canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

HOT FLASHES: Maiduguri Haiku, Senryu, & Tanka
by Richard Stevenson
Ekstasis Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Ted Harms

Before publishing HOT FLASHES: Maiduguri Haiku, Senryu, & Tanka, Richard Stevenson had already published three collections based upon the two years he taught in Nigeria. Then these poems came over him in '...moments of red hot prickly heat...' (hence the title) but, with almost 20 years between the experience and writing them down, he says there's a little more detachment with these poems than those previous. Nonetheless, many poems still vibrate with an immediacy that is well suited to the short poetry form that Stevenson has chosen.

Writing poetry about Africa in an age-old Oriental form makes for an interesting cultural intersection. Haiku, senryu, and tankas are all relatively strict forms of poetry. The form of haiku and senryu and are both traditionally 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 'onji' (which is the Japanese equivalent, but not really all that close, to our syllables) while tanka stretches out a bit more and is 5 lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables. Further, and depending on who you listen to, there are inherent subject matters that accompany each form - traditionally, all three forms need to refer to or make an allusion to the weather, either in allegory or metaphor. Modern practitioners are split on how accurate about these guidelines they feel they need to be.

Given the shortness of these forms, these are not poems that allow an author to slowly build up to a climax, set the stage or establish the mood. This is not to say that these forms can't give you pause or reveal hidden meanings with re-readings - it's that the author has be very careful and deliberate about words and rhythms as they won't get a second chance.

Some of his poems are wonderful for their brevity and pure description:

resting his shovel,
the gardener drops his pants
and shits on the lawn
While others are more evocative and provide a lasting image:
their "pink teacher" -
how her golden arm hairs glisten!
wheat in winter sun
But, as is the risk when you don't have the chance to build up the scene or give some background, sometimes the poem wobbles a bit because the reader has to chew too much to get its drift:
pin-striped alhaji
slipping into a neem's shade?
no, a blue-tailed skink.
With a collection like this, it's unfair to nit-pick at individual poems and you need to give Stevenson the odd mulligan where you don't 'get' one. The observations Stevenson makes of what was his everyday life are clear and vivid. Other than the odd bit of Nigerian vernacular, there's not much to criticize in Stevenson's excellent collection - it's written very well, reads very well, and the reader is uncovers more with each re-read.

Ted Harms is a philosopher who lives in Waterloo, Ontario.






TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.