Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Zen Speug and The Throu-Gaun Chiel

Zen Speug is John McDonald's haiku website. A mouse-click on Zen Speug in P-i-R's alphabetical sidebar will take you to John McDonald, Edinburgh's haiku answer to Robert Burns, quicker than you can down a scotch on the rocks.

The Throu-Gaun Chiel (pub: Cyberwit.net) is John McDonald's new book of haiku verse. The intriguing title is the author's translation into Scots, one of the three languages of Scotland, of Jack Kerouac's phrase 'Le Passant' - he who passes through. The 99 haiku presented in this slim volume are written in Scots and English just like the author's cool green internet pages.

The collection begins with a suitable image:

i the howe o'r derk fedders
a green egg

deep in her dark feathers
a green egg

We may wonder about this dark crow and this green egg. Is it perhaps a metaphor for the Zen Speug site? Is the crow the author himself?

What other secrets does this crow hold concealed in those dark feathers: Will the egg hatch? What will come out of this egg? Another crow? A meal? And why a crow? Hints of the poet Ted Hughes, not far away in Yorkshire, and his infamous Crow - a villain and a bringer of bad tidings. There's much to digest here. But we must move on:

the cailleach
an the burn
...at their ain slaw raik

the old lady
and the stream
...at their own slow pace

It pays to go slowly through this collection. One or two verses a day will provide plenty of food for thought. Who is the old cailleach? What is she doing by the slow moving stream? When a burn slows it means the bed is wide. Is the old lady lonely, perhaps a widow. Could she be dreaming of her departed husband? Perhaps the stream enters a deep river? Will the old lady turn and retrace her steps. Or go on? Maybe she's only going to feed the ducks.

A John McDonald haiku often provides scope for wordplay; and here we can substitute Scots words like burn for stream and cailleach for old woman in the English version to good effect. This possibility enhances the whole experience; brings greater depth and/or more poetry to the haiku.

Consider the following. In Poet-in-Residence's book John McDonald reaches haiku perfection here.

anither yirdin -
sin blinters on the spaiks
o a birlin trinnle

another funeral -
sun glitters on the spokes
of a turning wheel

There is no need for comment here; but it is a fact that an extra quality of this haiku is the subliminal image of iron railings, perhaps of a graveyard, suggested by the sound of the Scots word spaiks, the word for the spokes of a wheel.

Here's a prize-winning haiku from The Throu-Gaun Chiel:

a skein o geese -
on the howe's haunle

a skein of geese -
on the hoe's handle

Terrific imagery here. The author gives so much in these three small lines. Note the strength of that single punctuation mark for instance. Such attention to detail is another of John McDonald's hallmarks. Nothing is rushed. All is carefully thought through.

It's commonly said that dog owners, as a breed, often resemble their pets. But what about that fishmonger in the High Street? Before closing this wonderful book, some food for thought:

in the winnock
the fushmunger -
his fite-shark's fin cowe

in the window
the fishmonger -
his white-shark's fin haircut

Visit Zen Speug and make friends with John if you haven't already done so.

The publicity photo, taken by son Euan and featured on the book's cover shows a cheery Scot and a grinning frog. And not a bottle of scotch in sight! Cheers John and well done!

- Gwilym Williams


  1. thanks for this review - you are a most generous and honourable Bard
    aye john

  2. therefore have now edited the first line ... and you are 'Edinburgh's haiku answer to Robert Burns'

  3. how kind and in case someone notices (I don't know what the psychological term would be for turning 99 into 66 but it's happened)thanks again - a true bard

  4. john,
    corrected the numbers -
    a classic case of invertlexia*?

    *Freud's surgery is just down the road!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.