Kyoto is by far the most wonderful city on this planet as far as I'm concerned. This honest declaration on my part is in part meant to forewarn any and all that I come to a book like this, dedicated as it is to Kyoto and its passing seasons, with a certain undeniable bias. And apparently I'm not the only one who feels the draw of this fine city. The poet of this collection, Edith Shiffert, is a Canadian-born American citizen who has lived and worked in Kyoto since 1963 as a professor, poet, and translator (she was one of the first to translate the haiku of Yosa Buson). As such this nice little selection of short poems is both an enjoyable read and an excellent example of expatriate culture in Japan's old capital. Especially the outskirts thereof. Most of the poems are set in or around the semi-rural outlying zones of Kyoto, particularly up in the northeast around Mount Hiei. These are nature poems, then. You get precious little sense of Kyoto as a major modern urban space (which it very much in part is) but a strong sense of the refined yet rustic parts of the city whose deep charm enchants so many near and far. The poems themselves are arranged by the month of the year and are written in the form of haiku--three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. That said, many of the poems contain no set season word and otherwise stray utterly outside the standard conventions of haiku--which is why the poet has chosen not to call them such, opting for a more generic term of "brief poems" instead. Clearly this is an artful dodge. Some of the less successful ersatz haiku herein suffer accordingly, coming dangerously close to sounding like prosaic statements of fact. Strip away so many conventions and there's not much left to make it "poetry" per se. Others are a bit too quaint for my tastes, bordering precariously on cutesy. But many more are quite clever, witty, lighthearted, or better yet uncomplicatedly evocative in that inimitable haiku manner. There are even some real solid gems scattered here and there for the attentive and sensitive reader to find, deceptively simple observations with real depth and poetic power. Overall the lighter vein prevails though--which in and of itself is also a poetic mood not to be, er, taken lightly.
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