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 Way I read a Letter’s—this—

’Tis first—I lock the Door—

And push it with my fingers—next—

For transport it be sure—


And then I go the furthest off

To counteract a knock—

Then draw my little Letter forth

And slowly pick the lock—


            #636 Emily Dickinson


            If Emily Dickinson could tell her readers how she read a letter—then, thought I, why not tell my readers how I read a Roseliep book?  Certainly there is as much care and ritual in the process I use, as much delight and magic as there was for the letter-reading Amherst poet.


            The event of Raymond Roseliep’s new volume of haiku Listen to Light began for me long before the arrival of the book itself.  Roseliep has been fairly bursting with poems—and books of poems—since the mid-seventies.  Fourteen books of poems, to be exact.  Those of us who have been following this phenomenal outpouring know when there’s a book in the making.  We get bits and pieces now and then, a haiku sequence—even the title of the volume comes to tease and whet our appetites.  I “lived” with that title Listen to Light for many months.  Perhaps some of you, too, have favorite haunting titles of books, mini-poems in their own right.  For me, Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be has always been a boost in difficult times.


            The words Listen to Light intrigued me.  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, was Roseliep asking me to “listen to light.”  I did, preparing for the appearance of his book.  Sunrises, reflections, the fire in my grate, a twinkle in a friend’s eye; I even listened to the light behind my own closed eyes.  I’ll be ready and waiting, I thought.


            It came at last.  A feast for all senses.

            And here is how I read a Roseliep book:

            The very beauty of the book itself is the first striking element.  Roseliep has been most fortunate in finding David Dayton, editor of Alembic Press in Ithaca, New York, who has taken the making of a Roseliep volume as an artistic challenge.  A Roseliep Retrospective, published early in 1980, was the first loving collaboration of poet and editor.  And what a handsome book that raucous red-bound volume of “Poems and Other Words By and About Raymond Roseliep” was.  It felt good in the hand, hefty; is pleasing to the eye—typeset by Dayton himself.  Even Walt Whitman, who knew the printer’s trade and hovered over his own books in the making, would have been satisfied with the care of the arrangement of each poem or photograph or drawing, the weight and color of the pages.  The way black appears on white is as important to the editor as to the poet.  A “dash” and its placement or misplacement can make or break its surroundings.  Cover, color, jacket, blurb—nothing escapes the eagle eye of the poet who waits to see the many become one or the precision of the editor who binds so much in place.


            Listen to Light has the same perfection of form as A Roseliep Retrospective.  Light is held in place by covers of royal blue, a cool kingly burning.  The “i” of light on the jacket is dotted by a flame.  A subtitle proclaims “Haiku”; the poet’s name crowns a kanji (bamboo brush illustration) of “light.”  I turn the book over in my hand and 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—


the scheme





are all

in it




out there


            I find myself attempting to trace the lines of the kanji “light,” wishing there was dimension to give me more “feel.”  When I remove the book jacket, my wish is granted, for here another kanji—this time the haigo (or haiku name) of Roseliep, Sobi-Shi—is stamped into the cover.  Now my fingers go once more over the brush strokes—synesthesia, reading his signature with my touch.


            The kanji hold my attention, for leafing carefully over the whole of the volume I find “light” repeated opposite the title page and four other kanji spaced evenly throughout the book.  First, “firefly” (13), then “skylark” (41), “owl” (69), and “crow” (97).  I remember that when I wrote my first review of another Roseliep haiku volume, Flute Over Walden, I discovered that the poet had marked each of the seasons—spring, summer, autumn, winter—by a different and fitting Thoreau quotation.  Are these kanji marking seasons as well?  I look for seasonal signs.  Yes, in the “Firefly” section—


opening spring

that bird

with the corkscrew voice    (16)


Summer temperature throughout “Skylark”—


heat wave:

tearing lettuce

for rain sound           (53)


In “Owl”—

autumn stillness:

the cracks

of your hand          (71)


And the loss and deeper stillness of winter in “Crow”—


lost flake


is it you?            (99)


The last of these seasonal signs, one of the hallmarks of haiku, leads me to another search.  Is the poet telling of his own seasonal cycles as well?  The “soul” of the lost flake takes me back to spring and “firefly” to find the “senryu” that, in the poetic-prose foreword to his book, Roseliep himself defines as “a satirical form of haiku, with greater stress on human events and the incongruities of things.”  (10)


            What a chuckle at this incongruity:

                                                in the tool shed

                        my father explaining

                                                my ‘growing tool’                        (25)


The “firefly” of the poet’s own boyhood and adolescence flits more than one evening in the spring section.  The newborn world is frequently seen through the boy-poet’s eyes:


heirloom rocker

rocking grandma

and older ghosts            (24)


The young boy is already aware of death, another season, but that note is gently sounded—


in the widow’s veil


blown from dandelion            (30)


Brother-loss is the first intimate death the poet records, and light fades momentarily at the close of

“Firefly” with—


                                                            AFTER DUSK



                        the firefly

                                                            is fueling



                        however small

                                                            light lovers


                                                            our bodies


                                                            to light              (39)


            Light!  We follow the maturing poet in the summer of “Skylark” which opens with “morning song” (43) and closes with dawn after the death of his father.  Birth, death, rebirth.  All bathed in light.  The sequence is beautifully executed in the section “Skylark.”  A “wet nurse” (64) precedes the warning of partings in—


the white cane

comes out of dusk,

reenters it            (65)


I should have known before I turned the page.  Even if I had, the power of his father’s death would still



with his going

the birds go

nameless            (66)


The loss in those lines—three “gones”:  the father, the birds, the names.  This is the threat 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                         (66)


And the “Skylark” bird ends his own section, rising into the light as does the poet at dawn.

