Butterflies Under a Japanese Moon is the sort of poetry collection that should come with a warning label. WARNING: This book will suck you in and force you to read it straight through in one sitting. WARNING: This book will cause you to order two more copies immediately to give as gifts to friends. WARNING: This book will send you out to read more haiku and more Japanese history and folk tales. Consider yourself warned.
This collection is not what it appears to be on the surface. The cover is subdued with pastel flowers and butterflies. The contents are divided into simple-sounding sections: Yesterday, Today, and Haiku for the Year. Nothing about this cover and these section headings prepared me to encounter a beheading, an artist having his hands cut off, and a monk cutting off his own eyelids, but these events appear right alongside the creation stories, tea leaves, birds, music, and language play. These poems do also contain some peaceful and beautiful imagery, but Ruggieri doesn’t shy away from the grotesque, and the overall effect is all the more beautiful for its complexity.
In the first section, Ruggieri meditates on folk tales and history, especially exploring poet identity in poems like “Ono No Komachi” and “Abutsu the Nun.” Yesterday is never completely removed from the present though. In “Lady Shonagon,” Ruggieri recounts the eponymous poet’s description of a winter scene, concluding the poem with these lines:
she waves a branch
of plum blossoms
over her tanka
all these years
for my reply
into my mind
Reviewed by Katie Manning. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.