HCSHR 4:25—John Stevenson, My Red, The Selected Haiku of John Stevenson


HCSHR 4:25—John Stevenson, My Red, The Selected Haiku of John Stevenson. Taylorville, IL: Brooks Books, 2021. 978-1-929820-21-4. 24$US + s&h, brooksbookshaiku.com/Stevenson-MyRed.html

Review by Pearl Pirie

John Stevensons My Red is a selected from over 2100 poems published over the past thirty years. It quickly has become my favourite book of haiku with three re-reads in a couple months. The poems are succinct and good at setting out details that allow the reader to draw in the rest. For example

done blooming
the peonies
unbend                                                                                            p. 103

How many years have I seen weighed down peonies and never noticed them after their colourful period? Of course they would straighten. And it suggests to me after the raising of children, the burden of life is lighter.

How does one evolve their eye to make such a densely attentive but minimalist poem? 

The publisher’s opening preface explains: From these poems that John Stevenson published over the decades he chose his favourite 744 poems. These poems were put to 10 readers each giving a vote up or down. From the first round about 133 haiku were clearly in the YES category. We followed with another review of the MAYBE haiku resulting in another 97 being selected for inclusion. 

It is hard to winnow down this solid set of poems to what to draw to your attention. Really you should buy the book and read them all. But heres another that struck me:

for office plants
it rains
on Fridays                                                                                       p. 27

No doubt a matter of once you know the rules you can break them and make a haiku that is one grammatical sentence. Its the unconventional point of voice, of seeing the world with compassion from the point of view of plants. We are their context and weather systems. We have therefore a responsibility to this environment we closed off from the sky.

A refrain through the collection is looking at things from not ones own point of view, seeing self through eyes of the ex-wife, or the other person of the title poem (their red, versus my red). Theres humour and humility. Theres a stepping back so ones own eyes arent given default primacy;

groundhog day—
it doesn
t matter
what I see                                                                                        p.84

The poems are thought-through but neither remote and indifferent, nor unemotional. They are refined without losing their edge.

three times Ive said
your husband…”
now we can just talk                                                                      p.31

A beautiful rendition of social rules there. How many times in talking with partnered people do we need to dance & signal boundaries we’ve recognized. Ive not seen that before so elegantly put in poetry.

the roosters
first five syllables
all he
s got                                                                                       p.34

That reads on two levels at least. The difference between our speech and complexity in bird speech, but also opens to a reading of the beach bully and beach wimp where the toxic masculinity meathead hasnt got that much on offer compared to the intellectual male. 

It is common for me when reading even a selected to find poems that strike dull notes, or for me to skim pages with uneven tone. This wasnt the case. Each reading can go deeper

Pearl Pirie
December 2021


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