Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: Sketches from the San Joaquin

McClintock, Michael. Sketches from the San Joaquin. Highland Park, NJ: Turtle Light, 2009. 30pp.

Even if I personally have a fetish for 17 syllables, a lot of great poets don't. And judging by the number of times I've seen Michael McClintock's name around haiku circles, he counts as a great poet. McClintock seems to use the form as it serves him, but is unafraid to stretch and truncate his lines to provide real punch in some cases.

with no kites in the sky
the wind
moves on

The behind-the-times formalist in me has a little trouble getting on board... but the kid in me likes the frosting side! Seriously, the sparseness adds to the windy feeling here.

The collection moves through the cycle of the seasons, beginning with spring poems and moving through summer and autumn to finish in wintertime. This natural theme structures the work overall, but smaller and tighter cycles can be found in other poems, such as the following:

A shining world--
dewdrops for the duckling
and the beetle it eats.

Along with hearkening to the yin-yang, this poem reminds me a lot of that great old hymn/Cat Stevens song, "Morning Has Broken." It's a poem that gets better the more I think it over-- and that's the very essence of what haiku should do, no?

Other poems succeed by providing jarring contrasts within three lines (a number that McClintock does maintain throughout). The main contrast seems to be between beauty and death/violence, as in these poems:

Easter morning...
a woman with an axe
walks into the chicken house

where three drowned
the lake water
sparkles in the morning

the day heats up--
I make the dog's grave
deeper by a foot

As much as I liked the collection, I did have the occasional quibble with McClintock's wording. A few poems seemed a bit looser than they needed to be, especially since we're already breaking form. Take the following example:

this is how life is--
hearing the cricket at dawn
just as it ceases

Once we've settled comfortably into the nature/meditative mode of tradition, shouldn't all these poems be "how life is"? Another occasional chafing-point was the use of some poetic inversion, such as in this poem:

eating a pear--
how small the seeds
in this modern variety

The poem seems to be bending over backwards to avoid using an existential verb. Additionally, though I recognize that punctuation isn't a staple of modern haiku, why did the em-dash and the ellipsis get a pass in this case? These aren't questions that in any way ruined the book for me, but they did make me wonder.

Overall, McClintock has put together a pretty nice book here. I got a feeling for the wildlife and the farm workers, for the flowers and lakes and all that nature-y stuff in the San Joaquin Valley. It didn't compel me exactly, but I have a firm respect for how the work is organized and the portrayals of the landscape. It's a book that made me think in color, and thus is worth reading. And while this book wasn't my favorite of all time, I'll definitely be on the lookout for some more of McClintock's work to get a better appreciation of his poetry overall.


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