Friday, June 20, 2008


Dover Beach and My Back Yard: BHS Haibun Anthology 2007. Selection and Commentaries by Colin Blundell and Graham High. BHS Bookshop at ISBN: 978-1-906333-00-3. Perfect Bound, 5 ½” x 7”, 72 pp., £7 UK, $10 US.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
Released early in this calendar year, the British Haiku Society’s biennial haibun anthology showcases 25 haibun by 15 contributors. Each haibun is accompanied by a commentary that the editors penned jointly, a shift in emphasis from the last BHS collection, edited by David Cobb and Ken Jones, wherein the editors offered their independent and often conflicting views.

A wide variety in style, subject and tone is achieved in Dover Beach and My Back Yard and the level of writing is consistently high. Choosing good compositions to comment upon is relatively easy for the reviewer, a circumstance which promises fair compensation to the curious reader.

Charles Hansmann, who has established a distinctive voice in contemporary haibun, offers the very atmospheric and brooding, “At Sea,” in which his skillful and precise description is demonstrated at its best:

Every morning there’s a clatter of clam shells on the deck and gulls swooping down to their breakfast. They’re defiant, but wary, and when we step out they spread their skank wings and flap like stiff laundry to the sky. (12)

With “Church Going,” Bamboo Shoot offers pointed observations that are enlivened by his crisply paced prose:

My road took me through the small village of Damerham, where a large CHURCH FLOWER FESTIVAL notice was fixed to a tall hedge. Larkin-like, certainly no church connoisseur, I stopped; and passing through the thick, ochre-lichened walls into a sweet-smelling almost cuttable cold, it came again – the elusive sense of being elsewhere. (18)

A “sweet-smelling almost cuttable cold” mixes the olfactory and tangible in a terse and wholly convincing fashion. It is the sharp detail of such sensory perceptions that supports Bamboo Shoot’s frequent parenthetical but telling asides: “Larkin-like, certainly no church connoisseur….” This poet owns an uncanny ability to objectify his own “sense of being elsewhere” in his observations of his immediate environment and of his fellow occupants:

…two elderly ladies – strangely still wearing woolen cardigans and tweed skirts – hardly seemed there at all in any material sense …. Their whispers seemed to live out their own brief lives – hanging in the air, crisp as winter breath, before dying away to vanish into the stonework. (18)

“Dover Beach and My Back Yard,” the haibun that lends its title to this anthology, comes by way of Ray Rasmussen of Alberta. This composition is immediately appealing in its economy of means: simple comparison and contrast. The poet’s daughter does the gardening while the poet rocks “back and forth in the newly hung hammock”; a copy of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” lies open while the daily news, with its war reportage, “is cast aside.” Rasmussen meditates upon the loss of faith that was the theme of Arnold’s poem but even before his explicit rejection of that, the very unity of the domestic backyard scene – kittens playing, a dog gnawing a bone, nuthatches nesting – foreshadows the poet’s simultaneous acceptance of hard realities and his determination to enjoy life as is: “... Matthew, family and garden must suffice for now (30).”

Doris Heitmeyer, in “Sound of Jackhammers,” compares the building façade under repair in New York City to the same tenement “due for an overhaul when I moved in 50 years ago (52).” The sight evokes vivid recollections of her youth as a single girl in the city with the frequent counterpoint of the scene now: her old tenement “boarded up,” “street kids lounging under the scaffold” – or her hesitant, feeble and aging steps counter to the “little hip hop dance” of the kids on the street. A closing haiku affords a strong summary of past and present:
The pigeon flies a straw
to its niche in the scaffolding
– sound of jackhammers. (53)
The commentaries of editors Colin Blundell and Graham High are generally practical, informative and revealing. Time after time, they pick out the weak spot in a given composition or provide an accurate appreciation of the understated strengths of a particular haibun. These commentaries are not without hazard, however, as in the following remarks that were inspired by Hansmann’s “At Sea”:

The presiding view that haibun prose should be unobtrusive and exhibit subtlety and lightness of touch is difficult to balance against the desire to write prose that is striking, memorable and original. (13)

The above assertion that a “presiding view” exists would seem to be an invention of the editors or, perhaps, a phenomenon observed in their immediate milieu. It is not a claim that I have seen advanced commonly on that side or on this side of the water. Editors, however, should be granted some poetic license in promulgating their own literary opinions, so the damage here is not great.

Elsewhere, however, a similar uncritical attitude on the part of the editors leads to some embarrassment as in the following notations on Doris Heitmeyer’s “Luna Moth”:
Without consulting a World Encyclopaedia of Moths, the only thing we know about a Luna moth from the haibun itself is that it is big and ‘cool luminous green’ in colour and, very mysteriously, ‘like an ordinary sphinx’…. The haibun is worthy of inclusion in the anthology if only for the strangely haunting image of a moth being ‘like an ordinary sphinx…’ (which presumably makes it extraordinary)…. (43)

One can only wish that Blundell and High had consulted that encyclopaedia, a small effort that would have solved the “strangely haunting image” and great mystery of “an ordinary sphinx.” For Heitmeyer’s sphinx is a rather ordinary and common moth after all.

No book is free of error, however, and on the positive side, Blundell and High raise the bar for future BHS anthologies in selecting very strong work and providing incisive and helpful critical reaction overall. Beyond the few haibun commented upon here, Dover Beach and My Back Yard includes excellent works by many well-known practitioners of haibun such as David Cobb, Jim Kacian, Jane Whittle, Ken Jones, Jeffrey Harpeng and Lynne Rees. The book itself is a handsome and portable perfect bound volume, one that I readily recommend.

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

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