Thursday, March 6, 2008

Review of David Cobb's BUSINESS IN EDEN

Business in Eden by David Cobb. Equinox Press: Braintree, Essex, England, 2006. ISBN: 0-9517103-5-4. Perfect Bound, 5” x 6 1/2“, 96 pp., £7.95 UK (Available, also, through British Haiku Society Bookshop at

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

Positioned like bookends at the front and back of this, David Cobb’s newest book, are two long and ambitious haibun from previous collections. “The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore” (1997) and “A Day in Twilight” (2002), approximately thirty and twenty text pages respectively, share not only a certain measure of ambition but a compositional method as well. A dozen haibun of more common length – one or two pages – form the centerpiece of this triptych.

What is Cobb’s method? He outlines it clearly, in the second paragraph of “The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore”:

Early one morning in spring, towards the end of a millennium, I try to forget I own two cars, sling a leg over the crossbar of a bicycle, prepare to set out from the ‘lower part’ of Essex … for a cottage on the Norfolk coast…. No companions along the way but the living I may chance to meet and the dead who haunt it. (1)

The poet’s unabashedly Romantic project is to evade the present (“I try to forget…”) and evoke the past (“the dead who haunt it”). Even the “living” who are met “along the way” are invested with a symbolic significance and spectral air. While the ghost of Bashō and his travels may flutter dimly behind these pages, Cobb’s tone and atmosphere are distinctly contemporary.

The ‘poetic places’ (utamakura) -- the topos famous for having inspired ancient poems ― formed an itinerary for Bashō’s journeys. Cobb seeks out or happens upon the same in his cycling tour, though the “the dead who haunt” his English countryside are often obscure writers or local historical personages of the 18th or 19th centuries. He brings these dead back, he revives them, with his vivid descriptions and lively detail:

Outside Hedingham a crossroads. Here they drove rivets through the joints of Old Poll, the local witch.

blackthorn in bloom
worming underground
its seven-league roots

Out of the sloe bush the pewtery chinking of a wren. The panoply of spring praises this day. The lark ascends for the first time, glossy cuckoo-pint leaves and glistening celandines take the eye away from daffodils, wallflowers scent walls, violets bloom both mauve and white, cheery-eyed speedwells are there, primroses, poplars quick to follow weeping willows into tint.

The village of Honington houses the ghost of Robert Bloomfield, forgotten author of The Farmer’s Boy, whom Cobb promptly recognizes in the form of a “slip-smock style shirt” that “waves…from a washing line” (9), a discovery that leads to an interview of the dead by the living poet.

Attleborough brings Cobb, by chance, in touch with the living -- a young schoolgirl with notebook in hand – and an opportunity for a rather witty metaphysical digression:

“Do you believe in heaven and hell, sir? It’s all part of our homework, see? We gotta find out what everyone thinks and put it in a bar chart for Mrs. Scattermole.”

“Well, yes, I do believe in heaven and hell, but not as a place somewhere else, not as somewhere to go to…. Have you got space in your chart for someone who thinks heaven and hell are the same place?”

“Don’t think Mrs. Scattermole will have that,” the child answers mournfully, and then more hopefully, “What about the Devil? Do you believe in him?”

“Or her. Yes, but not as someone else or the same individual all the time….”

My young interlocutor turns away and, pausing by the next street corner, I see her take out a rubber and erase the scribble she has taken down from me.

At journey’s end, under a vision of the Hale-Bopp Comet, Cobb reflects: “At bicycle speed, events from long ago come into sharper focus out of obscure memory, happenings of today drift away into the uncertainty of fable…. Never do we need words more than when we are alone, not for communication with others, but to talk to ourselves and define our own peace of mind” (32).

The twelve shorter haibun that follow “A Spring’s Journey” further display the breadth and originality of Cobb’s talent. The inevitable faux pas of a school nativity play, the black comedy of the burial of an emeritus professor of philosophy, the speculation on the poet’s own grave-to-be, and the nightmarish fable of a society that sanctions and glorifies euthanasia – Cobb assays each motif with a confident hand.

“A Day in Twilight” – the latter third of this collection – revisits the mode of “A Spring Journey” as Cobb hints in his introduction:

Mythical beings share intuitions with us and desire our company?

Taken with this idea and feeling sure their need would be greatest when days are short, I determined, as it was winter solstice, to seek some of those beings out….”

Cobb’s characteristic wry humor is amply evident:

I dress before dawn, no very unlikely thing to do on December’s twenty-second day, night making way slowly for the gloom which at this time of year we are pleased to call daylight. (61)

As is his gift for the crisp and condensed turn of poetry:

Even on a day of modest wind there is a chill in the air across the small-scale ridgeland prairie where I now find myself. Set against a line of dark lime trees, like a lace jabot on a black collar, the eastern end of Little Sampford church. Mouldering. Its floor made of damp uncemented yellow bricks.

honey for sale –
my loose change clinks
on a silent hive

Unfortunately, Cobb’s peregrinations in “A Day in Twilight,” with his seeking out of the likes of highwayman Dick Turpin and merry King Coel, rings in the end, despite many brilliant passages, as emptily as Cobb’s “loose change.” It lacks the inner coherence of “A Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore” and comes close to lowering itself to a parody of that earlier achievement.

Such misgivings are easy to put aside, however, in a book that is otherwise rich in achievement and confirms, yet again, Cobb’s position in the front ranks of those poets who have mastered the difficult art of haibun. The detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights that adorns the cover seems particularly apropos and the price, modest. Business in Eden is that reviewer’s cliché: a must for your bookshelf.

review by Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
first published in Lynx, February 2008

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