New York: Vanguard Press, 1981.
Wow, that was a packed month! February saw Penny Harter and me giving readings in Pennsylvania, giving workshops as visiting writers in four different schools, attending a national conference in NYC, and judging regional Poetry Out Loud contests at two different venues–though we missed a third that was snowed out (rescheduled to this month). (Details on our “Events” web site.) And now I have a backlog stack well over a foot high to write about here.
I recently stumbled across William Heyen’s Lord Dragonfly in a nearby used book store, whose shelves I peruse once every 4-6 weeks. (Thank you Chatham Bookseller! Always a pleasure to look through your fine collection of good reading in excellent condition, on subjects like poetry, history, art, and nature, not to mention your fine collection of classical music CDs.)
I have been somewhat familiar with Heyen’s work for over 20 years, and particularly recommend his “An Open Letter to the Brockport College Community”, published in American Poetry Review in 1989, about the inanity of haggling over whether to include this or that work in the “canon” of what is taught, in a college English department meeting, when there is a fair possibility that the human species would be extinct within a hundred years. In that letter-essay, Heyen exposed an elegant unwillingness to suffer fools gladly, and a demand that we stay on point: Set aside partisan academic bickering and engage the true issues of the day that face all of us, regardless of age or occupation.
The brief “Note” Heyen includes at the front of Lord Dragonfly seems to me similar in tone, if aimed more at himself than, or equally, at the reader. It’s worth quoting entire:
Lord Dragonfly consists of five sequences of poems written between 1974 and 1979. I’ve arranged the sequences here not chronologically, but in an order that itself forms, it seems to me, a sequence of sequences, each a consciousness defining its crises, straining to know, coming to something it can hold to. There is a clearing in the white space between sequences, but then a circling back, if obliquely, until, I hope, Lord Dragonfly sees from all sides at once.
The title sequence, “Lord Dragonfly”, falls second in the book, but is central in its humanness, announced in the opening three-line verse, a haiku:
A friend dies.
forcing the lilac to flower.
While not all of the verses in this sequence are “haiku” or even three lines, all are spare, and all revolve around a human awareness of the physical, natural world. Two more examples:
Pure white found
a wild rose to live in,
Half the mantis still
prays on my scythe blade.
Some more complex thoughts come across in longer stanzas, but not much longer. Here’s one, two verses from the end of this sequence:
In the far galaxies,
yes, but here,
even the blackberries.
Most of the other sequences here feature fewer than 36 verses/stanzas/short poems with more lines in each, though the round returns to a Japanesque 36 brief verses at the end with “Evening Dawning”. Here, too, haiku and haiku-like verses contribute substantially to the changes rung on nature and our life in it:
How long have I been here,
scent of pinesap
flowing through my chair?
Lord Dragonfly, seems to me, illustrates beautifully how haiku can enliven an ongoing self-examination that looks out at the world as well as inward at the light and darkness of a thinking being. It’s a book I’ll not soon let go.