Children of the Sparrow
Robert Gibson
Holly House Publications
Seattle, WA 1999.

A while ago, a friend sent me a review of Robert Gibson’s "Children of the Sparrow." In it, this poem was quoted:

she’s gone…
rain beats and beats
on the skylight

The juxtaposition of facing a loss, and the insistent, faceless rain, reminded me of a similar incident that happen to me, and the poem made me realize again how powerful emotions can be captured in a few lines.

When I read the book itself, I found other poems that instantly sunk into me. Such as—

quiet morning
near the stern of the boat
a moose eats lilies.

In the stillness of the morning, paddling on a sequestered lake in the woods of Pacific Northwest, the poet hears the big moose clumping away at his breakfast…reminding the poet that he hasn’t had his breakfast?

The poem comes not from detached, scientific, observation, but by being able to evoke one’s "participatory consciousness." Although, as Haruo Shirane points out, "For Basho and other haikai poets, the poetic canon was conceived not so much as a body of texts, but as a highly encoded body of poetic tropes and their poetic essences," * a successful haiku, like many of the poems in Robert Gibson’s book, can also be felt to have captured a moment of body/mind dropped, the forgetting of one's self as an isolated entity.

autumn morning
yellow chrysanthemums
touched by sunlight

It’s autumn, and Nature prepares to enter the hibernation Winter calls for. Yet, this morning a compassionate ray of light touches the chrysanthemums, as if the sun’s color were reaching out to a hue of itself.

Although in "Children of the Sparrow" haiku’s tradition of references to the natural world is well-represented, even in midst of sprawling metropolitan areas, where most of us now live, nature is still easily observed. Trees line the avenues, weeds prosper through cracks in pavement, people have planted flowers in front of their homes, everywhere life is programmed to thrive. From tall-standing buildings, the poet sees life’s mission unfurled:

twelfth floor
looking down on white gulls
blue pigeons

I find this refusal to give up living in a larger, more unpredictable, world, living with what is not human, not captured, not under our control, heartening. Besides biodiversity being needed to keep the planet viable, keeping the path back to who we were clear of overgrowth, allows us to judge what we are making ourselves into. In these times, when success is measured by how much money one makes, how much superfluous stuff one owns, living sparely, with the integrity awareness affords, is not an easy task:

morning again
leaves have been falling
                          all night

Although the Way of Haiku offers no rewards in the usual sense, something in the psyche of persons who spend lots of time writing these small, extremely demanding, poems opens to a consciousness in which

                                                            great snowflakes
                                                            drift straight down
                                                            not a single thought

Perhaps what is most amiable about "Children of the Sparrow" is its author, with whom, as I said at the beginning of this review, I felt an immediate kinship through having shared a similar experience. Although we’ve never met, according to the book’s colophon, besides having taught psychology and anthropology for thirty years on the college level, Robert Gibson spent summers among the native peoples of northern British Columbia, as well as being an instructor in Japanese Martial Arts. With a life exposed to myriad cultures, death, too, sings in his soul:

dead snowbird
in my hand
almost nothing

A less accomplished poet would have written "nothing," instead of "almost nothing." A telling phrase, as it pauses at a threshold to, in retrospect, contemplate the inevitable, which, as far as we know, only a human being can do. And being human, discovering what this means, and can mean, is what, at bottom, haiku strives to reveal.

The brush paintings of Karen Klein bring a complimentary energy. And, even though they lose some of their original texture to the printing, like many of the haiku, their authority is evident.

*H. Shirane, Traces of Dreams. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1998. p.185.