Winter 2005

David Grayson


David Grayson David Grayson is an Oakland-based essayist and poet whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Modern Haiku, Caveat Lector, and several other journals, including two previous issues of The Cortland Review.
Small Draughts: The Poems Of Braided Creek    


Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry. By Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003. 85 pages. ISBN: 1-55659-187-X.

The short poem is a wonder of nature.
� Charles Simic1

Beyond haiku and other specialist poetry circles, it is rare to find a book composed entirely of very short poems. Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, old friends and correspondents, started writing letters to each other in the form of very brief poems when Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. The result, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, is not only a pleasure to read, but also a window into the possibilities of the very short form.

Historically, maybe the most prevalent type of brief poem is the aphorism:

How tall would I be
without my enemies
to measure me?

Some of Harrison and Kooser's aphoristic poems speak with the omniscient narrator's voice, like proverbs. Others are more personal and employ the first person:

I thought my friend was drinking
too much, but it was the vodka
that was drinking him.

Harrison and Kooser fulfill the twin demands of the aphoristic form: getting to a truth quickly and knowing which truths are worth getting to.

A variant of the aphoristic verse is the simple "observation" poem. Unlike the aphorism, the observation is usually just that�it observes, but stops short at the task of explanation:

Midday silence is different
from nighttime silence.
I can't tell you how.

Not surprisingly, many of the poems in Braided Creek seem to be inspired by haiku. They are nature-oriented and focus upon a moment:

In my garden
the late sun glows
through a rabbit's ears.

Much of the poetry in Braided Creek is funny and continues the tradition of humorous forms like joke-poems or senryu (the cousin of haiku)2:

Straining on the toilet,
we learn how
the lightning bug feels.

Braided Creek is also filled with sharp, imagistic bursts�in the tradition of imagistic short poems.

In an egg yolk,
an artery fine as the touch
of a feather.

Thematically, much of the poetry is about death and related issues like the body, loss, and memory. These are poems written by older poets�valuable in their own right, but especially relevant in the context of an aging America.

A coffin handle
leaves a lasting impression
on a hand.

Stylistically, the poems have a quiet and intimate, physical feel. They are reminiscent of William Stafford or even James Wright. The midwestern origin of the writers may have something to do with this.

I counted 340 poems in the book. A few of the poems do not achieve the high level of success the overall collection does.

What has become
of the great hunter?
Today he won't kill flies.

Although this poem asks an interesting question, it lacks some qualities that make the other poems succeed: strong images, concentrated insight, and imaginative situations. A particular risk of the short form is the temptation to write to the side of aphorism, neglecting the poem. Such poems can sound didactic.

In Braided Creek, Harrison and Kooser show some of the range of short poems. Of course, the book is also a personal document�a conversation�carried on between two long-time friends.

How one old tire leans up against
another, the breath gone out of both.




1 Charles Simic. "Novica Tadic." The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994: p. 40.

2 The senryu is structurally similar to haiku (e.g. same syllabic count). But it is thematically different: while haiku is nature-based, senryu is social, and often humorous. For more information, see: William Higginson, The Haiku Handbook. New York: Kodansha International, 1985.



David Grayson: Book Review
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 27The Cortland Review