Journey Through Light: A Review
By Donna Bauerly
Raymond Roseliep, Listen to Light: Haiku. Alembic Press, 1980 (1744 Slaterville Road, Ithaca, New York 14850). 128 pp. Hardcover, library binding $10; paperback, perfect-bound $5
The title of Raymond Roseliep’s new volume of haiku intrigues me. Listen to Light. Once, long ago when I first learned the word “synesthesia” and followed the word with the concept of “perceiving simultaneously with more than one sense,” I began to be curious about the “sound of red” or the “weight of silence.” And here, now, is poet Roseliep asking me to “listen to light.”
Even before I begin the volume’s journey-adventure of 200 haiku, a triptych of light on the back panel of the jacket entices with the pronoun “we.” “Firefly” is telling—
Five kanji (bamboo brush illustrations) signal the way the journey will be structured. “Light” is pictured opposite the title page, and when I leaf carefully through the book I find that the other kanji mark the four seasons: “firefly” for spring, “skylark” for summer, “owl” for autumn, and “crow” for winter. Haiku celebrating those seasons are the telling signs:
with the corkscrew voice
for rain sound
of your hand
One of the winter seasonal signs leads me to another search—
is it you?
Is the poet telling of his own seasonal cycles as well? The “soul” of the lost flake takes me back to spring and the “firefly” to begin spring discussion of the poet’s own boyhood and adolescence. The new-born world is frequently seen through the boy-poet’s eyes, watching “the black hen” or grandma in her “heirloom rocker.” The young boy is already aware of death, another season, but that note is gently sounded—
in the widow’s veil
blown from dandelion
Brother-loss is the first intimate death the poet records, and the light fades momentarily at the close of “Firefly” when the “lightning bug” after dusk takes time out to refuel.
Light! I follow the maturing poet in the summer of “Skylark” which opens with “morning song” and closes with dawn after the death of his father.
with his going
the birds go
The loss in those lines—three “gones”: the father, the birds, the names. This is the threat that Roseliep gave us before in his volume The Still Point. The haiku of “mu”—the “nothing; none; empty.” The fearsome, awesome state of Zen preparing for enlightenment. So the light comes:
at my fingers
I join my body
And a skylark fittingly ends its own season, rising into the light as does the poet at dawn.
Another bird alights to take the summer bird’s place. The haunting notes of the owl’s voice pervades the autumn reverie in Listen to Light, and loss is over all.
the lilies in November
nor the small coffin
Consider this haiku of “Mu” at its sharpest. The “never” living next to the word “expecting,” canceling out life. The “no” in November with lilies, an Easter re-birth flower, out of season. The “nor,” again a negative, preceding the small coffin—a child, perhaps a still-born (ah!) infant.
Roseliep does not erase this pain of loss for us. The next few haiku reinforce loss: in a “moonless wood” or “not seeing,” in “distant weeping,” and a “white orchid/on her coffin.” We revisit his father’s grave and catch our breath at the sight of the poet (momentarily a boy again)—
my mother stock-still
before the balloon I put
on my father’s grave
When “dawn/scraps/us” at the end of “Owl” I wonder if light is still our friend, a stay against a final dark?
“Crow,” that blackest of birds with overtones of another black bird who croaked “nevermore,” stands almost as a barrier to the final season. The first winter haiku is not encouraging. We need to screw our courage to the sticking point for the rest of this haiku-journey. The stillness in the first pages of the winter section is frightening; the “she” in various haiku, a warning. One parent stands still between the poet and his own death. Could the mother who gave her son “red things” (see A Roseliep Retrospective for poem and my commentary, pp. 37-38) possibly be this “she” who “chops firewood/ after his homily/ on hell”?
His mother’s death comes preceded by life, “birthcry.” The haiku that follow build in intensity of remembrance and anguish; then
where I buried it
The journey proceeds inexorably. Now toward his own death. Crow in winter. Extremes of black on white: “winter garden” with eggshells, and “night walk” with surrounding eyes aglow. I feel the “Gothic ‘R’” on the poet’s tombstone and even read his epitaph—his height, his depth, and his final plunge into the vast waters of eternity—rebirth. We get as close to eternity as we can on this earth when the priest-poet consecrates the bread to “whiteless/light.” That “lost flake” appears again, cycling us to a final eternal burning:
A Trinity of flame!
Be careful where you put this volume of light. It may ignite from spontaneous combustion. Sometime in the dark of winter, while you are asleep, it may flame forth and consume itself. In its crackling, listen to light, but don’t be surprised if, from the shadowy ashes, a firefly goes off into its own light of spring—and be comforted for:
Note: The two most recent volumes of Raymond Roseliep’s poetry—A Roseliep Retrospective, “Poems and Other Words By and About Raymond Roseliep,” and Listen to Light—may be ordered directly from Alembic Press or may be purchased at the Dubuque Religious Center and the bookstores of Loras and Clarke College.