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Volume 35.3
Autumn 2004


book review

Deep Shade, Flickering Sunlight: Selected Haiku of O Mabson Southard


Reviewed by Pamela Miller Ness

Deep Shade, Flickering Sunlight: Selected Haiku of O Mabson Southard, edited by Barbara Southard and Randy M. Books (Decatur, Ill: Brooks Books, 2004). 126 pages, 8H´´ x 5H´´, perfectbound paperback. ISBN 1-929820-05-4. $16.00 from the publisher at 3720 N. Woodridge Dr., Decatur, IL, 62526.

The publication of Deep Shade, Flickering Sunlight is an important contribution to the haiku literature because it brings together for the first time a large selection of poems by O Mabson Southard, one of the pioneers of English-language haiku. Edited by Southard’s only child, Barbara, and poet-publisher Randy M. Brooks, the collection includes more than 230 of what the editors consider Southard’s “very best work,” a brief biographical introduction by his daughter, and two reader-response essays by students of Brooks’s Global Haiku Traditions course at Millikin University.

Ordway Southard, born in 1911 in Cambridge, Mass., attended Harvard University for a few years before dropping out owing to tuberculosis. After his recovery, against the wishes of his family that he pursue a standard career, he decided “to cultivate an independent, unconventional lifestyle.” In 1936, he married Mary Carr Boggs, a graduate student at Radcliffe College, and the two began a lifetime of travel and social activism, settling in New York City in 1949, where the poet started a moving van company and published a chess magazine. For a decade beginning in 1961, the family lived in Hawaii, during which time Southard published his first haiku in American Haiku and, in 1967, his only book of poetry, Marsh-grasses and Other Verses. In 1971, he settled on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, where he lived until his death in 2000.

Most of Southard’s haiku, organized in this volume into four large sections titled by general weather phenomena and into smaller groups by locale, reflect the places where he lived and traveled: the marshes, forests, mountains, water bodies, and the moon and sky. Observing without ego from outside the poem (rarely does Southard use the pronoun “I”), he celebrates the generosity of nature, the daily gifts made apparent to the receptive observer:

Still sunlit, one tree;
into the mountain shadow
it lets fall a leaf

the interconnectedness of all things:

Mingled in the falls—
the water tones of others
higher and lower

and the “thusness” of nature:

Under the new moon
thin-edged with evening sunlight
a snowy hilltop

A very different group of haiku recall childhood memories, especially remembrances of a physical (seemingly incestuous) relationship with his sister. In these haiku the poet speaks in the first person from within the poem, yet each experience is still inextricably linked to natural phenomena, as if the poet is saying that all human experiences are part of the natural world:

By her side, I wake . . .
Still above my sister’s breast—
the top of the moon

In our dark tryst-spring
my sister shows me her self—
and a dawn-tipped spruce

Southard rigidly followed a 5–7–5 syllabic structure, organized in three lines, with an initial capital letter and standard punctuation (minus a final period), and frequently wrote his haiku as complete sentences. He made extensive use of prepositions, often beginning a poem with a preposition indicating location (“in,” “through,” “under,” “to,” etc.), and incorporated numerous adjectives and adverbs, often unnecessary (such as his frequent use of the adverb “now”) but seemingly used to meet his syllabic requirements. On the other hand, he played with words, creating unusual hyphenated nouns and adjectives such as “goose-gabble,” “pine-roar,” and “surf-cool.” Moreover, Southard was a poet who understood the musicality of the language and fully exploited the poet’s prosodic toolbox. He used consonance with innovation and subtlety:

Washed from the shell mound
by the cedar-shaded waves—
the bones of a child

gracefully employed internal rhyme:

Dull blue now, the snow;
deep in one window, the glow
of the setting sun

and occasionally even brought off the effective use of end rhyme:

Just crumbling stone walls—
and still the catbird recalls
the swing of a gate

Southard’s weaker haiku tell rather than show, often through the use of abstract or intellectualized verbs, or through the unnecessary use of personification. One wonders too how differently his haiku would read had he freed himself of the rigid syllabic form and eliminated unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions. For example, to this reviewer’s contemporary haiku sensibility,

In the mountain breeze
the long slender branch still sways
with the porcupine

reads better as:

mountain breeze—
the slender branch still sways
with the porcupine

Southard chose to write in form, however, and in reading and appreciating his work it is necessary to respect this choice. Certainly, the best of his poems have a rhythm and musicality that is difficult to achieve in more minimalist haiku. Southard’s haiku reflect keep powers of observation, deep empathy, reverence for nature and its mysteries, and an acceptance of all experience just as it is:

This misty morning—
adrift on the high water
an empty canoe



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