            By this time, two seasons into the year and Roseliep’s own seasonal cycle, I become a bit wary.  I rise with light; I plunge to death; I rise again.  Listen to Light keeps me going in circles; circles of cycles.  A dizzy pace.  I put the book aside for a while.  I know the next two seasons, autumn and winter, will be more demanding.  Another day, I think.  Ironic!

            If you, the reader of this review, want to go no further with me in the way I read a Roseliep book; if you’d rather find your own way from here—my blessings!  (And the poet Roseliep’s too, I’m sure.)

            Take the book in hand—and heart.  I’ll tell you the rest of my way, but I would be pleased if you traced my way after you had traveled your own route with this poet.

            I haven’t heard too many owls in my lifetime.  City girl; most of my memories of the owl are from zoos.  But Roseliep has long been a hiking and camping person, and the haunting notes of the owl’s voice might come from an autumn night spent in the woods.  That owl sound pervades this autumn reverie in Listen to Light, and loss is over all.

            Loss of sight in—

the blind man’s

yellow pencil

in the rain             (73)


loss of life in—


the space

between the deer

and the shot            (74)


loss so close to life at its outset—


never expecting

the lilies in November

nor the small coffin    (78)


Consider this last haiku of loss.  “Mu” at its sharpest.  The “never” living next to the word expecting,” canceling out life.  The “no” in November with lilies, an Easter rebirth flower, out of season.  The “nor,” again a negative, preceding the small coffin—a child; perhaps a stillborn (ah!) infant.  Roseliep does not erase this pain of loss for us.  The next few haiku reinforce loss:  in a “moonless wood” (78) or “not seeing” (79), in “distant weeping” (79), and a “white orchid/on her coffin” (80).  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    (83)


We are warned; the whippoorwill mourns (83).  Loss continues:  the self in “your mirror” (86), the “milkweed/fountain/flow” (87), and “Auden is gone” (91).

            It is night again at the end of “Owl.”  The bird takes flight once more as in “Skylark,” but there is a tightening, a tension; and the rising is muted this time:



us           (95)


Is light 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 this final section.  I look awhile at the kanji for “Crow,” trace it hesitantly, wonder if all the kanji have hidden “Rs” in them.  Ah, poet, you are everywhere in this volume of light.

            The first winter haiku is not encouraging.  I need to screw my courage to the sticking point.

lost flake


is it you?            (99)


The stillness in the next few pages is just as frightening.  The “she” (102) is another warning for me.  One parent stands still between the poet and his own death.  The mother who gave her son “red things” (see A Roseliep Retrospective for poem and my commentary, pp. 37-38) might be this “she” who “chops firewood/after his homily/on hell” (112).  The priest-son goes into the dark, the snowy woods, perhaps to his father’s grave—











            -Sobi-Shi            (103)


The “you” is dynamic, however:  father, mother, self, friend, reader.  Red of “plum” and life; the “plumb” of depth and death.  The white of nothing—snowy owls in snowy fields.  The “day break” (104) is as much a plea as a statement.

            His mother’s death comes preceded by life, “birthcry” (106).  Memories crowd:


before the scrub water

to fix her hair                 (110)


the anguish—


                                                            wringing out my socks

                        mother so wan

                                                            I wring my hands            (111)


After my first reading of Listen to Light, one haiku above all others stayed in my mind when I shut out my own light at retiring.  At his mother’s death—

the cry

is here

where I buried it            (112)


Because I know the intimate tie of “red” and “Mother” for this poet, I revisit the Sobi-Shi poems in this volume and find them all “etched” in red.  The “Firefly” Sobi-Shi (37) is near the blood of his brother; the “Skylark” alter-ego is on “the path/to and from the rose” (61); the “Owl” has a plum tree red (89); and the “Crow” Sobi-Shi has “firewood” as well (102).  How carefully the tribute is given.  The gift of red is returned.  Darkness of death is warmed.

            As I might have imagined, the last part of my journey through Listen to Light is to the poet’s own death.  There is no respite for the reader save a bit of Roseliep’s senryu satiric wit.  We enter next into his own illness—

i.v. dripping;

the chipping sparrow’s

one pitch (114)


Cycles; seasons; the fact that death must come before eternal life; the fact that we are in the midst of winter.  I look out my window and see the snow everywhere; I look back at the page, and Roseliep tells me—

at the mouth

of the path

I took     once            (116)


Birth?  It happens to us once—or does it?


Death?  It happens to us once—or does it?


How many between the one and the one?  Crow in winter.  Extremes of black on white—


                  winter garden                                             night walk:

                                    the white                                                    eyes

                                    eggshells                  (119)                                       of the hills                  (119)


I asked to feel.  Did Roseliep have to take me so seriously?—


ordering my tombstone:

the cutter has me feel

his Gothic “R”                 (120)


Even his epitaph—his height, his depth, and the




per         (121)


Aye, a vast dip into the waters of eternity—rebirth (Thank God for the poet’s saving wit!).

            We get as close to eternity as we can on this earth when the priest-poet consecrates the bread to “whiteless/light” (122).

That “lost flake” appears again (123) 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:


are all

in it




out there (15)


                        #                                              Donna Bauerly, Ph.D.

305 River Ridge

Dubuque, IA  52001


Associate Professor of English

Chairman, Department of English

Loras College