Friday, December 28, 2012

Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku - Small Press Friday

I came to this volume of work by Nick Virgilio virtually cold; I'd heard of him but had only read a poem or two here and there.

The book overwhelmed me with its beauty, its power, and its sadness.

First and foremost, this is not simply a retrospect of haiku by a master English language practitioner of the art.  There is an insightful introduction and afterward, by Raffael de Gruttola and Kathleen O'Toole respectively, as well as an appended tribute by Michael Doyle, Nick's parish priest. Also, there are three essays by Virgilio and, most wonderfully, the transcript of a radio interview in which the poet comes truly alive on the page.

The cumulative effect of the volume reminded me of books by Makoto Ueda on Basho and Issa: insightful, scholarly, and biographical. We are given a full, three dimensional picture of the artist and, in this case, as in the cases of Basho and Issa, this expands our understanding of the work rather than detracts from it.

There is, above all, a deep sadness that permeates Virgilio's haiku, yet, miraculously, no negativity. His attentiveness to detail displays an over powering love, a love of life, and these two seeming opposites coalesce in a feeling akin to the Eastern concept of sabi. 

Virgilio is an English language haiku poet imbuded in the spirit of the East, the spirit of haiku.

His life, ultimately, was his work, as is true of any great haiku poet. Most well-known is the profound impact of his brother's death in the Vietnam War on his life and poems. The details are hardly necessary to recount. 

The work speaks for itself. The following is just the tip of the iceberg. Without hesitation, I must say: get this book. And, since this is a Small Press Friday, why not get it directly from Turtle Light Books.

in the empty church
at nightfall, a lone firefly
deepens the silence

Memorial Day:
staring at the grassy plot
set aside for me

telegram in hand,
the shadow of the marine
darkens our screen door

a skylark's song
and a billowing cloud
fills my emptiness 

among the rows and rows
of white crosses
patches of young grass

my father and I
quarreling face to face
exchanging breath

filling the silence
on the long distance telephone
the things unsaid

my father and I
with no footprints to follow
step into deep snow

New Year's Eve:
pay phone receiver

Be sure to check out The Nick Virgilio Poetry Project (tip of the hat to friend Joy McCall), hosted by Rutgers University.

Photo by Drew Leavy

a battle royal
with radishes...
 translated by David G. Lanoue 


Send a single haiku for the Wednesday Haiku feature. Here's how.

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 149 songs


Theresa Williams said...

Beautiful haiku. And I like the photo of the dolls, too. Happy 2013, Don!

littlemancat said...

I found this wonderful book over at Farley's bookshop in New Hope this summer and love it. You describe so clearly the sense of the book,how it felt - the sadness, yet sweetness, of his life and haiku, one and the same. Love the haiku about he and his father stepping out into the snow.
Glad to see it reviewed. Thank you.
Mary Ahearn

Fred said...


Some of the best contemporary haiku I've read.

Happy 2013!

Peter Newton said...

I do not know a lot about this guy but will contact TLP today. Thanks for the tip of this iceburg in American Haiku.

Also, wanted to say: Happy New Year to you, Don.


Unknown said...

I'm so glad you're highlighting this book. I know it's been a work of love by Rick Black and he went to great lengths to give Nick Virgilio a resentation that... like the firefly in his haiku... deepens the silence.
Many thanks! Merrill

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Theresa. Glad you liked. Nothing like radish dolls waging war ...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


So happy with this comment, particularly to hear that Farley's stocked Nick's book. It has been ages since I've been to New Hope.

I'm thinking it's about time ...


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Cheers, Fred ... glad they hit the spot.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks so much. Great to have you going through Turtle Light for Nick's work. I know I'll be reading my copy over and over ...


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

And a friend from the UK let me know about the eulogy done for Nick, which can be found at the great Rutgers website in honor of Nick:

The Nick Virgilio Poetry Project

Henry Brann said...

I am very happy to see this wonderful review of our latest book of Nick's work. Much praise to Rick Black and Turtle Light Press for this outstanding result. Thank You from an old friend of Nick's.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


You are welcome. It's great that perhaps the book will get into a few more hands, not just of the haiku crowd, but of all poetry lovers. My sense is Nick's approach is the kind that turns people on to a form they would other wise have missed.

Great work by Turtle Light and all ...