By Gilmore Tamny
Ohio Edit, April 2019
Perfect-bound trade paper, 64 pages, $12.00
I sat with HAIKU4U for several days. I read through the collection all the way through—something that can be done in an hour or so—and thought to myself, no, you’re not done yet. That’s the thing about haikus; you can read one in the time it takes to blink, but that doesn’t mean you’ve read it. It’s what you have to do with Gilmore Tamny’s HAIKU4U; sit with it and try to glean understanding from it. At roughly 240 poems, that’s a tall order. It’s hard enough to understand one finely crafted haiku, but over two-hundred? And yet, if you truly take your time, it can be done.
“The haiku (or hokku),” according to the Poetry Foundation, “is a Japanese verse composed, in English translations, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.” After the World Wars, “the haiku was appreciated for its linguistic and sensory economy…Despite its many adaptations into multiple languages and styles, the haiku remains a powerful form due to its economic use of language to evoke a specific mood or instance. Most often occurring in the present tense, a haiku frequently depicts a moment by using a pair of distinct images working in tandem.”
As I’ve always understood it, a haiku almost always depicts a scene of nature, or a sense of oneness within the universe that the composer feels when confronted with a singular occurrence. It’s one of the first forms of poetry we learn in school, writing about leaves and rivers and longed-for summer days without ever knowing what a haiku is for.
“Tamny’s poems, like most haikus, are easy to sample from, and harder still to comprehend.”
It’s important, I think, to understand a form as seemingly simple as the haiku when reading a collection solely comprised of them. It’s important to approach a collection comprised solely of haiku with an understanding of the seemingly simple form. There’s nothing simple about haikus, of course. The meaning they portray, the intensity felt in 17 syllables, is astonishing. It’s easy to gloss over a haiku; much harder to sit with one and challenge yourself to understand it.
Not that some of them won’t leave you with a little bit of heartburn. Tamny’s poems, like most haikus, are easy to sample from, and harder still to comprehend. Take this one:
“I do speak of God
you just can’t tell that I am
I’m sneaky like that”
As soon as you’ve read it, you have to take a step back and go over the nearly twenty that came before it; where has Tamny hidden words of God in these poems? Why admit it now? Going forward, you remember this adage and try to find those hidden truths.
I’m still mulling over this haiku, my favorite, days later:
reckless comma use”
I love it, not just because of the imagery or my own flagrant use/abuse of the comma in my writing, but because there is not a single comma within the entire collection. I checked. Then double-checked. Writing this now, I had to go back and make sure. (There is, of course, the poem “. , / “ ? / ! ” but I feel confident in saying this stylistic poem doesn’t count as reckless.)
“HAIKU4U is a reflection on loneliness, love, nature, observation, isolation, self-introspection, obsession, and more.”
Tamny asks you to do this again and again as a reader—go back and double check your assumptions, for good or bad. Maybe this comes from Tamny’s other artistic pursuits: she is an artist, the spokes-model of the band The Mystery as well as a member of Weather Weapon. She writes poems, essays, interviews, and stories between all of this. She is not one thing or the other, and HAIKU4U forces you to realize this. So many of her haikus feel like verses of a song, but taken together give the impression of a stream of consciousness for a day in the life of Gilmore Tamny.
At the same time, HAIKU4U is a reflection on loneliness, love, nature, observation, isolation, self-introspection, obsession, and more. Tamny’s poems give respectful nods to the tradition of the haiku while, as one reviewer puts it, “[she’s taken] haiku by the horns and pulled it into the 21st century”. There is very little restraint in Tamny’s haikus, a refreshing vulgarity that might turn some readers off. I, like Tamny, relish in it. There’s an honesty to Tamny’s poetry that reads a little like a personal essay, and there’s nothing I love more than getting into the dark, sometimes dank, underbelly of a writer.