TEXT review

Attending to life

review by Jane Williams


Image result for owen bullock rivers edge
Owen Bullock
River’s Edge
Recent Work Press, Canberra ACT 2016
ISBN 9780994456526
Pb 88pp AUD12.95


River’s Edge is Owen Bullock’s fourth collection of haiku. I’ve admired many of Bullock’s individual haiku over the years but this is the first of his collections that I’ve read and doing so has led me to seek out his earlier books.

As a reader who appreciates the book-as-artifact, River’s Edge is a delight to hold; soft and light in the hand, small enough to slip into a coat pocket. The title’s font gives the appearance of being submerged in the yellow / green water of the cover image. The same image is replicated on the back cover with the title reversed in a ‘mirror image’ effect; an apt wrapping for the shape-shifting and ultimately revealing words therein.

The ordering of poems in a collection impacts on how well the collection works as a whole, and in River’s Edge it works seamlessly. An aspect of each haiku on the verso page balances or compliments the haiku on the recto page, sometimes as a reconfiguration of a moment, for instance,

a gap
then the rainbow touches
another cloud (10)

the blush
in the sky has faded
morning (11)

and at other times as the next episode in a narrative, for example,

I let go
what I lost (50)

in that mass of cloud
a few of your cells (51)

In an introduction to River’s Edge, Bullock tells us of his move from (making a living from) editing and teaching to care-giving for the elderly. This desire to play more of a ‘hands on’, benevolent role in society and the inherent non-material rewards that stem from such a role are evident from the first haiku:

her little vases
this is my devotion (3)

Here we have a personal account of the writer’s devotion as care-giver to ‘her’ that also conveys the wider implication of ‘dusting’ as ‘devotion’ – that the smallest act of domesticity done attentively, with love even, is its own reward.

In her essay ‘Haiku Techniques’ the late Jane Reichhold (renowned writer and publisher of Japanese short forms) discusses ‘The Above as Below Technique’ where the first and third line at their strongest exhibit a completeness (Reichhold 2000). We can see this technique at work in Bullock’s haiku. In removing the second line we’re ‘left’ with –


this is my devotion

His collection is full of acts of attending to the everyday with affability and respect;
human connection is shown to be a vital counterpoint to professionalism:

my male client’s back
in a bloke-ish way (41)

As someone who considers walking an integral part of her own creative process and of being in the world, one of my favourite haiku in the collection is –

walking a road
I drive daily
nothing familiar (25)

An initial surface read by someone new to haiku could interpret the tone / message as one of apathy but with a deeper (slower) read what comes to light is a startling revelation – that by simply moving from the fast lane (driving) to the slow lane (walking) a whole ‘new’ world opens up. While the sentiment of this revelation is of course not a new one, the individual’s experience of it is, and that is what this haiku celebrates and illuminates so successfully. As with the best of other, longer poetry, the best haiku keep giving with each read.

There is irony and humour too, juxtaposing similar and contrasting images to reinforce or surprise:

in the surf
a skinhead
breast-stroking (22)

avoiding the bumps mascara in progress (57)

From Basho (as wandering artist) and Issa (as humanist) to Shiki (as observer and creator of haiku as we know it today), the meandering and revelatory journey of this succinct and challenging art form continues.

Since the 1950s, Western practice and interpretation of haiku has flourished,  morphing from the traditionalist 5 / 7 / 5 three line format steeped in the natural world, to first person one-liners and even four-liners attracting countless poets from the likes of Jack Kerouac to Seamus Heaney.

River’s Edge honours the human experience as part of the natural world – there are very few haiku in the collection that do not have a human component. Like the birds in Aldous Huxley’s final book ‘Island’ that mimic the word ‘Attention’, these haiku remind us to attend to the ‘smallest’ moments of our lives, as if it is they that shape and define us.


Works cited



Jane Williams is based in Tasmania and writes in a variety of forms, including haiku. Her most recent book is Days Like These: New and selected poems 1998-2013. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Canberra and has read her poetry in several countries including Slovakia where she held a three month artist residency in 2016 and created a series of photo-haiga.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste