On the Dock | Review by Richard Swanson

dockcoverGary C. Busha | On the Dock | Wolfsong Publications, 2012

Just when you think Wisconsin poets have reached some kind of creative limit, along comes something richly unexpected, in this case, a shirt-pocket chapbook with roughly a hundred haiku, five or six to a page, all of which comprise a boyhood reminiscence. This small gem gives dual pleasure, as a large collection of well-done, traditional haiku, and as a poignant collage of images and impressions evoking someone’s early youth.

The central character, “the boy” of the collection, is obviously Busha himself, reliving his childhood. Yet Busha never uses the personal pronoun “I.” Rather, he uses the selective-omniscient point of view with its advantages of objective and subjective observation. We see places, events, and activity in semi-distant perspective, the larger picture, yet we can close the distance, to be right over the boy’s shoulder. This is an excellent strategy, drawing us in, yet allowing us to step back, for reflective mediation, in the haiku tradition.

The majority of these haiku are clustered around a single symbolic place, a dock on Lake Winnebago, where Busha grew up. The time period is the Fifties; the mood, nostalgic. However, Busha has randomly included pieces that keep the reader from the fallacy that the past was always golden. In addition the author occasionally takes us away from the dock, to give the boy, who is experiencing nature, connections to a world beyond it. This adds variety to the collection.

Haiku purists will find ample examples in Busha’s pages, the traditional poem starting in an identifiable location, season, time of day, or image, then moving to a second element or spiritual dimension, and then closing on a surprising or reinforcing insight:

Out of his school duds
and into his fishing rags
the boy runs to the dock.

On the dock at night
a light rain drips
from the boy’s glasses.

The kerosene lantern
casts a yellow glow
on the boy’s sleepy face.

One haiku I especially liked for the slyness of its progression, if slyness can be an attribute of a haiku writer’s talent. In this one, line three follows nicely from line two, but then the word “flies” in line three loops the reader back to two, through the association with “fly-balls,” or “flies” as they’re known to players and fans of our national pastime:

Casting from the dock
the boy thinking of baseball
fish thinking of flies.

The majority of these haiku deal with fishing and exploring one’s natural surroundings, and the era is the Fifties, with its cane poles, small wooden boats, inner tubes for swimming, and Cracker Jacks magnifying glasses. In many of the poems, childhood is a painful learning experience, which makes the boy sympathetic, of course:

Fish hook in the thumb
learning to be careful
is easier said than done.

Sobbing on the dock
the boy holds a baby bird
whose neck he’s broken.

Yet Busha’s boy has a survivor’s pluck that keeps us rooting for him:

Wanting to be a baseball player
the first thing the boy learns
is how to spit.

The boy thinks
when needing to blame someone
It’s good to have sisters around

Key to the boy’s development is a shadow character, “the ol’ man,” who appears in the last half of the book. Men readers with mentoring males in their pasts will strongly identify with this individual, who is probably a father, but may be a grandfather, uncle, or someone else. Whoever he is—and I like his amorphous identity—Busha has slipped this person into half a dozen works, as a sportsman, teacher, task-master, and spiritual anchor. In one of the most touching poems in On the Dock, the boy and the ol’ man share a fishing outing, casting together, their bond unspoken:

“Whitecaps on the reef/the ol’ man and boy casting/nothing said between them.”

Hats off to Gary Busha for this innovative collection. Whoever thought that the haiku, poetry’s quintessential form of distilled imagination, could be used also in aggregate to create a memoir of youth? It’s a great combination, images locked in universal time but loosely linked to retrieve an author’s boyhood. — Richard Swanson

Richard Swanson is the author of two collections: Men in the Nude in Socks and Not Quite Eden, and a forthcoming chapbook (Paparazzi Moments), from Fireweed Press. A frequent reviewer for Verse Wisconsin, he is also the Secretary of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.


Lines on Lake Winnebago | Review by Karla Huston

winnebagocoverGary C. Busha | Lines on Lake Winnebago | Marsh River Editions, 2002

Each time I read Gary Busha’s book Lines on Lake Winnebago, I am hooked and pulled back to the days when my grandfather picked me up from the neighborhood ice-skating rink, skates still attached to my feet, and plunked me on the surface of Lake Neshonoc. He’d chip holes in the ice while I circled his tarpaper shanty with a snow shovel, making a path to nowhere in particular.

With each thunk of the chisel
the clear ice chips catch the sun
and glint in cascades of light.

As I chop, the ice shoves to shore
tearing itself to shards.
The shoreline braces itself
like a man pulling up his collar.

Lines on Lake Winnebago takes me back to Lake Onalaska, where my husband and friend speared carp and left them for me to guard in the August sun, the carp, fly-speckled and sweating in the middle of the flat-bottom boat.

when days tumble over dusty-headed men
at work, gaffing the innards of earth,
some will regret the action of lack of it
and point to a waning moon squatting
on stagnant pools where fat,
yellow-bellied carp gulp at the surface
before sinking, unlike the sun.

Lines on Lake Winnebago reminds me of simpler times, of “tanned river boys” with cane poles, hair bleached white hot, and bare feet. It reminds me of tree frogs hissing from the shore, the call of Red-wing blackbirds, and dragon flies dipping off the gunwales of boats. This is a time when boys made do with what they had, made lures out of liver and worms, learned about life from the end of a bull-nosed pliers and an adult who knew that catching fish and being outside were the cure for nearly everything that ailed you.

Busha’s images are fragrant with memory, of lazy days, of summer water, “warm as pee”; of autumn “blistering yellow and black”; of winters of sail skating with a bedsheet, ice chips glinting a “mist of fine ice.” His lines recall lessons learned from his ol’ man, his ol’ man’s cronies and a hefty swallow of blackberry wine, “the warm liquid [that] sing[s] in my throat.”

Busha uses the language of reverence and respect for the natural world. The color yellow seeps into many poems, from the yellow sun to “fat yellow-bellied carp,” to bullheads sputtering in “hot butter.” In the poem “Spider Island,” “Each autumn blisters yellow and black,” while the boys trap garden spiders that “hang plum-like” from webs. In the poem “Nothing Biting, “Each autumn lily pad / draws from my center / its yellow belly of age, / drunk with murmurs.” These are poems in celebration of nature and solitude. In a tribute to Whitman, he celebrates:

An unknown voice
and the thump in the dark, I celebrate,
and I celebrate butter-fried fish
and scent of mustard,
and wet wood in autumn.
I celebrate people with beating hearts,
who keep time in rockers on wood porches.

A surprise in the center of these poems is a short story about trading baseball cards. Two friends make a late-night deal on a dock, but there is more. Busha shows the reader how to pull nightcrawlers from their holes, how to thread them on hooks and lower their squirming bodies into the dark lake. He shows us how to trap bullfrogs in weeds. He shows us how to catch, handle, and skin bull heads. He shows us about chewing bubblegum, about making trades for baseball players, about the tug and pull friendship.

“If you don’t want Slaughter, I can get rid of him at school. I can get Mantle easy. Aww, I forgot. Ma won’t let me buy anymore bubblegum until I chew up what I got.”

From crayfish to carp to crappies to bullheads, pickerel, bluegills, bullfrogs and northern pike and large mouth bass, Busha’s poems remind us that there is much to learn from the end of a fishing pole, much to hold close and dear. Mostly these poems are filled with a kind of happy loneliness, of becoming, of following the line back to his roots. He reminds us that “it’s a perfect day for fishing” and remembering. — Karla Huston

bio-karla1Karla Huston Winner of the 2003 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest, Karla Huston is the author of seven chapbooks of poetry, most recently Outside of a Dog, dancing girl press & studio: 2013. Main Street Rag published her full collection of poems A Theory of Lipstick in 2013. Huston has published poetry, reviews and interviews in many state and national journals. Her poem “Theory of Lipstick” was awarded a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses (2012). Education: BS in education: English, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, 1993. M.A. in English—creative writing emphasis, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, 2003. Huston teaches poetry writing workshops at The Mill: A Place for Writers, Appleton, WI.

