Sunday, November 11, 2007


Contemporary Haibun, Volume 8. Edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross & Ken Jones. Red Moon Press: Winchester, VA, 2007. ISBN: 1-893959-61-9. Perfect bound, 5 ¼ x 8 ¼ inches, 120 pp., $16.95 US.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

Eight years into Red Moon’s highly successful series of annual haibun anthologies ― and with how many years of nascent haibun activity in English preceding this? ― one is forced to conclude that haibun in English has few, if any, hard and fast rules. Well-intentioned journal editors who solicit or reviewers who comment upon the genre may inform the reader that haibun’s requirements include any possible combination of the following guidelines: prose plus one or more haiku; use of present tense; use of first person; a subject chosen from one’s common everyday existence; a revelatory or “aha” moment; and on and on.

Unfortunately, the curious reader who conducts even a cursory review of the literature will soon discover that exceptions outnumber cases of conformity to every guideline cited and that, moreover, the exceptions quite often are not weaker for this lack of adherence. Practice precedes theory in poetry and so poetic success in the face of a critical failure and lack of consensus should not greatly surprise.

An absence of critical and heuristic clarity is lamentable, certainly, but the failure is not wholly that of the English-language haikai community. Basho came to prose relatively late in life and left no explicit rules of composition for the practice of a genre, haibun, that he invented. That his followers were unable to build upon his successes and that haibun in Japan suffered a long decline is evidence that a proper aesthetic for haibun has yet to be elaborated in Japan as well.

Granted that one is more likely to confront a unicorn than any consensus on the structure and nature of haibun, what shall we make of an anthology which collects over 60 haibun by 45 contributors? Can we delineate any tendencies? Can we collate these disparate works and categorize them based upon shared methods or manners? Three methods dominate this collection ― naturalism, reverie and expressionism ― but the demarcations between them often blur in individual works.

Most commonly in evidence in this anthology are haibun that I loosely define as naturalist in style, their chief intent being a realistic depiction of everyday persons, places and things ― present and past. The authors of such works show a fondness for the strictly domestic as in Hortensia Anderson’s “Claire” (p. 9), a scene which sympathetically portrays a learning disabled child, or C.W. Hawes’ “In a Little While” (p. 42). a touching snapshot of a separation in progress. Because the focus in such vignettes is intimate, immediate and close-at-hand, even when, as is often the case, the present gives way to the intrusion of an overpowering recollection of the past, the diction generally leans to the prosaic and, in this relaxed state, admits slang and other idioms frequently excluded from formal written discourse. Yvonne Cabalona’s “Transition” (p. 17) demonstrates the dangers of this laxness when, for example, her cat, pouncing upon leaves, “snaps, crackles, pops” (an unfortunate cliché) or when she observes the “8-to-5’ers” returning from work. Collin Barber, similarly, succumbs to the lazy temptations of the common tongue and weakens an otherwise impressive haibun, “The Long Way Home” (p. 14), with such careless constructions as, “Though I wasn’t involved in this scene, I get the feeling that somehow I’ve done something wrong” (italics mine).

Not every haibun that shows fidelity to the detailed description of the naturalist mode shares these common shortcomings, however. Gary LeBel’s “The Frenchman’s Line” (pp. 54-57), which belongs to the naturalist tendency as well, is unique in this collection and rare for haibun, in general, in eschewing the poet’s immediate life-experience or meditations in favor of an avowed fiction ― an episodic tale, in this instance, of “an iceman’s day on a New England river.”

Haibun wherein the poet is engaged in a state of reverie, dream or trance appear less frequently than the naturalist vignette but are by no means rare. Contemporary Haibun 8 affords some remarkably fine examples. In Adelaide B. Shaw’s “Unfocused” (p. 89), her deceased father “moves slowly” into her dream and she accepts his presence, as if he had never died, but wonders why he has been so long absent, while noting, significantly, that his “image is unfocused and slightly faded,” that he comes in the form of “the young man of his early photos.”

