A lot happened in the fateful year of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world. For one thing, Breath Burns Away, a book of haiku and other short forms of poetry from poet Ray McNiece with photographs by Tim Lachina, was released in late 2019 with an expected book blitz for 2020 planned. Since then, a lot has happened both in the world at large as well as in the life of the poet.
In 2021, McNiece was honored to win a Cleveland Arts Prize, having been bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award for his untiring efforts in poetry and the larger literary scene, which includes being on the team that won the national championship at the 1994 National Poetry Slam. McNiece, the author of more than 10 books of poetry, as well as monologues and CDs, also fronts the poetry music jam band Tongue in Groove. And the beat went on in 2022 with McNiece being awarded a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets to work on a city-wide project titled a “Poem for Cleveland” with the aim of bringing together the city and the region’s poetry community.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, McNiece currently serves as the poet laureate for the city of Cleveland Heights and leads workshops on haiku writing in nature as well as coordinating the city’s ekphrastic poetry series, pairing local poets with artists.
But back to the new-ish book. I got a copy into my hands in the early winter months of 2020. In February to be exact, only a few weeks before the world shut down and we were all coping with the new-found social isolation brought about by stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of businesses across the nation.
With a truly unprecedented life disruption, people passed the long hours the best way they knew how; from watching movies at home and taking walks in the park to finally catching up on some of that reading that they’d always meant to do but put off because life got in the way. Now, with the huge expanse of days ahead and no clear idea of when things would ever get back to “normal,” this slim book of haiku beckoned and so I dove in.
But first, I have a confession to make – I have long had something of a bias in favor of the short and pithy, the aphoristic. The sweet morsel packed with layers of meaning that lands in the mind like a ray of light in a kaleidoscope that with a slight turn reveals an entirely new world. Such an experience is for me, and I’m certain for many others, a great source of joy.
Thus it is that I approached McNiece’s new book of poems Breath Burns Away with something approaching delight and joyful expectation. Paired with almost two dozen hauntingly beautiful black and white photographs by Timothy Lachina, images of the natural world that hint at human presence, this makes the book a double delight.
There are more than 300 poems in the book. They are mostly, as McNiece puts it (to stave off supposed purists who imagine themselves hard 5-7-5 enforcers), American-English style haiku that nod to their canonical predecessor, while following Whitman to make it new.
Arranged in short sections by themes such as nature and love/relationships, American culture and its discontents, his native Cleveland and northeast Ohio, and travels near and far, the voice of the poet welcomes us in with his keen eye observing the world, a world that now suddenly seemed at once familiar and strange in its singular isolation.
Thus we catch sight of the desperate Clevelander in the throes of another brutal winter:
I shovel the lawn
just to see green
as the poet reminds us that the arrow of time is real and takes from that both comfort and humor:
cleaning the office
I find a faded article
“Cleaning Your Office”
as well as revealing insights into our nation’s obsession with violence:
Sandy Hook shooting –
just another ricochet
A central part of the book, the bulk of it in fact, revolves around the revelations travel brings, from the quiet to the comical:
Singapore night –
exhaust from buses,
not even Buddha
can stop me from swatting
the fly from my thigh
drunken frat boys
bargain Big Easy Sex
with sober drag queens
Perhaps fittingly, the final section of poems is titled “every poem a death poem – Basho.” Here we are witness to the poet’s perception of the dance between life and death, which encompasses both the personal as well as the universal:
older now than dad
when he died, inheriting
his unlived years
from her deathbed, Ma says
move the flowers from the sill,
I want to see the sky
bare March woodlands –
some trees hold onto others
long after they’re dead
The book closes with an essay that takes a deep dive into what is arguably the most renowned haiku of all time – Basho’s legendary frog-pond haiku. Included is an analysis of the process of writing haiku and its relation to core ideas of Zen Buddhism. This situates the work within what I’d call a perennial tradition of not only poetry/literature but of an entire philosophy of life.
“A book of poems” as Wallace Stevens said, “is a damn serious affair.” And here it is true enough. But it is also a cosmic guffaw at the strangeness that is life in this mysterious universe we all call home for a short time. Then, like the breath that carries the words of the haiku, burned away forever into eternity.
–Milenko (Miles) Budimir