On the Dock | Review by Norbert Blei


Most writers tend to have certain obsessions when it comes to subject matter, which they either realize and accept or believe they’re continually writing something new, different—which may also be the case, as time lends a different perspective to everything we experience in life.

Busha, to me, in the many years I’ve read him, seems to have an obsession with one of Wisconsin’s small lakes (Winnebago) and, in particular, that once old-time, weathered, wooden dock that creaked and groaned and moved almost poetically under one’s footsteps, as it led, jutted out over the water, and brought, especially a young boy, (land-bound) closer, ever closer to the source of his great growing-up love: being a part of it all—if it just staring into the water blue of it all, or confronting the mystery of it with a fishing pole, or mindlessly running and jumping off the dock, into it on a hot summer’s day in an almost religious rite akin to baptism—but beyond.

Here’s Busha at his best in a tiny book (held together by a single staple, “4 ½” by almost “3 ½”), of 10 tiny pages (including the inside covers), 6 tiny, 3-lined poems per page, which comes to a grand total of 60 tiny poems of Basho-like resonance—the meaning of a dock in a boy’s life…an image that won’t fade in a man’s memory. — Norbert Blei

norbP.S. Reaching for the greater metaphor…I’m more than aware that the Winnebago is the largest of Wisconsin’s many small lakes…but I was going for the sense of little and dock (the dock photographed happens to be on Europe Lake, sometimes called ‘Little’ Lake) and intimacy and a boy and water and fishing and memories…and I could have just as easily not selected (from the 60 poems) one that actually mentions ‘Lake Winnebago,’ but there was as usual a method to my madness, (even a chronology to the poems I selected) and I needed to place the reader (in the beginning of the intro) where the boy/man finds himself and where he’s headed for greater discovery through age…so I’ll leave questionable people factually conscious of big and small bodies of Wisconsin waters with this: maybe the suggestion and the operable metaphor here is ‘find’. — Norbert Blei

Lines on Lake Winnebago

Gary C. Busha | Lines on Lake Winnebago | 33 pages | $8.00 | Marsh River Editions | M233 Marsh Road | Marshfield, Wisconsin 54449

To Gary C. Busha, life is the sound of one man fishing. Lake Winnebago (located in East Central Wisconsin) plays host to guys in boats, guys sitting over ice holes, guys drinking schnapps and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and guys standing under maple trees waiting for the big one to take the bait. It’s Zen meditation with worms and fishing rods. Busha’s Lines On Lake Winnebago is a reflection on life in sparse, conversational language. His poems and reflections are as effortless as the act of casting and reeling. In Getting Hooked he notes:

“Each fishing day / adds to my memories of / a star-clear night. / drunk with fresh life.” And in Portrait of Dock Fishing he sees “Old men with big yellow bellies / remember themselves as lean river boys / fishing together from the docks.”

There are no existential crisies or drunken diatribes against the insanity of life here. No shock rocks to grab your mind, but rather a numinous embracing of the freedom found on Lake Winnebago doing almost nothing. Ham and Cheeses on Rye:

“I am an old man fishing in the rain / on my sagging dock, without a fish in miles- / yet, it’s a perfect day for fishing.” #6 Hooks “on the dock, the scent of weeds, / wet wood, and rain hangs over the water. / The scales fly up like hailstones. / He hears a roll of thunder and feels / scales and raindrops fall in his hair.”

charles01But beyond the beauty of these plain-spoken poems is the production quality of this fine looking chapbook. The cover jacket, photo reproductions, and cardstock are all well chosen making this not just a great chap to read, but a wonderful chap to hold. Gary Busha goes deep into common experience and nets rich imagery with still, clear meanings. — Charles Ries