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Morning Haiku

By: Sonia Sanchez
Reviewed by: Barry George
Beacon Press, 2010
$19.95, Hardcover

Although “Alabama writer” and “haiku poet” are not associations which readily spring to mind in relation to Sonia Sanchez, both her Southern roots and life-long passion for haiku figure prominently in Morning Haiku. Sanchez, born and raised in Birmingham, moved to Harlem in her late teens. At twenty-one, as she recounts in the book’s preface, she experienced “an awakening,” reading haiku in New York’s 8th Street Bookstore. Ever since, she has revered this “tough form disguised in beauty and insight,” the one-breath poem that makes us alive to the moment.

Her skill in distilling life’s essential moments is evident in haiku about experiences as diverse as her Alabama childhood—“beneath the sun / i moved in short / Birmingham breaths”—and viewing an exhibition by modernist painter Beauford Delaney—“One eye larger / than the other swimming / in the Seine.” Other subjects include jazz, dance, history, urban mural art, and various contemporary artists and cultural leaders.

As compressed language and exacting word choice are also crucial in haiku, Sanchez takes great care with words. The power and beauty thus evoked is evident in poems such as this, one of “6 haiku” dedicated to Maya Angelou: 

        in a sudden 
        pause of breath 
        secrets unlock.

For me, the most affecting poems are two long haiku sequences called, respectively, “memory haiku” and “sister haiku.” The latter, a narrative of a girl’s sexual abuse by a male relative, immerses us in the innocent, sordid, and ultimately heartbreaking world of two young sisters: 

        the sound of you 
        sucking your thumb at nite 
        blows in my ears

Sanchez was one year old when her mother died, and it is noteworthy that “sister haiku”—like “memory haiku”— concludes with a haunting reference to the speaker’s mother: 

        all morning 
        our mother’s voice 
        beyond the hills.

Morning Haiku shows Sonia Sanchez’s gift for breathing life into language. It makes this reader yearn for more of her one-breath poems. Aug 2010

Barry George, a Philadelphia poet, is the author of Wrecking Ball and Other Urban Haiku.

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