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Volume 34.1
Spring 2003

book review

by David Cobb


reviewed by Michael McClintock

Palm by David Cobb, with a foreword by Carol Rumens, linocut and handprint by the author; crayon portrait by Georgie Roy (Essex, England: Equinox Press, 2002). 88 pages, 8.25" x 6" paper, perfectbound. ISBN: 0-9517103-4-6. £7.95 ($12.00 postpaid airmail printed-paper rate to the U.S.) from the publisher at Sinodun, Shalford, Essex, CM7 5.5N, United Kingdom.

David Cobb’s work as a haiku poet and haibunist has appeared regularly, one even might say abundantly, over the last dozen years, and is therefore familiar to readers of this literature on both sides of the Atlantic. The biographical note at the front of the book mentions that he did not publish his first poetry until 1989; he has indeed been a busy writer since that year. Previous collections include Mounting Shadows (Equinox, 1992) and Jumping from Kiyomizu (Iron Press, 1996), both of which won Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award recognition, in 1992 and 1997, respectively. His haibun, “Snowdrops in the Dark of a Dream,” took third place in the recent Nobuyuki Yuasa International English Haibun Contest 2002, cosponsored by the British Haiku Society. (See review, below.) Cobb’s career with UNESCO and the British Council, and as publisher’s agent and teacher of English as a second language, has taken him on assignment all over the world—to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—before retiring to village life in East Anglia in 2001. In spite of this traveling life, or perhaps because of it, Palm shows clearly that Cobb takes the long yard of his inspiration from his native Britain, particularly the “palpable mossy Essex” of his home.

This is a hefty package, and the variety is engaging. Over 180 haiku appear in 30 titled groups or sets of poems appearing together on a page, two sets of which are more formally identified as “sequences,” (“Tanabata sash” and “codpoppies”), one group as “a round” (“hellbound”), and another group as “parallel soliloquies” (“barbed parsnips”). Cobb’s haiku, grouped as they are, have for me more the impact of an informal, often playful sketch, a detail or object often wryly observed and served up to ponder, as we imagine he did; Cobb's country road, village path, or ramble along the edges of urban decrepitude are rich in variety and subject matter. Some examples from these sets, which typify Cobb's language, tone, and the direction of his eye:

the torrent passes
in soft slow ripples
through the gills of fish

drill squad
marching with fixed bayonets
into fog

poky hotel
no room for my shadow
to unpack

Many of the poems in these sets are senryu, or ironic observations of human behavior; this collection and its landscapes are peopled with characters of all kinds, and we encounter them with pleasure, amusement, and often surprise:

his nails squeak also
the Black teacher
with the short chalk

for the opera’s final act
talking football

a pretty stranger
she more certain than me
how long to smile

More than eighty additional haiku—may we call them “Cobb-ku” and still intend only respect?—appear in sixteen haibun, which themselves range from the very short “at the Rec” with two poems and one prose paragraph, to the longer, more involved “A Day in Twilight,” a haibun consisting of more than seventy prose paragraphs interspersed with dialogue and twenty-eight haiku, along with two or three other poetry forms.

Here is a sample of his prose, taken from “A Day in Twilight:”

Stench. A poultry-farmer has created a new highpoint on the horizon with a hillock of turkey-muck. From tractor wheels, droppings welt-deep. In a county where twenty-two inches is reckoned a wet year, the council leaves the cleansing of a sunken lane to rain. A mobile phone mast mimics a balding cedar tree. Cackle from a disturbed scavenging bird.

magpie, so furtive—
you know no one
thinks you did it

Windtangle of old man's beard over neglected hedges. Foul ditches. On verges of the lane newly-sprung grasses pierce through herbage rotted by the frosts. Now a line of oak trees compose themselves in a variety of eccentric but for them comfortable postures. Like venerable seniors slumped before a cold grate, I feel they demand a lullaby.…
at which point Cobb does provide the lullaby he has in mind. His language is muscular, full of sound and the weight and shape of things.

Additionally, Cobb has packed into the book fourteen poems in a variety of configurations, ranging from unrhymed, free-verse quatrains to adaptations after the Chinese of Chou Pang-yen, Tu Mu, Liu Chung-yuen, and others. Many of these exhibit lines that are rich in alliteration, assonance, and the occasional sustained metered accent. In the overall structure of the book, they contribute a refreshing change in pace and style, creating limpid pools of simple verse by which to sit and reflect before moving on. Here is one that I particularly liked, “soldiers in flight.” In miniature, it reflects much about Cobb's poetic motivations and craft—once again his peopled landscapes and locales, as well as his love for narrative and simple, moving story:

Mist shrouds the water,
moonlight sinks into mud.
Tonight our boat is moored
on the Chin Huai River
close to a tavern.
The girl they have paid to sing
knows nothing of our defeat,
that the nation is broken.
Her choice of song is all wrong:
“Flowers in the old backyard.”

–after the Chinese of Tu Mu

In reading this book, I found that the individual poems gained greatly from the context in which Cobb has artfully placed them. This is one of the chief contributions, I think, that he makes to the genre. Quoting the poems as I have done here, isolated from their immediate context of others in the group—or in the case of poems taken from haibun and the surrounding, all-important prose—takes away some of their full impact, which tends to be associational and cumulative, often needing the group or prose context to maintain integrity. Standing alone—as many maintain that a haiku must—they are frequently less sharp, memorable, or accessible, but that is precisely what makes him such an interesting poet. Cobb’s rural sketches of seashore and countryside, places and people, hill and dale, small farms, ponds, bourns, and all the rest of it, are delivered with vigor, energy, and a winsome enthusiasm all the more believable and real for its occasional dark underside. He is thinking and feeling—reacting, responding—not just passing through in detached languor, or jotting things down in a catalogue for the sake of detail. His obvious deep love for and skill in the English language creates verbal oil paintings, not watercolors, sumi-e, or abstract canvasses of smeared or exploded paint. There is much to praise. Though we may indeed find here and there an image that warrants our quiet meditation and sounding for its “suchness,” Cobb’s haiku are not best described as either meditative or epiphanous; they are vigorous and excursionary, and well worth our enjoyment and study. I think his contributions to English haiku are strongest in his haiku arrangements, and in his haibun—and these he delivers with abundance, clearly achieving wholes that are greater than the parts. Now I think I'll swear off conclusions and stay tuned, as this poet is far from being finished with his work.




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