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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 3, September 2017
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Jeff Streeby
Walkerville, Michigan, USA


Review of Stone Circles by Cynthia Rowe

Stone Circles by Cynthia Rowe. First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Snapshot Press.

Readers will find that Rowe’s collection has a wide emotional appeal with yet a distinctly Australian flavor. From the anxiety and dread of farmers facing “The Red Storm” to the sense of dislocation and awkward conspicuousness in “Le Mariage” to the sense of futility and the ache of loss in “Stone Circles,” Rowe takes us, in keeping with the haibun tradition of travel writing, on a poignant tour of the State of Victoria.

Some pieces in this little collection deserve special mention. In

“The Red Storm,” Rowe’s opening haiku directs our attention to the unexpected distress of the farmstead’s chickens. In the literature of Western civilization, the chicken is an archetype of “mother and child” and by extension a symbol of the sanctity and inviolability of “home.” In the first prose paragraph, the chickens become Rowe’s “stormbirds,” harbingers who announce an approaching threat to the homestead.

In the second prose paragraph, we confirm the dire nature of the threat by the fearful reaction of the dog, the family’s faithful guardian and protector, who scratches frantically at the door, “his whine” … “almost a cough.”

Rowe’s selection and pacing of narrative detail in “The Red Storm” create a crescendo of destruction (“a layer of tin lifts from one of the pens” and “corrugated iron cartwheels down the road”) and danger (“Stakes uprooted from the garden arc upward like primitive spears”), which is met by the sufferers with resignation and patient strength as they “tape the windows and prepare to sit out the gale.” The closing haiku reclaims the symbols of “home” as a sacred and protected space through the image of the closely guarded “freshly laid eggs,” always an auspicious symbol of new life and potential.

“Certainty” is arguably the most ambitious and the most skillfully executed piece in the book. The prose establishes context (the football stadium) and metaphor (football = the larger life of the world) and the speaker’s individualized perception of “certainty.” It also elevates perception (the speaker’s memory “I can hear it now”) of the football game over its reality and gives to it a universal weight (“the solid feel of life”) punctuated by the symbolic “umpire’s whistle, sharp and peremptory” as it keeps time, enforces rules, maintains “the ritual.” In the closing haiku, the “inclusive sky” of the stadium contracts to the limits of the “crowded tram.” It is no accident that “Certainty” sounds some familiar echoes of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” Without going into detail, several equivalencies operate here: Pound’s Metro station/Rowe’s football stadium, Pound’s “apparition” of faces in a crowd/Rowe’s imagery of “certainty,” the “instantaneity” of Pound’s epiphany/the more gradually achieved but similar epiphany of Rowe’s speaker, even the images of “wet black bough/ “bare branch.” More elegiac and less optimistic than Pound’s poem, “Certainty” treats some of the same themes of emotional isolation and social connectedness and is worth a thoughtful read.

“Stone Circles,” the last work in the eponymous collection, illustrates clearly the “distinctly Australian flavor” of the book as a whole. In it, Rowe’s speaker recounts a visit to Pennyweight Flat, a children’s cemetery founded in 1852 at the height of the Mount Alexander Gold Rush. The miners of Forest Creek gold camp had examined the site, a small promontory inside the cemetery reserve, and discovered less than a pennyweight of gold. Since it was useless as a mining site, they buried as many as 200 children there between 1852 and 1857. The site is largely unchanged form its description in a press report dated 1860: “tumuli, erected without mortar on pieces of sandstone broken from the surrounding rock.”* Rowe renders her portrait of the place very well, capturing its desolation, its enduring agonies of loss, and these translate effectively across cultures. The resonances of Australian history, however, will augment and amplify “Stone Circles” to even greater effect on an Australian reader. In the age of Google, these uniquely Australian details pose no real impediment to a reader’s enjoyment of Rowe’s book. Confusing details can be resolved with little effort. It seems the Bondi wedding mentioned in “Le Mariage” haiku may be a stylish beach or poolside wedding conducted at the Bondi Iceberg Club in Sydney.

For readers of haibun, Cynthia Rowe’s book is worth an investment of time. And the book would be a bargain at 100 times the price.

About the writer:

Cynthia Rowe is a teacher, writer, and novelist from Australia. She is a frequently-published poet and haibunist whose work in Japanese forms has appeared in bottle rockets, Chrysanthemum, Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today, Notes From the Gean, Shamrock Haiku Journal, Simply Haiku, and The Heron’s Nest, among many others. She is Immediate Past-President of The Australian Haiku Society and current haiku/haibun editor of FreeXpresSions. Cynthia Rowe is a Writing Fellow of The Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW.

About the book:

Cynthia Rowe’s collection of fourteen haibun entitled Stone Circles, is now in release from Snapshot Press and is available as a free e-book.

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