Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Not Quite Haiku: A Review of Haiku Mama (because 17 syllables is all you have time to read)

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By Kari Anne Roy; illustrated by Colleen O'Hara (Quirk Press, 2006; $12.95)

I would love to love Kari Anne Roy's Haiku Mama. Haiku -- a classic Japanese form most often consisting of three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables -- is the sole form of poetry I read consistently. Not a fan of the "Oh, fleet, flying crane" variety, I seek the funky, the impudent, the Tokyo nightlife of the haiku world. Roy's pocket-sized volume, with its cheery, red-and-peach cover and alluring subtitle, purported to suit me like white on rice.

Hopes flung like whole fish!/Roy's splendid idea does/not a great book make. A good book, however, yes. Roy, proprietor of the blog haikuoftheday.com, certainly has a sense of humor, and a handful of the 100-plus haiku deliver the promised "laugh-out-loud observations." My primary issue with Roy's undertaking is not that her humor veers toward the gross:

Snot on monitor
gives things a nice soft focus
until it flakes off.

Enough sake-fueled nights in Kyoto have convinced me that haiku need not confine itself to wilting chrysanthemum blossoms. I enjoy the comic contradiction inherent in juxtaposing an ephemeral art with the mama life of barf and poop and howling offspring. My primary objection is that Roy rarely offers up a true haiku.

Haiku is more than three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables. Each of the three lines needs to present a stand-alone image that, in context of the story told by the haiku, evokes what haiku poet Alexey Andreyev calls "certain bright moments of life" -- quixotic, troubling, deeply tender, or simply a flash of time whose specificity caught your attention. Ideally, the images in the first and second lines create the friction that sets up the big-bang finish. If you can be funny while doing all this, you can do anything.

Occasionally, Roy does just that:

Red leaves on tree
glitter poop in the diaper
It's the holidays!

Each line presents a single image -- in the case of the second line, a striking and original one. Without inserting herself into the poem, Roy conveys a mama-specific perspective. She even slips in a "season word," the word that creates a backdrop (often environmental) for the "haiku event." "It's the holidays!" is haiku.

Unfortunately, the majority of Roy's ditties pay no such attention to craft. She generally settles for thoughts wrestled into the requisite five-seven-five form:

Tennis ball in sock
sad yet apt description of
post-nursing boobies.

If a writer has but 17 syllables, "sad yet apt description of" wastes seven. Give me a second image to equal "Tennis ball in sock," driving to "post-nursing boobies." Haiku incorporates cultural references as a kind of shorthand for the reader. "Tennis ball in sock" will strike gold with Roy's. Another of the same caliber would have resulted in an outstanding haiku.

While I am all for "just" being funny with haiku, to my mind, the best of the form layers humor into image and story, calling up profound feelings in the reader. Here, Roy is less than successful on a number of levels. Few of her haiku even attempt the profundity of motherhood -- a ripe field, given the constant flux between hysteria and the hysterical. Nor is she consistently as vibrant as when describing her tush: "Small, like fresh ham steak." Her observations, while wry, are more often than not typical for the Indie-mom genre: kids who won't eat vegetables, let alone organic ones; Hip Mama feeling fake catching self in hands-on-hip posture.

The subject matter feels played out when compared to identical ideas explored with more depth by Marrit Ingman in Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health Out with the Diapers. And I do mean identical: the mall photographer's creepy prop, that irritating Wal-Mart lighting (my thought: Roy and Ingman both/Austin Indie writer-moms/yet both shop Wal-Mart?), the oddly casual references to losing one's mind. More disturbing, where Ingman forthrightly (if blithely) addresses post-partum depression as "going nuts," Roy's equally flip "burgeoning insanity" is tossed off in the introduction, ne'er to be mentioned again. I begin to wonder how seriously I am supposed to take this woman.

All this to say, most readers are going to love Haiku Mama. For every one who feels Roy falls short of the form's restrictive demands, there will be ten who will leave a copy in the bathroom or diaper bag to grasp for in those critical moments of needing someone, somewhere, with whom to commiserate. Haiku Mama is the ideal baby shower or new-parent gift. The chuckle in the title alone is worth 13 bucks. Roy does a fine job here. She could have been great, is all.


Alle C. Hall’s work has appeared in or on Creative Nonfiction, BUST, Swivel, Literary CafĂ© Radio/KMUN Portland, The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and several anthologies. She was a contributing writer at The Stranger, for whom she interviewed (and pissed off) Leonard Nimoy. She edits a free, monthly e-mail newsletter with publishing tips for writers.


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