James Norton is an Irish Poet and Buddhist (ie. not the actor from Grantchester) and the collection The Fragrance of Dust collates poems written over a 20 year period, from the 1990’s to just shy of the present.
There’s Haiku, free verse and Haibun within its hundred or so pages but it’s the Haibun that really had an impact on me. Perhaps it’s my love for narrative but I really did feel myself becoming immersed in some of his pieces ( an achievement in any poetry I think).
I also find his poetry very centred in his culture. A tendency with Haiku (and I have observed this in some of my early poems) is to, if not ape Japanese or traditional Haiku in content, then to be heavily influenced by it. So lots of cherry blossoms etc. Not so with Norton’s work here. It’s firmly centred in his present whether that’s Ireland or Spain.
Such a sky—
the ache of loss is answered
and returned entire
It was soon after I returned, and savouring the pleasures of
rediscovering the old amongst the strangely new, my wanderings led
me back here, to the old Fever Hospital. I looked with great curiosity
through the railings, remembering my grandmother's stories of the
months I spent here, an infant confined in isolation, numbered like
the others so that parents, prohibited from visiting, might learn of
our condition by looking in the weekly newspaper notice, the
heading of the column in which each number was placed indicating
the prognosis. Now it serves to see us out.
A handbell is ringing:
beneath boughs heavy with blossom
old men linger.
The sound breaks
across the hostel grounds
gathers up her child, hurrying,
slams the red door.
Brú: The dictionary gives two meanings for this Gaelic word (1) hostel
(2) press, shove, crush; pressure as in blood; bruise.
There’s also a suggestion here that Norton lets the poem dictate the form or even extensions of the form. Indeed he mentions in his introduction that with his Haibun and some of his Haiku sequences he’s felt free to experiment, noting some of the traditions the predated Haiku. So in the end I get a sense of a poet in command of the form, adjusting it where he thinks it services the poem. If you think Haiku and related Japanese genres too rigid, its proponents somewhat fixated, I challenge you to read Norton’s work.
The Fragrance of Dust is an excellent collection for the two reasons I have alluded to above, it is a demonstration of the various forms taken and populated with life as it’s lived/observed in the various places Norton lives/lived and it’s an exemplar of the power and versatility of Haibun.
Sadly I think it was only released on a short print run. Thankfully though it has been made available by the Haiku Foundation in their digital library.