Chester Creek Ravine by Bart Sutter Nodin Press 2015

Chester Creek Ravine is a collection of haiku by Bart Sutter, whose résumé includes being named the first Poet Laureate of Duluth. Sutter was inspired to write them by his regular walks around a two-and-a-half mile loop through Chester Creek Ravine.


Most of us probably have more experience writing haiku than reading them. Pretty much everyone has to write them in school, since it is far easier to have kids write haiku than compose a sonnet.

The rules are simple and the format is short, although that combination can be maddeningly difficult to master. In the Japanese tradition, the essence of haiku is kiru (“cutting”), which usually involves the juxtaposition of two images or ideas.

Breathing hard, we stall.
     Crows, too have stopped to rest
          Beside the waterfall.

Traditional haiku consists of 17 syllables in three phrases of five, seven, and five, but, as you can tell from this first example, Sutter is not bound by that stricture (although you will find a few in the book that conform, here and there).  

Japanese haiku are printed in a single vertical line, but, in English, they usually appear in three horizontal lines, thereby paralleling the three phrases of the traditional format.

The least known quality of traditional haiku is the kigo, a seasonal reference. This quality is most prominent in Sutter’s collection. The haiku in Chester Creek Ravine are organized by the four seasons, beginning optimistically with spring...

In April we’re relieved
     To hear the bare trees fill with song.
          We can wait for leaves.
... and ending with the inevitability of winter:

     Jammed with ice and snow,
Chester Creek discovers
     A different way to go.

Sutter offers something different in that the first and third lines almost always rhyme, usually employing slant rhyme, which is eminently appropriate for haiku, given its emphasis on juxtaposition.

The poet’s attention to detail is present in the way the three lines are framed on the page. Many go flush left for the first line, indent the second line five spaces, and the third 10 spaces. Others indent the first and third lines, while still others indent only the second. I do not know how calculated Sutter’s logic is here, but this strikes me as more than mere happenstance.

My steadfast rule is that you should never binge-read poetry. That was decidedly reaffirmed when I started reading Sutter’s poems. A couple of pages in, I had to put it down and walk away because even just a half-dozen haiku in one sitting is overkill. It was hard to start thinking about an ice arch when my mind was still trying to wrap itself around the thunder of the creek and last year’s ratty oak leaves.

Therefore, the approach to reading Chester Creek Ravine should be something akin to a daily devotional, where you read a single verse to start out the day or wind down before turning out the lights, and take time to savor the nuances of each one.

That approach would translate to a bit less than half a year to finish off the volume of 150 haiku, but there are a couple of considerations here. First, you would only read ones appropriate to the season, as determined by looking out the window (rather than the lies they insist on printing in calendars). Reading about winter during our short summer strikes me as wrong.

Second, you are under no obligation to read a haiku every single day. Consequently, it would not be difficult to make this collection last an entire year.

The cover and interior art is by local printmaker Cecilia Lieder, which reinforces the chief appeal of Chester Creek Ravine—namely, it is about our neck of the woods. I have read several novels “set” in Duluth that are unrecognizable to those who live here. Readers will not be troubled in that regard with Sutter’s poems.

Sports writer Peter King concludes each online edition of Monday Morning Quarterback with an “adieu haiku,” that comments on some aspect of the NFL he covered that week. Sutter’s little volume includes his own adieu haiku:

Where have all the hikers gone?
     The fire ring besides the stream
          Filled with fallen leaves.

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