Running After Shadows: A Collection of Haiku Destigmatizing Mental Illness in Women
by Hifsa Ashraf
(2020 Human/Kind Press) 6.5” x 6.5” Perfect bound paperback. 42 Pages.
Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta.
Stranded between the qualms of our personal and professional commitments, all of us seek light—a luminosity that can saturate the recesses of our darker selves. Fraught with this desire, we forget our shadow selves, as explained by Carl Jung, and this ironically shines through in Hifsa Ashraf's new chapbook Running After Shadows.
Ashraf paints a world with “layer after layer after layer of black fog delerium” and where “a starling murmuration blends into the dark amnesia.” The poems in the collection are bilingual haiku in English and Urdu. Most of them are in tercet form with a couple of one-line haiku (monoku), and one five-line haiku, which renders tonal variation as well as aids the poet in depicting the sting of mental illness poignantly. Due to the brevity of the form, and the crisp images these poems evoke, the poems in this collection will stay with the readers as they empathize with women living with these conditions.
One of the poems that stood out:
long strands of spaghetti
lost in my thoughts
I don't recall having read any haiku on binge eating. But it is not that I liked the novelty of it topically, but rather the aha moment—“lost in my thoughts.” One is almost immediately speculating: what thoughts is she getting lost in? Is it another intense urge to gobble up food but while she is eating, she realizes that it will add some extra inches to her waist? Or is she worried about the friends who will ridicule her with horrible nicknames? Or is she feeling helpless because of this involuntary cycle of eating and purging? We don't know, but this open-ended poem will ensnare the reader.
Another poem about Bipolar Disorder caught my attention:
the silhouette of driftwood
on a windswept beach
Bipolar is a disorder where emotions, like a pendulum, swing to and fro between two extremes. The silhouette of driftwood wavers with the varying velocity of the wind—the faster the wind, the more fleeting is the shadow. Waxing and waning of the shadow can be one way to interpret it; the other possibility can be the presence of a shadow and its abrupt disappearance as the clouds layer over the sun or the sun retires into the evening sky.
One cannot separate the darkness described here from the haze during desolate junctures of the day, our twin from a parallel world, asserting itself even in the most radiant mornings. But the desperation is not personal and assumes a universal form:
at the core
of her palm lines . . .
In the breath I read it and the ones that followed, I could not think of “her” as Ashraf's acquaintance but rather denoting women all over the world. A long history of subjugation follows women irrespective of the country they inhabit. However, some women have embarked on the journey of raising awareness and providing therapy at affordable prices; sadly, a large fraction of women, deprived of resources, continue to be tethered to the gloom of mental ailments.
This book is a reflection of the despair trapped beneath the rocks, in corners, inside us, perhaps because the existence of darkness is crucial to experience light in the fissures of our existence. By exploring darkness, this book makes us conscious of the life gushing inside us and makes us empathize with those whose light has been put out.
Ashraf's finesse in addressing mental health and its distortions is further enhanced by the use of the Japanese forms of haiku and senryu, traditionally inclined towards tropes such as the cherry blossom and frangipani. This collection, therefore, should be considered not only as an effort to destigmatize mental illness but also as a successful experiment in pushing the boundaries of the form.
You should grab your copy soon!
The Feynman Lectures in Haiku: 40 Found Haiku
by Adam T. Bogar
(2019 Cyberwit.net) 5.5” x 8.5” Staple-bound paperback. 47 Pages.
ISBN 9789389074352 cyberwit.net / www.amazon.com
Reviewed by Robin Anna Smith.
For those unfamiliar, The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Nobel Prize-winner Richard P. Feynman is one of the widest read textbooks on physics. Some might think this type of material unsuitable for culling out found haiku. Page by page, Bogar demonstrates that such a notion couldn’t be further from the truth by delivering strongly topical, relevant, and thought-provoking ku for our consideration.
Even if one isn’t familiar with the source text, Bogar’s book makes for an excellent collection of haiku—many with interesting juxtapositions that lend themselves to numerous readings—based on the words alone and their implied relationships. The additional dimension of reading the collection from a physics-related point of view allows for each poem to take on a new life.
Many of the haiku in this collection have a wonderful ambiguity to them, so while my commentary is discerned from my own reading of the poems, readers will, of course, find their own interpretations beyond these comments. While one doesn’t need to know a lot about physics to appreciate this collection, I do urge those not familiar with some of the concepts to use the internet and do a little research to enhance their enjoyment of the book.
being carried by the wave--
This haiku brings to mind not only physical waves but waves of societal influence. It could be inclusive so as to encompass nearly endless trends, but whichever way it is read, it still poses the same challenge: do we choose to take the easy route by riding the wave or do we resist, hard as it might be, by going against the tide?
we pretend we never looked
In the current era of what could be described as an anti-science movement, the above ku stands out as a great reflection of the falsehoods peddled as truth, the lack of checks and balances, and blatant disregard for hard evidence we see everywhere. This is not only an issue within sociopolitical movements but is also a part of bureaucratic manipulation, and capitalistic control of healthcare and research science.
separated by the present
A heavy-hitting haiku with perhaps a variety of readings, this ku is a strong reflection of the current state of racism and white supremacy. How these social structures are alive and flourishing, despite what we are told by our governments, despite “all of the progress that’s been made,” and so on. Black and brown people are still being oppressed by institutionalized racism and the unwillingness of many white people to recognize how they benefit from this system, regardless of whether or not they actively endorse it.
a new language--
we take the case
This is the concluding haiku of Bogar’s book and I feel it is a great way to end this collection. It suggests that despite the numerous challenges we might be facing today, we must not translate the past into something more palatable but, instead, go forward with a new language of hope and truth by owning up to our mistakes and creating an environment where they are less likely to recur.
