Monday, June 16, 2008

Review of Jeffrey Harpeng's QUARTER PAST SOMETIME

Quarter Past Sometime by Jeffrey Harpeng. Post Pressed: Teneriffe, Qld., Australia, 2007. ISBN: 9-78192121-4172. Perfect Bound, 5 x 8 inches, 36 pp., $15 Aus.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
New Zealander Jeffrey Harpeng, now resident in Australia, writes haibun in a rich voice akin to the rhythms of much modernist verse, say, Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos or Basil Bunting’s Briggflats. The example of Bunting is most apropros because Harpeng’s haibun are not only replete with historical and cultural allusions a la Pound but also, like the Northumbrian Bunting, remain stubbornly loyal to their immediate locale, to regional history and to local speech-patterns and place-names, whether the chosen setting is a lush green headland on volcanic Banks Peninsula in New Zealand’s South Island or a desolate backcountry cemetery in an Australia brittle with drought.

On the low stone wall above the beach, there are a couple of rusty cauldrons once used for rendering whale blubber. They gather leaves, gather wind-drift, gather trash. My imagination rivets great copper handles to them, and a hotplate of magma rises to brew Turkish coffee. I spice it with cardamom and sweeten it with a sugar-bag of sugar, enough coffee, enough sugar to string out the minor gods of place, to stew all time in a sweet brown cloud. Let that be drunk and the ensuing dream be a clear blue sky and us walking, a child here and another there. How they run ahead.
The harbour is a caldera twelve million years old. An occasional tremor ripples the landscape. Seasons have poured into the harbour and receded like the tide. In a high altitude photo of Banks Peninsula, Akaroa appears little more than a lichen tracery on a crumpled map. (27)

So he writes in “Akaroa – Remote Viewing,” with the fine descriptive detail that is characteristic of his observation of landscape and his cognizance of that same land’s history.

In a prelude to “Australia Day 2007,” Harpeng begins, “Sitting on the back porch, looking south, a thousand miles and more of drought in that direction and to my right twice that much and more (31).” Deprivation and death are the main themes in this work wherein the drought-stricken terrain itself becomes an invasive force. Farther along, the poet introduces us to his deaf brother in a cemetery scene:

I am with my brother and mother. A man in a Hawaiian shirt asks directions. He seems to be subtitling himself, making shy sign language below his chest as he talks to us. We don’t know the suburb of the dead he is looking for. The base blue of his shirt is fathoms darker than the sky.
‘Do you know him?’ My mother signs to my brother and dubs her own soundtrack.
"No,” my brother says.
among the sleeping
so many
in unkempt beds
The man in the Hawaiian shirt is already a whole congregation away. (32)

The elegiac note is sounded and deepens as this haibun now progresses to Harpeng’s grief over his mother’s mortality:

Before the road winds up the Marburg Ranges, there’s a straight past the place selling potted roses.
‘Over there,’ (three houses at the foot of a hill) mum says, ‘is where the lady lived who made my wedding bouquet. That year was dry, florists had no flowers, but on the day a flower from here and a flower from there on our wedding date…’
The countryside is once again brittle.
so much
forgotten (33)
One of the most endearing qualities of this book is found in the unguarded but unsentimental tenderness that the poet reserves for members of his family. We meet his brother, again, in “Kaikoura”:

At the sea’s edge, I estimate compass setting, point out from the rocks, push-mower roll one hand out from my heart toward tomorrow. In the grammatic space inhabited by my brother, I make him a thumb-winged plane, palm down, further and further out there. In reply he zig-zags a tutorial pointer across a map in the air. A map on which I see him already gone, barely arrived. Six years since last we met.
We cross the broken scripted rocks: geological glyphs smoothed and pooled by the tide. Surf-washed, wave-worn inlets are littoral character traits in the script. I wave for his attention. He responds, shrugging eyebrows and shoulders. I scoop bucket-fulls of air to my chest, sample it at my lips, then splay fingers from my lips with gastronomic gusto, and a Latin pout. My brother’s head and eyebrows rise, drop to a nod’s fading echo. (24)

Quarter Past Sometime collects thirteen haibun and two variations on the sonnet. another form that the poet shows an affinity for. Haibun by the baker’s dozen may strike the reader as a slender offering but Harpeng’s works are often longer than what one commonly reads in haikai journals. They also employ a complex association of images and very rich diction, circumstances which add to the gravity or density of the individual titles. If I were drawing up a list of the ten most interesting haikai books of the last year, Quarter Past Sometime would rate highly, and is therefore recommended to the reader.

reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
first published in Lynx, June 2008

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