human nature, which explains the subtitle of the book: “Haiku and Senryu.”
I offer here some of Gilli’s poems that demonstrate her gentle perceptiveness:
her unborn child
news of his suicide
how many times
have I washed this cup
Gilli also makes effective use of bittersweet humor. Take for instance the following:
your initials with hers
still scar the oak
she carefully snips
a loose thread
Some of the poems have such sharp detail that one can immediately visualize the context. For instance:
the sharp snap
of a green bean
one raindrop at a time
shakes the passion flower
Most of the poems in this volume are carefully crafted, honest, and unsentimental. As in any collection, some poems are weaker than others. For instance, I find the following poem awkward and slightly precious because of the alliteration and the “moo” buried in the moon:
of the calf’s breath
Nor do I think that the following political poem works particularly well, with its forced allusion to the colors (which can also mean a flag) and stars (as of stars and stripes):
war toll rising
tonight I see
the colors of stars
On the whole, however, this collection is a pleasure to read. The poems work well on many levels and elicit a variety of genuine emotions in the reader. It is a book that deserves more than one reading and contains many memorable poems.
As to my public reading of Gilli’s poems, the bad news is that her good friend Peggy Lyles came up to me afterwards and said that I sounded nothing like Ferris?! The good news is that Peggy also said that my reading had imbued new meaning into poems that she had known and treasured for years. That was more a compliment to the poems than to me, because surely that is the mark of good haiku and senryu: that we can continue to discover new layers and new meanings in so few words.
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