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

Volume 12, Number 4, December 2018
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Harriot West, Shades of Absence, A Review by Patricia Prime

Harriot West, Shades of Absence, Red Moon Press. (2018). RRP: US$18. Pb, 78pp. ISBN: 978-1-947271-22-7.

Harriot West’s first collection of haibun, Into the Light, was a co-first winner of the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award. Her haibun have been published in various anthologies and she is currently working on a collection of ekphrastic poems.

Shades of Absence contains haiku, poems, haibun and tanka prose. The collection is divided into five sections: Prologue, Wishing-coins, Planes and Shadow, Shrouded Boughs and an Epilogue.

The title poem, a haibun, “Shades of Absence” (18), recalls a friend’s memory of 9/11 and the phrases “how empty the sky” and “Not a single contrail” are powerful phrases – there is menace here, threat, the upsetting of the natural order. The poem ends with the beautiful, quiet haiku:

summer’s end
all the color bleached
from the yarrow

“Dreams of Luminosity” (20) is a moving tanka prose, recalling a sister and the poet’s mother. The final lines are deftly handled: “But I don’t have a sister and mother never draped a scarf about my shoulders.” “Tucked away” (23) says something meaningful about the poet’s mother and why she “needed pills to sleep ad pills to smile.” The poem is perfectly pitched, and the technique used for it wholly appropriate. “Afterwards” (28) has a gentle touch in a haibun about loss and contains the wonderful sentence: “He didn’t know a hole in a spider’s web could make him weep.”

“Winnowing” (32) is a lengthier piece in three parts, in which the poet writes about some of the people in her life: her boyfriends, her husband and her mother. “Chaff” (35) is a minor gem, and short enough to print in full:

The last time I see my ex, he tells me he finally understands how much I wanted that child and he still thinks about the choice we made a long time ago and he tells her he’s sorry, really sorry.

billowing curtains
what the wind
carries away

overall, the shorter poems seem to say more than some of the Longer ones, and more interestingly. I particularly liked “Of Course There Were Rats” (39). In this poem, the poet is young, in Paris, about to discover she has been let down by a young man. The poem ends with this haiku:

je t’aime . . .
what he whispered
in her ear

It is far too easy to bewail – too many poets do this – but to celebrate realistically is far more difficult. This is one of West’s strengths. It shows again in the poem, “In Another Country” (42), where she writes:

If only I’d stood up for myself. But it wasn’t like that. I simply moved on to the next man.

bindweed –
such an easy metaphor

he scoffs
I nod, too embarrassed
to ask what he means

“The Proverbial Straw” (47), is a tight, clever piece about people’s assumption that they “were the perfect couple”, but they are not and, as we assume, each wants their own way. “Shrouded Boughs” begins with the haibun “Past Continuous” (55). Many poets write about memories, but West’s poem deserves its place among them. The poem ends:

Even my fir floor tells a tale – indentations where Jill teetered on stiletto heels three years before she died in childbirth.

painter’s drop cloth
all the colors
of other rooms

What makes the haibun so compelling for me is that they delve into a lived life, and this is done by a writer who has been published in many anthologies and is a fine poet. In “Good From” (60) we witness someone who is being questioned about her husband and “She always feels it’s her duty to cheer people up . . .” “If Only” (62) takes us to anther woman, whose “. . . face is haggard, the winkles more pronounced.” “Robert’s Wake: March 18, 1987” (68) transports us to a funeral, where a man called Stephen walks in the door:

. . . this is Robert’s friend and when Stephen walks over to the casket, most of the mourners look away

whispers
of snow falling
filling footprints
beneath shrouded boughs
of ponderosa pines

In the final haibun, “I’ll-fated” (71), the poet is “rushing to buy groceries for supper”, when she sees Michael, whom she doesn’t want to confront: “He’s lost a lot of weight and almost all his hair so somehow hi how are you feels like prying . . .” The Epilogue contains one poem, “Slow Moving River” (75). In this haibun, the poet sits with friends, whom she’s known for forty years, talking about

someone’s kidney stones, a granddaughter’s facial piercings, and whatever happened to old joe what’s-his name . . . while somewhere upstream a child casts her line into the slow moving river.

Harriot West has crafted an excellent collection of her work. The narrative journey throughout Shades of Absence is like a journey, as the poet’s life unfolds, each new mutable perspective fascinates. Sometimes you heart will race, tense and be exhilarated. Sometimes you will simply want to take time over each poem and savour its meaning.

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