Rabbit in the Moon—Raymond Roseliep’s Last Book
By Donna Bauerly
RABBIT IN THE MOON. Quite a leap, even for a rabbit. Yet how much bigger a leap for buddhas to get into our broccoli?
The readers of Raymond Roseliep’s latest and last book of haiku, Rabbit in the Moon, may just as well get used to such dizzying movements and juxtapositions as rabbits, buddhas, and broccoli—for they abound.
rabbit in the moon
in our broccoli
voices (p. 37)
This puzzling haiku, explained only somewhat by Roseliep’s reference to a Buddha tale, marks the end of the spring section in Rabbit. In ten words Roseliep takes part of earth out of itself and jumps it to the heavens. Then he brings the voices of the Eastern god into a Western backyard garden temple and casts a magical light over all the leapings.
Roseliep wrote many volumes of poetry. Most of them were books of haiku, arranged in traditional seasonal progressions like Rabbit. In former volumes he asked us to live One Day in the Life of Sobi-Shi, challenged us to Listen to Light, quieted us to The Still Point; but never has he asked so much energetic movement as he does now. Reading Rabbit requires a mental and spiritual agility akin to the animal in his title haiku.
The largest motion in Rabbit is the cosmic seasonal one. Once more the poet cycles a year, giving these haiku markers:
Hole in my
sock rose autumn frog snow:
letting spring body language what it is all’s
in (13) of the bee (41) the smile hides (69) new (97)
However, the poet gives us more than the external seasons. He walks around his own life, gathering markers of physical and spiritual growth. Some of the boy haiku in the spring section are easy to understand—
my father’s back
loaded with me
and other frogs (14)
Others are more elusive. In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” after his boy-encounter with a mourning bird, Walk Whitman declared “My own songs awaked from that hour.” The reader might wonder if Roseliep is telling that he, too, heard his poetic call in the boy-spring of his life:
looking for the bird
my name (21)
It would be easy to say that all the youth haiku are in the spring section of Rabbit, and that Roseliep has simply matched personal growth-seasons to the moving-on of the year. A careful reading, however, reveals that the motions in Rabbit are much more complex, especially in the light of Roseliep’s previous poetry. In 1980 I wrote a critical analysis of Roseliep’s work, “Raymond Roseliep: Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”: In it I quoted a poem entitled “Some Men a Forward Motion Love”:
“Still haven’t finished childhood” was the clause that closed his letter; then he added, “In more ways than one.” By childhood he had meant those Joycean trips through alleys of the mind I beg to leave unlanterned. He explains, it takes a child to catch a child: and swears by it. I do not tell him I am more the usual coward who transfers a fear. This lighting back perturbs me like the search through darkness for a blacker cat not there. Let midnight wicks inform a virgin’s foolish wait, or scholar’s watch. My friend is I, and I’m afraid of I, and want no backward steps. Childhood is over, and we shove ourselves to manhood, linking arm with those who feign a forward motion, or we move from shadow into shadow, not from love.
(The Linen Bands, 1961)
The early poem still seems central to the entire motion of Roseliep’s life as he shoved himself “to manhood.” In many ways this poet remained the boy-man, ever capturing the wonder of first discoveries, ever growing up through remembrances as though life all happens now, not then.
For example, when we read about his “first burr haircut” in the spring section of Rabbit, it is easy to see Roseliep the child. But when we encounter the winter section and read—
so small a child
from the moon (120)
we might be inclined to think other child. With a stab of poignancy and self-recognition we realize the child in the man holds back the specter of death, and that death itself might well be the
stranger in town
of the moon (120)
Roseliep called the complexity of motion in Rabbit his “loopings.” (Akin to leapings of the rabbit, I take it, for it is easy to identify this creature as an alter ego much like the beloved Sobi-Shi.) Throughout the volume, on multi-leveled journeys, his “loopings” are complex motions which will spiral us from the bird of spring (21) to the spring-bird of death—
bird bone dust
Or from the summer love bee with its “body language” (41) to the stillness—
the bee stops singing
who we are (65)
His life-death loopings are even more frighteningly beautiful in the autumn and winter sections of Rabbit. Autumn’s finale begins with a tribute to Pope Paul VI (92) and ends with—
from my hand . . .
on the void (93)
In a previous volume, The Still Point, Roseliep celebrated the awful suspension between life and death with haiku of mu, haiku of nothingness—moving us to no handhold, no foothold. Haiku of mu are everywhere in Rabbit, but most noticeably in the winter section, inviting disappearance:
chimes fog sleet
no stairs find hones
wind (102) sky (105) farewell (111)
But the main motion of this poet, conscious as he was of death and life-in-death, is the motion of love. The most dazzling of the haiku sequences in Rabbit deals with that emotion. Out of the background of an almost overwhelming Mother-love (a series of haiku, pp. 27-28), Roseliep takes us to another kind of loving. Once before, in A Roseliep Retrospective, I questioned the identity of this “significant other.” I will ask it again, knowing the answer will always be part of the mystery of this sensuous priest-poet lover. Once the reader admits the intensity of the love expression in this sequence, all other haiku in Rabbit tend to remain bathed in a romantic, elusive and reflective moonlight:
your hair wildwood before love: mist
bee gold where your hand the meadowlark’s on my mouth
on the move clings more alarm note air you touched (30-31)
Even Roseliep’s Henderson award winning haiku (1982)
wild swan drifting through
the woman’s body (42)
becomes more personalized across the page from
leave the dream
in the sand
where we slept (43)
Finally, I wanted to remain the objective critic in this review of Raymond Roseliep’s last book. But as I turn to the Sobi-Shi poems I know that I cannot. It is all too easy to read them as farewells from our brother and friend. Consider these:
the firefly never alone
acting like he knows Sobi-Shi and the big do
Sobi-shi’s swan song (24) in the southern sky (24)
good eye closed, gone through a moon
Sobi-Shi views Sobi-Shi still
the last leaves (75) on “Hold” (110)
Some of us wanted to cry “Hold” when Raymond held precariously to life with breath and heartbeat. He would not have it so. Instead, Roseliep left us, perhaps leaving much more to us. In this season of the Word Incarnate we have his words for life.
Thoreau watched a winter rabbit at Walden Pond, fearing that it had succumbed to the cold. Fearing for his own survival, Thoreau’s heart leaped for joy when the rabbit scampered away over the frozen ground. So, too, Roseliep’s Rabbit leaps with life.
Would we look for him? Whitman told us at the end of “Song of Myself,”
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”
And Raymond had carved on his tombstone—“against the night.”
Rabbit in the Moon ends/begins with a bravery of assertion about Roseliep’s own disappearance:
We know now where to look.
Bauerly, Donna. “Rabbit in the Moon.” Delta Epsilon Sigma Journal, Volume XXIX, March 1984, Number 1: 4-7. Also appeared in Wind Chimes.