Ernest Fenollosa started it, then passed it on to Ezra Pound, who influenced Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Cid Corman and Jackson Mac Low. Quite a list: encompassing Imagist, Beat, San Francisco Renaissance and the poetry of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, all influenced by different forms of Japanese poetry.
From Basho’s haikus to the bogus avant-garde works of Araki Yasusada — a postmodern Japanese poet hoax who had many a renowned poet praising his work — Japanese verse has fascinated Western poets. One can add to this eminent group the new work of American poet Judy Halebsky, whose collection “Sky=Empty” celebrates the influence of Japan while creating new perspectives in American poetry.
The collection, which won the 2009 New Issues Poetry Prize, concerns itself with language, how we use it to perceive and then describe the world, the problems this causes and the difficulties inherent in such an undertaking. Halebsky explores the materialism of words, their heft and look, their sliding signifiers and, in kanji, their nonfixed signifieds. Words observed as objects, some transient and elusive, others solid and resonating.
if I were to say, our house collapsed in the
storm, if I were to say, the china was in
pieces, if I were to say, Daddy’s voice still
echoes, even without the walls
There is an interesting approach to enjambment in these poems, as if one were falling from the end of a line onto the next, waiting for the nouns to hold steady; several of them act like hypnagogic jerks, the unconscious suddenly made real, the mind awakened by the “thisness” of words.
Poems such as “Musquodoboit Harbour” and “Gravity” use “projective verse” or “composition by field” techniques, “where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other. It is a matter, finally of OBJECTS, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and, once there, how they are to be used,” as Charles Olson wrote.
Judy Halebsky cleverly incorporates contemporary poetics into her own work, fusing the word play and syllabic precision of Clark Coolidge with Japanese haiku, while incorporating a narrative push in poems such as “Lay It Down” and “D-Day.”
Judy Halebsky studied Noh theater in Japan and is contributing editor and translator for “Eki Mae,” a bilingual (Japanese/English) poetry journal. Her poems are sensual and cerebral, abstract and formal, humorous and unpretentiously serious. New voices in poetry, ones at least who bring a fresh approach and a thorough knowledge of technique and history to their work, are rare in these days of dashed-off poems and unedited online journals.
“Sky=Empty” is a welcome addition to contemporary poetry. Using an almost tactile rhythm and construction, the poet merges the rugged landscapes of her birthplace of Nova Scotia with the seasonal variations and intensity of Basho’s haikus. In “Whale Music,” Halebsky writes, “these are the words you need for the map” — and these are the poems that will help put her on it.