It was very hard for me to narrow down the standout haiku in this collection. Bogar hits upon so many important themes and presents his haiku with strong and curious juxtapositions that I had numerous favorites. Other readers will undoubtedly have a similar experience with this stellar book of haiku.
So Many Miles: Fifty Senryu
by Olivier Schopfer
(2019 Alien Buddha Press) 6” x 9” Perfect-bound paperback. 68 Pages.
ISBN 9781090237958 www.amazon.com
Reviewed by Robin Anna Smith.
,As the name implies, Olivier Schopfer’s So Many Miles: Fifty Senryu takes readers on a journey. Not surprising coming from this photographer, it is filled with snapshots of everyday life, which are depicted in a manner that sparks a reverberation of wonder and contemplation. Some are high-focus with more detail, while others zoom out to leave more room for the reader to find their own focal point/s.
The book is divided into three sections: “Escalators,” “So Many Miles,” and “Empty Cocoon,” each with their own feel and sense of moving through time and space. In many of his senryu, Schopfer employs the use of seasonal references, which add a sense of grounding to the otherwise humancentric collection.
of pale and dark ale
While this image may draw us to the coincidence of the mixed beers and mixed skin tones, it also resonates with an unbiased view of race, allowing us to contrast this harmonious image with some of the nastier things we see in the news and everyday life.
What lies on the dark side of the moon? It brings to mind the philosophical thought experiment: “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Is this “hidden” side something we regularly see but take for granted? Or are these traits things we overlook in the presence of something/someone awe-inspiring?
you show me
your true colors
This is another thought-provoking senryu about state of being. Does a leaf really change or is what we see visually simply part of the lifecycle? Do people really change or camouflage who they really are? Or do we selectively put on blinders to only see the parts of people that we wish to see and ignore the rest to make them more appealing?
subway rush hour
the effort it takes
to avoid eye contact
Most of us have probably been in this situation, whether on public transit, on our morning coffee run, or dropping the kids off at school. In our daily rush to the next thing, we often miss out on something important—that human connection. While we may see some of the same faces repeatedly, we often choose to keep to ourselves as opposed to get to know the people around us.
social me me me media
This is another great reflection of our current interactions, both with each other and the world, in general. While many avoid personal contact on one hand, on the other, more impersonal hand, they are exhibitionists. While social media can be a way to increase contact and strengthen bonds, it can have the opposite effect via showmanship and the often-negative responses to it.
So Many Miles by Olivier Schopfer is a remarkable collection of senryu that takes the reader on a journey of the everyday while focusing through a contemplative lens. There is a movement between the words and poems, reflective of the general journey of life, as if just stopping for a brief moment to jot down some quick notes to continue to ponder later. Readers will likewise come back to reconsider these verses and ideas.
inkblots revealing my story to the therapist
by Lori A. Minor
(2019 Lulu Press) 6” x 9” Perfect-bound paperback. 60 Pages.
Black ink on cream paper. ISBN 978-0-359-34896-1. www.lulu.com.
Reviewed by Robin Anna Smith.
Reading inkblots revealing my story to the therapist by Lori A. Minor is almost like being a silent witness in the room, as the author unpacks years of experience to her therapist. She opens with two haiku, which alone, could be the beginning and the end of her book. The white paper in between them lets us imagine, from the very start, where she might be taking us. For those who follow Lori’s work, we know to expect ups, downs, twists, and turns ahead. For those who don’t: Keep your hands inside the ride at all times!
signs of depression
the first leaf falls
to my feet
the last leaf
still holding on
The first haibun in the collection “Safe Space” sets the tone for our understanding of what triggered a lifetime of trauma and mental illness challenges. Page by page, she adds information and layers to her story, so that it reads similarly to a memoir in verse. There is just enough white space to allow the reader’s mind to wander between pages, and wonder about details purposely omitted.
He grounded me for everything. Whispering at the table. Crying. Wetting the bed. It wasn't your typical grounding where you can't play with friends or you get the PlayStation cables taken away. I had to live in my room and the only reason I was allowed out was to shower, but he insisted on monitoring me. Said it was to make sure I wasn't "playing around". Dinner was served in my room. Sometimes only cheese and crackers, and if I was lucky, a few slices of pepperoni. My room became my safe space. It was the only home I knew and even now, sixteen years later, I still find it hard to leave.
even the moon
Throughout the book, Lori continues to connect with nature in her expertly-crafted haiku, returning repeatedly, as if to physically ground herself. Perhaps, it is a way to find a deeper connection with the world—to find the world within herself. This proves to be an important relationship, as we see in her haibun “shock waves” how shaken she is when unable to seek solace in her kindred stars.
It’s three in the morning and the sky is completely clear, but there are no stars in sight. The light pollution just drowns them out. It’s almost like they’re dead… and I’m mourning the loss of each one.
the worm curls
As the book nears its conclusion, Lori’s voice grows stronger and her outlook more hopeful. Her tanka “releasing” celebrates small victories, which are amplified in contrast with the heavy weight of persistent depression, and all that comes with it. She ends the book with her senryu “erasing the stigma” which is apt, given the platforms she has created with Scryptic and #FemkuMag, and now her forthcoming Bleached Butterfly to support the voices of others.
from my palm
one year free
from self harm
erasing the stigma
I clean the dirt
from under my nails
inkblots revealing my story to the therapist is an important and uncompromising collection that readers will connect with, as we all know someone affected by trauma and/or mental illness. Lori has created a remarkable body of work, illustrating the lifelong effects of abuse and, at the same time, given us a glimpse of the hope and spirit that drives her and her stunning creative work.