NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Port Light: A Hay(na)ku Collection by William Allegrezza
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2014)
William Allegrezza edits Moria Books and teaches at Indiana University Northwest. He has previously published several volumes of poetry including In The Weaver’s Valley, Collective Instant and (with Garin Cycholl) Aquinas and the Mississippi. He is also the author of a number of anthologies and seven chapbooks. Among other things, he founded and created Series A: a reading series in Chicago from 2006-2010.
Port Light is more fully titled “A Hay(na)ku Collection” For readers who may be unfamiliar with this 21st century diasporic term, a hay(na)ku is a tercet-based stanza in which the first line consists of one word, the second line two words and the third line three words. The form can be reversed (where the longest line is placed first and the shortest line is placed last) but this is the exception rather than the rule. The form was invented by Eileen Tabios.
Most of the poems in this collection are single entities in their own right which cover a range of subject matter. Others may be said to form some kind of grouping, whether it be the series of nine sequences that deal imaginatively with the earthquake disaster in Haiti or the linked poems relating to cartography. There is also a prose poetry section headed Response Poems in which the poet responds to hay(na)kus provided by Eileen Tabios. This combination of hay(na)ku and prose is known as “haybun.”
The sequence relating to Haiti is for me the most significant poem in the book. Allegrezza is not generally regarded as a poet of place. Indeed, he often thinks of place as being more important for fiction than for poetry, but the Haiti earthquake made him intentionally focus on the island for this sequence. It is in this poem that we discover the book’s title, Port Light. Moments of harsh realism, such as the opening hay(na)ku:
earth spreading time
our open eyes
are matched with the stark abruptness of accumulated, random objects which convey the sense of disjuncture felt by the survivors:
wall. car turned.
Here, music can suddenly sound in the strangest of places. In an interview with Dupur Mitra, Allegrezza admits that music plays a large part in his writing so that he sometimes focusses more on the sound than the meaning:
a rock has
hand. a rock
my hand. a
Because the sentence overrides the 3-2-1 tercet by one word, Allegrezza is able to offer up a soundscape that is not far off from a lullaby with its infectious sing-song repetition while at the same time ensuring that the nouns end cleanly in the final 3-2-1 tercet. The last tercet leaves the reader with the brute force of nature weighed in equal syllables against the fragility of human life. The drama lies in the description which is, of course, in stark contrast to any words that might resemble a lullaby.
Several shorter poems in this volume are clearly born of observation and human understanding. The first poem in the book, lessons, drew my attention. Even though it is a theme that has been approached in the same vein many times before, it still seemed fresh to me. Here it is in full:
to me with
toy. “glue it,
says, but i
things once ruptured
In an interview with Tom Beckett, Allegrezza expressed the hope that poetry could help us ultimately to be individuals in our own right and to be accepting of each other. He hoped that it would foster a respect for, and a way to, the person within. This awakening is expressed with precision in the poem entitled politics:
the world but
way a flower
in a barren
thud wakes you.
Later in the book, Allegrezza imagines that he was once a cartographer and makes the connection between the craft of drawing maps and writing poetry – the shaping of continents and the shaping of words. He then explores this single idea through a series of successive poems in which he concerns himself with the landscape of the heart, the creative instinct, the artist’s ability to listen to the music within, the artist setting himself free from the restraint of literary devices and the scribe striving to be true to all that he has seen but finding it impossible to hold a mirror up to nature. If there is any conclusion here it is that the poet must map out his or her own journey in what can only be his or her own way.
The final sequence of poems in the book reveal a preoccupation with the written and spoken word – its diminishing effectiveness, its reduction at one point to mere mathematical symbols, its fragility and vulnerability over time, the moment when no-one wants to listen anymore.
Returning to that interview with Dupur Mitra, Allegrezza was once asked the question “What is poetry?” He didn’t have a set definition but there were several that were close to his heart. One of these was that “poetry is language condensed.” The hay(na)ku is a useful means to adopt for this purpose and Allegrezza chooses his words carefully so that his poems and their subject matter fit well into this mould.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014).