**spoiler alert** Ouch: Senryu That Bite by Alexis Rotella (@tankaqueen on Twitter) is an exquisitely well-written book filled with senryu that well,**spoiler alert** Ouch: Senryu That Bite by Alexis Rotella (@tankaqueen on Twitter) is an exquisitely well-written book filled with senryu that well, as the title of the book says, senryu that bite readers literally and figuratively. It is such an impressive collection of senryu spanning for almost three decades (1979-2007)! I first "met" Rotella in the early days of (the quite unstable) Twitter by way of her senryu and haiku, and even today, I still think of her as the queen of senryu (even though she has written poems in many other forms). Her keen observation of nature (and human nature) is that of an eagle's sight. This book superbly demonstrates that keen observation; she tackles subjects that are considered taboo, cliches, and everyday nuances that reminds us that we are all simply human.
But before I start discussing Rotella's work in this review, I want to mention briefly (and generally) what a senryu is. While the focus on haiku is on nature, the senryu is focused on the human condition (human nature)--all in its satire, cynicism, irony, and dark humor. Unlike the haiku, the senryu does not generally have a seasonal word (kigo) or a cutting word or some kind of juxtaposition (kireji). The senryu is also generally written in three lines and syllable count as that of the haiku. However, due to language/cultural differences, the world of haiku and senryu are expanding. For instance, the syllable count of 5/7/5 in the traditional Japanese haiku form may not be the perfect fit in other languages. While it may be certainly possible to write a haiku/senryu in 5/7/5, it is not always necessary as some words may function as fillers rendering the haiku/senryu itself weaker than it should be.
Now let's get back to Rotella's book, Ouch. I will have to forewarn you, dear readers, that this review may simply be delightfully too long (Ouch! intended!). It is after all a book-length's worth of selected senryu between 1979-2007! I had too many favorites and cannot discuss them all!
With Necco wafers, I offer my dolls communion
This senryu can be viewed in many ways. According to Rotella's biography, she is an "ordained interfaith minister and a member of The Church of What's Happening Now." I am sure there are still many heated debates challenging whether women can be ministers to their local churches, groups, and communities, yet here is Rotella challenging that role. Not only that, this senryu is a reflection of Rotella's personal life. Playing with dolls is a childhood pastime that is identified (albeit historically strictly) with young girls. However, to offer communion wafers to the dolls makes Rotella's role more masculine as if she is the minister to her dolls. I like the contrasts between childhood and adulthood as well as playtime versus reality captured in this senryu.
Another perspective of gender roles Rotella touches upon is when it comes to dealing with cars.
Car rattle-- my husband falls apart
This made me laugh so much! Anything dealing with machinery, cars, and mechanics are part of a man's domain, right? As Rotella shows in this senryu, I guess men can't fix everything. The man instead of the machine itself (the car) falls apart! Interestingly, perhaps it can be inferred that the speaker isn't falling apart.
The hitchhiker gives me the finger.
The third line is the unexpected surprise in this senryu! While it would be nice to be the good Samaritan every so once in a while by picking up the unfortunate hitchhiker, and then driving him/her to his/her destination, we can't help it but to say "no" at times (and especially if those hitchhikers tend to look shady!). The classic hitchhiker's thumb turns into a rather offensive "middle" one! Adios, amigo! It's a no pickup for you! If Rotella had written this senryu in one line, the surprise effect would not be as effective.
Speaking of one-lined senryu, here's one:
Next to the cemetery travel agency.
Note the level of irony and dark humor in this senryu. Since it is on one line in word arrangement and structure, you can also see that the "cemetery" is also literally right next to the "travel agency," creating sort of a one-way route for the reader's eyes ...as well as for the deceased who will be traveling to the other side of life.
On a much more sentimental side of Rotella, we can see the layering of conflicting emotions of "loose ends" and "sheets" of her father dying in this senryu:
Dad dying-- Mom tucks in the loose ends of his sheets.
The tangibility of something intangible such as death is presented by the touch of bedsheets. Interestingly, those intangible "loose ends" (whatever business Rotella's dad had before death) are taken care of by Rotella's mother, but by way of "his sheets." A wonderful break (and metaphor) between lines 2 and 3. Rotella also uses the cliche of "loose ends" effectively in this senryu.
In this day and age, the Internet is the ultimate resource for all the answers to anything and everything, including information about yourself! Rotella captures this perfectly in the following:
To see what I've been up to, I google myself.
Yeah, I think we all have to admit to doing this at least once! There's no denying that! Ouch! The third line functions sort of like punchline to a joke--a great surprise indeed. It's interesting to note that rumor mills are now obtained at a much faster speed than say, phoning your bff's! Hey, remember those days?
Another creative "punchline" can be found in this senryu:
Strip poker-- I take off.
This two-lined senryu is creative, yet ends powerfully--with a period as its punctuation. Nothing more is said after that; there isn't even a third line. The reader can note how the speaker is uncomfortable with this game of poker and so takes off or leaves immediately (though not her clothes). Actions speak louder than words in this senryu.
The following senryu are what every author/poet fears the most:
The person I wrote the book for doesn't buy a copy.
Morning after the poetry reading-- phone silent.
Do I feel a double Ouch! here? Rotella uses brevity with such skill in these two senryu as along with other senryu in the book to create such powerful emotions and experiences not only for herself but also leave enough room for the reader's imagination, emotions, and experiences. In both instances (both senryu), the speaker feels some form of rejection and even under-appreciation.
Now the health care and medical world is also rich in satire and human foibles as well, and Rotella has plenty of senryu touching upon that:
Still waiting to be happy-- friend with a face lift
I tell the doctor it was powerful-- sugar pill
Yikes! In "Still waiting," the bluntness is quite devastating but at the same time laughable. We can only wonder if the "face lift" ever made the friend happy in this senryu to begin with. However, in disregarding the "face lift" for a moment, happiness is everyone's ultimate purpose in life.
In "I tell the doctor," the reader can imagine the speaker's reaction in this senryu. Surprise? Anger? Upset? Sometimes mind is over matter as we oftentimes fool ourselves into believing in or swearing by the powerful effect of something or other. In this case, the "sugar pill" is a placebo, giving us that shocking news that things are not always what they seem (not just in the medical/health care world).
Finally, Rotella offers us some form of comfort in the following senryu even if it is a bit socially awkward:
Finding comfort on an old dog's back-- tired feet
Yes, we know that "dogs are a man's best friend," yet what happens when we're using them for our own needs as in this case, our "tired feet"? It's quite amusing to see a dog treated as an inanimate object in this senryu--as an ottoman or a foot stool. Of course, it's to be noted that this is not animal cruelty, but look at the second line with "old dog's back" for a moment here... This "old dog" has been with its owner for a really long time and knows its owner's needs and habits. Even though the owner rests her "tired feet" on the dog, both the old dog and owner find comfort in the other's presence, touch, and togetherness, which makes this senryu so awkward and funny but in such an affectionate way. You can't help it but to say, "Aww."
Ouch by Alexis Rotella is definitely a book worth reading and learning about the endless ways of writing senryu. I truly admire Rotella's wit, brevity, and skill as she covers nearly every topic and writes with such ease. Her voice and style are both strong and memorable, and of course, each senryu does make you want to say, "OUCH!" Perhaps making fun of our own humanity makes us more humble and appreciative of our own condition (our vulnerability), and writing senryu would help us take life less seriously....more