Sunday, July 6, 2008

Review of Janice M. Bostok's STEPPING STONES

stepping stones by Janice M. Bostok. Post Pressed: Teneriffe, Qld., Australia, 2007. ISBN: 978-1921214-07-3. Perfect Bound, 5 x 8 inches, 54 pp., $15 Aus.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
This newest book by Janice M. Bostok, widely-known Australian haijin, marries prose and verse into a moving memoir of her life as the young mother of an autistic son. stepping stones, then, is not a collection of individual haibun as much as it is an episodic summary of two lives with the chief events now related in a factual confessional prose style, now in contemporary free-verse, now in a brief haibun with or without accompanying haiku.

Bostok deftly sketches her son’s early problems with spatial orientation in the following way:

When we were out walking and he was in the pusher he would cringe back from bushes which hung over fences onto the footpath …. The shrub would be quite a distance away from him.
This spatial problem became more pronounced after he walked. He also crouched down to go through doorways or ducked to one side. Often when he ran he ran into things or put out his arms as he moved, in the manner of the blind …. Even after he learnt to walk proficiently he would drop down to his hands and knees and crawl through doorways. (22)

The expository detail which serves to establish both background and atmosphere in the narrative of Tony, the poet’s son, is sometimes finely nuanced, sometimes raw and searing:

Travelling with a rigidly autistic child in the car is always a difficult experience at the best of times. Not liking his routine to be interrupted, he would often lie down and go stiff, refusing unequivocally to enter the vehicle. Other times I might get him into his car seat and before I could drive off he would begin to scream until he became so distressed that he would vomit. If he was sick before I actually left the property I could abort the trip and stay home. Many times I simply had to turn the car around a few kilometers down the road ….
Sometimes we made it all the way to town but that would often be a short-lived victory. For arriving in town was merely the beginning. If I drove in the one direction around the shopping block he was happy. If I made a u-turn he would scream …. We always had to appear to be traveling in a circular pattern. (42-43)

With the rich context of the prose for support, Bostok’s haiku and tanka resonate deeply:
pregnant again …
the fluttering of moths
against the window

foetus kicks
the sky to the east
brilliant (7)

from a stringy gum –
its leaves showing white
in the rising westerly wind –
a crow suddenly hops
onto the slanting roof (34)

The expressive haikai passages in the prose – many acceptable as stand alone haibun, with or without attendant haiku – employ many of the techniques that Western haiku also avails itself of: absence of punctuation, quiet understatement and parsimonious phrasing:

another address to locate in an unfamiliar city i can now find my way to the Autistic Centre but accommodation has been offered in an unused nursing home …. at night the kitchen is bleak with windows which look out to a block retaining wall holding a cut-away bank in the hillside most of the nursing home is closed off from use by the fire doors half-way down the long hallway Tony and i the only occupants feeling enclosed i walk towards the glass doors and the main entrance beyond as i walk a ghostly figure in a long night gown approaches from the opposite direction for a moment i feel the panic then i realize as i stand in front of the wide glass doors that my reflection is looking anxiously back at me (36)

stepping stones is not free of stylistic flaws nor perfect in its overall construction but deficiencies in form here find compensation in the courage and honesty wherewith Bostok addresses a deeply personal and difficult subject, her manner rising at times to the acute elegiac tone of

i look at my son a rosebud that didn’t unfurl plucked too soon perhaps a bud which cannot blossom …. (52)

This book, in the end, may be less aesthetic manifesto than a document of the frailty of the human condition and its redemption by love. I commend it to the reader as such, with the fine one-line haiku which serves as its sub-title:
sun on the stepping stone the distance deceiving

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

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