Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: Peace and War

Black, Rick. Peace and War: A Collection of Haiku from Israel. Highland Park, NJ: Turtle Light, 2007. 54pp.

Let's start off by discussing what this book isn't: it isn't a polemic from either a pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian perspective.  (The very idea that there's only one Israeli or Palestinian perspective itself is a gross simplification.  But this book doesn't fall into either general camp.)  This book was not written with an axe to grind.

And not grinding an axe was one of the struggles Black went through in writing this book.  As he explains in his forward, "I have always struggled to reconcile haiku's non-judgmental, Zen-like approach to life with my own deep-seated need to protest against life's injustices.  I have an ongoing argument with God about the world's imperfections.  Simply to accept the world as it is, as Zen philosophy requires, does not come naturally to me, especially when I am in a country at war."  That Zen requirement brings to mind for me the image of a placid Abraham simply documenting the aroma of brimstone as it falls on Lot's head.

So as much as this book examines conflict within peoples and the land, it reveals conflict within the author's own perceptions.  These contradictions and paradoxes give us meaningful snapshots, such as in the following pair of poems from the "peace" section of the book (more on that in a minute):

army bulldozer
smashes an olive tree--
still in bloom

highway's edge
old armored vehicles rust
beneath cypress trees

In the first we have the force of military action overcoming nature.  In the second (and in my opinion, more provocative), we have a seemingly placid image.  Despite this feeling of peace, though, natural action is overcoming the military equipment.  A different kind of struggle manifests itself in the "War" section of the book:

empty sandbox
a mortar shell explodes
nearby harmlessly

a sonic boom
sets off the car's alarm:
false prophesy

The struggle here is not the fight between metal and wood but the fight between moment and memory.  Especially in the second poem, the memory of war comes into the moment for just an instant, but an instant can be all it takes to trigger a flashback.  (Along those lines, if you haven't seen Waltz with Bashir, do so.)

So which of these themes-- war or peace-- takes primacy in this book?  Well, that's just it: the binding doesn't really let you decide.  The work is bound dos-à-dos, so neither theme is "first" or "last."  Normally I wouldn't call the binding of a book out as such, but I think this method of presentation helps reveal the deconstruction of such stark terms.  Saying a book has "ended" is a lot easier than saying a war has "ended."

Unfortunately, in this format I can't just place these poems back-to-back to let you pick one to read first.  They are each the last poem to a side.  So I inserted a little of my own bias in ordering the two to leave you with.

last clouds-- 
if only the violence would
drift away, too

rainbow's arc
the old city's domed rooftops
still glistening



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