Book Review

Gary C. Busha, On the Dock, Wolfsong Publications, 2012 [Free by sending a home mailing address to 3123 South Kennedy Drive, Sturtevant, WI 53177, $1 requested for  shipping costs]

Reviewed by Richard Swanson

Just when you think Wisconsin poets have reached some kind of creative limit, along comes something richly unexpected, in this case, a shirt-pocket chapbook with roughly a hundred haiku, five or six to a page, all of which comprise a boyhood reminiscence. This small gem gives dual pleasure, as a large collection of well-done, traditional haiku, and as a poignant collage of images and impressions evoking someone’s early youth. 

The central character, “the boy” of the collection, is obviously Busha himself, reliving his childhood. Yet Busha never uses the personal pronoun “I.”  Rather, he uses the selective-omniscient point of view with its advantages of objective and subjective observation. We see places, events, and activity in semi-distant perspective, the larger picture, yet we can close the distance, to be right over the boy’s shoulder. This is an excellent strategy, drawing us in, yet allowing us to step back, for reflective mediation, in the haiku tradition. 

The majority of these haiku are clustered around a single symbolic place, a dock on Lake Winnebago, where Busha grew up. The time period is the Fifties; the mood, nostalgic. However, Busha has randomly included pieces that keep the reader from the fallacy that the past was always golden. In addition the author occasionally takes us away from the dock, to give the boy, who is experiencing nature, connections to a world beyond it. This adds variety to the collection.

Haiku purists will find ample examples in Busha’s pages, the traditional poem starting in an identifiable location, season, time of day, or image, then moving to a second element or spiritual dimension, and then closing on a surprising or reinforcing insight:

Out of his school duds                On the dock at night          The kerosene lantern
and into his fishing rags             a light rain drips                casts a yellow glow
the boy runs to the dock.            from the boy’s glasses.      on the boy’s sleepy face.

One haiku I especially liked for the slyness of its progression, if slyness can be an attribute of a haiku writer’s talent. In this one, line three follows nicely from line two, but then the word “flies” in line three loops the reader back to two, through the association with “fly-balls,” or “flies” as they’re known to players and fans of our national pastime:

Casting from the dock
the boy thinking of baseball
fish thinking of flies.

The majority of these haiku deal with fishing and exploring one’s natural surroundings, and the era is the Fifties, with its cane poles, small wooden boats, inner tubes for swimming, and Cracker Jacks magnifying glasses. In many of the poems, childhood is a painful learning experience, which makes the boy sympathetic, of course:

Fish hook in the thumb                                   Sobbing on the dock
learning to be careful                                      the boy holds a baby bird
is easier said than done.                                 whose neck he’s broken.

Yet Busha’s boy has a survivor’s pluck that keeps us rooting for him:

Wanting to be a baseball player                     The boy thinks
the first thing the boy learns                         when needing to blame someone   
is how to spit.                                              It’s good to have sisters around

Key to the boy’s development is a shadow character, “the ol’ man,” who appears in the last half of the book. Men readers with mentoring males in their pasts will strongly identify with this individual, who is probably a father, but may be a grandfather, uncle, or someone else. Whoever he is—and I like his amorphous identity—Busha has slipped this person into half a dozen works, as a sportsman, teacher, task-master, and spiritual anchor. In one of the most touching poems in On the Dock, the boy and the ol’ man share a fishing outing, casting together, their bond unspoken: “Whitecaps on the reef/the ol’ man and boy casting/nothing said between them.”

Hats off to Gary Busha for this innovative collection. Whoever thought that the haiku, poetry’s quintessential form of distilled imagination, could be used also in aggregate to create a memoir of youth?  It’s a great combination, images locked in universal time but loosely linked to retrieve an author’s boyhood.

Richard Swanson is the author of two collections: Men in the Nude in Socks and Not Quite Eden, and a forthcoming chapbook (Paparazzi Moments), from Fireweed Press. A frequent reviewer for Verse Wisconsin, he is also the Secretary of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.