Heroin Haikus by William Wantling / Tangerine Press / 2016 / 20 pages / 978-1-910691-18-2
William Wantling’s Heroin Haikus, out of print for fifty years, was recently published in a new edition by London’s Tangerine Press.
The book’s last page features a biographical sketch of the poet. From 1958 to 1963, Wantling was incarcerated at San Quentin, the consequence of a crime spree with his then-wife which supported their heroin addictions. But the time in prison had a silver lining, as it was there that he began writing. These Heroin Haikus follow his experiences in prison.
Wantling was released from prison a changed man. He was now a writer and went on to earn two degrees in English from Illinois State University, where he was a lecturer for several years before his death at age forty. During his brief literary career in the 1960s and early 1970s, many poems and several books were published by small presses.
Heroin Haikus was first published by Fenian Head Centre Press in 1966; Tangerine’s new edition is handsomely printed and retains the original’s anxiety-infused drawings by Ben Tibbs.
Ten haikus are presented, each comprised of three or four lines totalling seventeen syllables. They are at once elegant and potent. Here are two examples:
Give me the moment
that will join me to myself
in a mad embrace
I bolt my door—
as up the ancient stairs
cocaine shadows glide . . .
A few deftly rendered strokes capture the entire cycle of the poet’s addiction: from getting high to getting busted, a cockroach-filled jail cell, withdrawals, prison life and family pain.
Though Wantling’s books have been long out of print, Tangerine Press has been working to remedy that situation; Heroin Haikus follows the press’s publication of In the Enemy Camp (2015), which is described as the “definitive edition” of the poet’s work.
These ten Heroin Haikus, offer proof that Wantling is a poet whose work, brilliant in its ability to encapsulate deep emotion and experience in just a few lines, deserves a fresh look.