Lynne Rees, in “The Next Wave,” presents a vision of death which, in contrast to the elegiac tone and slow movements of Shaw’s vignette, betrays great anxiety with an accompanying vision of destruction on a rapid and massive scale:

I dream about my mother’s house, a rush of surf where Silver Avenue used to be, waves spilling over a neighbour’s fence, gardens drowning. I hold her away from the window to protect her, the waves tremendous now, pummelling the glass, spitting through the broken seals in the window frame. The next one will crash through. I pick my mother up, her body small and pale like a baby’s, and run to another room.

welcome hug
each time I come home
my mother is shorter
(p. 86)

One of the more captivating, albeit obscure, examples of reverie or dream occurs in Bamboo Shoot’s “Journey” (pp. 12-13) with this arresting beginning:

4.00 am. I woke too early, and found myself locked out of sleep. Reading, a reliable hypnotic when I was interested, now failed me when I was not .... I went to the open window to watch the day begin. But the garden was still unlit …. I dunked a tea-bag, returned to bed, opened my book–and reawoke to find I'd almost missed it. (p. 12)

The elevation of diction shows such fascination with language as sheer material on the poet’s part that it is reminiscent of the dramatic use of impasto, say, in the early painting of Cezanne. An example of the exaltation follows immediately in the next paragraph:

The chorus was already packing up and drifting away to the day jobs; but there, centre-stage, halfway through his Why didn't you wake me earlier routine, was the sun: a sullen blood-dusked eye glared at me out of multicoloured sheets. Slowly, the eye became a globe of crusted gold-melt and saffron calligraphy was fired onto porcelain of the palest blue…. (p. 12)

Were there any doubt as to the trance-like state behind this haibun, Bamboo Shoot advances from atmosphere to an explicit statement of the hallucinatory nature of the work with:

suddenly, from a different window, I was stealing down a broad oak staircase, quietly drawing the bolts on heavy doors, and running barefoot across a graveled drive–out into the ankle-deep grass of fields …. (p. 12)

Throughout this haibun, Bamboo Shoot’s urge to press language to the limit results in confusion of subject and object ― an ambiguity that at times is clearly the author’s purpose, while, at others, seemingly carries the poet away with the reader in a lovely but uncontrollable torrent. I’ve not read Bamboo Shoot’s work elsewhere but this writer is someone I certainly hope to read more from in the future.

The third method, after naturalism and reverie, which is readily in evidence in this collection is what I’ve termed, perhaps with undue liberty, expressionism. Such prose has a place midway between naturalism’s fidelity to the descriptive and commonplace and reverie’s frequent flights from the strict definition of the everyday object. Expressionist haibun, as I employ the term here, refers to a prose that shares naturalism’s interest in anecdotal narrative but rejects its prosaic diction for a heightened poetic diction a la reverie.

Jamie Edgecombe’s “Music of Decline” (p. 16) describes a nightclub scene as clearly as any naturalist vignette but the tone of the phrasing and the atmosphere that it creates places this haibun much closer in spirit to reverie: “Caught between the whisky mirror's logo–familiar eyes …” or “One woman brandishes a sky-blue-camisole; the other, a silk-scarf that snakes to her neck's nape ….” Similarly, Gary LeBel’s “Vowel” deftly employs some very graceful turns to depict a cormorant in its natural setting:

I had watched the bird yesterday as I do today, admiring its ancient look in silhouette, its trailing wake of a long and slender sentence without a period, and I stay until the diving accent grave of a lone, warm vowel slips quietly away into the river's ink.

trusting in tides ―
in the lightless depths,
the cormorant
(p. 54)

“Birdlings Flats” by Jeff Harpeng probably illustrates the expressionist method at its best. From the opening sentence, the reader discovers himself in the presence of a poet who is master of the rhythms of his language and of the possibilities of his material:

A spit of greywacke, gravel and stone ground round as river-rock, infilled with sand and further inland soil, stretches south from the underbelly of that burst volcanic boil, Banks Peninsula. This stony spit landlocks an inlet, endstops gray water: Lake Forsyth. (p. 33)

Harpeng’s frequent compounds, his densely layered images and earthy atmosphere are deeply embedded in the English language and reach as far back as to the kennings of Old English for their expressive power

We have spent a few windswept hours on the beach, hand mining wet stone for green, for ferrous faults: fate lines. We settle for some rounded quartz, abraded cloudy by sand. I find my white stone. It fell out of the book of Revelation, the stone with my secret name underneath. Both obverse and reverse are without text. (p. 34)

Or as far back as to the King James Version of the New Testament, perhaps, for the apt symbol of the “white stone” and “secret name” that is promised to the Elect. Harpeng, for reasons not made explicitly clear to his reader, participates in the apocalyptic vision without, however, being rewarded with a fulfillment of its covenant.

One may record, again, as many have for the previous seven seasons, that for the reader with an interest in haibun in English, no better guide to current developments is available than Contemporary Haibun, the undisputed standard in this genre. The consistently high level of much of the writing is amply complimented by the beautiful design and modest price that one has come to expect of Red Moon Press.

reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
first published in Lynx XXII:3, October 2007

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very sensible introduction re the still-forming nature of contemporary English haibun. The question really is "what it might be" more than "what it currently is."