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August 2006 Issue VI:3

Special Feature

Between The Lines
A book review by Scott Metz

In Borrowed Shoes
by Fay Aoyagi
Blue Willow Press, San Francisco (2006), 108 pp, $10

What we find on the cover of In Borrowed Shoes, Fay Aoyagi's excellent second collection of haiku, is an extreme close-up photograph of (what I believe is) a calla lily taken from above, an angle and proximity not unlike one chosen by the painter Georgia O'Keefe. Though the subject is something from nature, it is being shown to us from such a vantage that we must reexamine it, rethink it, take a closer look. It takes on a different meaning, perhaps even becomes a different object all together. What we find on the cover we find in the poems inside.

The haiku within continues right where her first collection, Chrysanthemum Love, left off, offering up more highly subjective, confession-like, poems that take us further into the layered mazes of her world and soul and the ways in which these two come together, if they're separated at all. The collection itself is a journey through Aoyagi, precisely what a good collection of poems, I think, should be. What this second collection makes certain is that this is the way Aoyagi writes: with great emotion, care and precision on most any theme or subject. Nothing seems too far out of reach or disparate for her to crystallize into a haiku. This second collection in many ways solidifies who she is, what moves her, what's on her mind, what's makes her write and what perhaps lies ahead.

Our modern times and popular culture come into play a number of times throughout In Borrowed Shoes:

hint of autumn
I rewind
a Kurosawa film 

Here, during a moment of stillness and mostly darkness, the beginning of a season and a style of film-making come together to form something wholly unique and new, something modern in itself, a feeling unto itself. And what is this hint, this feeling? Is it the smell of the beginning of death, a reminder of death, or merely a slight plunge in the evening temperature? More than the simple act of rewinding a film is occurring. No doubt there are invisible knives involved. 

summer festival--
my Astro Boy mask
has lost its power

In this one there is something much more lighthearted, less sinister, yet tremendously emotional nonetheless. It's no doubt Obon time in Japan, a period when everyone is on vacation visiting their families and paying respects to the deceased. For children, though, it is a time of fun since it is festival time with lots of sweets, food and goodies for sale. But there are also games, toys and huge displays of masks based on cartoon characters to ask for. Astro Boy is a hugely popular character in Japan, a household name. For Aoyagi though, putting on this strong and popular character's mask from her childhood isn't the same anymore. What power has it lost exactly? It's effect on Aoyagi? It's effect on those around her? A combination of the two? What isn't being fulfilled? For a poem with such a strong, simple first line--putting us right in the scene--combined with a piece of modern merchandise, there is an amazing amount of depth and emotion in this haiku, a sadness and a feeling of lost innocence which can no longer be retrieved. Then again, masks are as ancient as they come, so it's certainly not too extreme an object. It's just given a modern, colorful twist.

With so much subjectivity throughout Aoyagi's work though, an occasional objective haiku rears its head with a scream.

tiny sour oranges--
a kabuki actor
with bleached hair

Could Aoyagi in some way be referring to herself here, the modern artist working in an old form? What draws me into this poem though is the setting I imagine and the colors. The oranges of course give us their color but also put me back under my kotatsu watching TV during the winter months when I was living in Japan. A kabuki play would now and then be on TV (or better yet an interview with a kabuki actor out of costume, behind the scenes) and a bowl of tiny oranges not to far out of reach. Like so many of the collection's haiku, this poem involves a process of peeling and seeing what's inside, what lies behind the makeup and wig. What's inside and how much have things really changed?

Modern situations and references to popular culture and literature abound throughout the collection in interesting ways.

bumper to bumper traffic--
am I Dr. Jekell
or Mr. Hyde?

letters offering
0% APR . . .
lotus seeds pop

lacy gloves
will I metamorphose
into Vivian Leigh?

In other haiku Aoyagi refers to Pippi Longstocking, Shangri-La, horror movies, Rapunzel and Bob Dylan, among other things, a technique the Japanese masters often used, referring, for example, to Chinese texts and Japanese folklore. Aoyagi has brilliantly updated this technique for western culture without being overly obscure.      

The haiku in In Borrowed Shoes also have an amazing way of asking and reminding us what we remember, how we remember and what triggers us to remember things. There is a strong sense of the psychological throughout.

spring herbs
do you remember the name
of your first grade teacher?

in how many languages
can I say 'thank you'?
              wild mustard

cutting lemons
how many nursery songs
do I know in English?

ants out of a hole--
when did I stop playing
the red toy piano?

Other haiku touch on the rather surreal, where everything seems to burst with life and a consciousness.

river stones
they remember the salmon
from the year before

frozen moon--
"RSVP required"
from the fox god

Part of the collection's journey also seems to take us back with her to Japan, forcing us to look at what it's like to "go back", to revisit, to reopen wounds and personal history, and therefore, hopefully, heal and move on:

I ask myself why
I burned the bridge

morning stroll
in borrowed shoes--
split-open chestnuts

tiptoeing past
the old well
this summer moon

Aoyagi is at her best though when she creates juxtapositions, allowing her readers a bit more involvement and their own lives and imaginations to wander and perhaps fill the spaces left open:

her split personality
and collection of rings

winter roses--
I am tired of reading
between the lines 

winter drizzle--
redwoods absorb
the city inside me

It amazes me how Aoyagi uses nature and the seasons in her work. These references always take us further into poems. Never are they used to merely "report the weather" or as some cheap prop. There is always a necessity for them, a need to find a deeper, more complex meaning with whatever she combines them with. Whether they are indeed "real" and true to the moment or imaginative creations seems entirely beside the point.

The photographs throughout In Borrowed Shoes add a great amount of depth to the collection, reminding us to look closer at the poems, and therefore at ourselves. For both the poems and the photographs there is more than meets the eye at first glance. Everything asks to be meditated upon further.

There is something for everyone I think in this collection, perhaps because we get so much of the author in this collection. For anyone seriously interested in what today's English haiku looks like, In Borrowed Shoes is a must and in many ways a guide to show us how to do it best.

I leave you with my favorite haiku in the collection, a poem of subtlety, layers, mystery, psychology and our ever floating world:

through eye holes
of a paper mask
I watch the gate closing

Fay Aoyagi's second haiku collection, 'In Borrowed Shoes' was published by Blue Willow Press. If
you are interested in purchasing it, contact her at: fay@bluewillowhaiku.com.

Fay's website is: http://www.bluewillowhaiku.com/

Copyright © 2004-2006 by Roadrunner Haiku Journal. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.