Saturday, December 8, 2007

Review of W.F. Owen's SMALL EVENTS

small events by W.F. Owen. Red Moon Press: Winchester, VA, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-893959-62-0. Perfect Bound, 5 x 8 inches, 64 pp., $12.00 US.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
This collection of fifty haibun exhibits a predominately retrospective point-of-view and nostalgic tone while the book’s title, small events, accurately highlights W.F. Owen’s fascination with the mysteries of the quotidian.

Owen employs varied prose styles but two predominate: first, a matter-of-fact anecdotal narrative which is relaxed and freely admits the demotic speech of a familial storyteller or neighborhood raconteur; second, an expressionistic paragraph of elevated diction and rhythm which largely eschews punctuation and heightens tension by running, breathlessly, from beginning to end. The first has deep roots in American oral folklore and literature (Anderson, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Saroyan); the second is reminiscent in places of Kerouac, in others of Faulkner.

To indicate, within the limits of a review, the power of which Owen is capable in either style, let me cite one sterling example of each. In the haibun, “dog tags” (p. 45), the casual and understated relation of an anecdote intensifies the tragic and serious subject under discussion with startling economy:

A friend tells me that his brother’s dog tags were among hundreds found on a recent trip to Vietnam by two Florida businessmen. His brother was listed MIA after his helicopter was shot down during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Stamped into the metal tags are his name, serial number and blood type. The businessmen bought over 600 of the tags in the back alley shops of Ho Chi Minh City. Some cost just a few pennies.

his brother’s dog tags
found after thirty years
washing off foreign soil

An exemplar of Owen’s expressionistic run-on style with the subtle complexities and fluid undertones of which it is capable when deftly used would be the haibun entitled “clothesline” (p. 38):

In the backyard strung like half-cooked spaghetti between rusted poles I return semi stiff and bleached white holding and being held the connective tissue of family and neighbors born from the despair of rolling blackouts baking in longer days casting broken shadows on a wilted lawn like Mercator lines on an antique globe artificially carving the land ― joining it ― these towels are my flags of white and stripes faded and new raised and pinned by early light to a reveille of sparrows lowered at dusk by mourning doves I am a throwback to decades before homeowner associations archaic like five-cent Coke in hourglass bottles ten cent movies with all-day suckers real buttered popcorn and giant dill pickles a time when newspapers were only black and white.

summer wind
a dragonfly grips
the clothespin

Owen here takes full advantage of his associational method, often employing a clause in his prose with the purposeful ambiguity commonly reserved for a “pivot word” in haiku. The relation of prose to haiku as well is neither too close nor too distant, adding resonance and depth to the work as a whole.

Owen’s obsession with the revelatory properties of the commonplace, whether of an immediate present or distant past, betrays its limits in the exclusively autobiographical character of this volume. Even where the author apparently departs from his own life and experiences, the haibun in question, upon closer examination, can be read within the first person context. Such is the case with what might be called two ‘found haibun’ ― entries respectively upon the death of a condor (“adult condor no. 8,” p. 32) and the unidentified body of a Native American in a morgue (“02-827,” p. 51) ― apparently based upon local news events. The flat journalistic reportage, in each case, is shadowed by an intimately personal haiku. The dead condor, for example, receives this ironic colophon:

clear skies
watching the salmon spawn
with my adopted son

Owen’s most imaginative and radical venture away from his own person does not demonstrate his talent at its best. The haibun at issue, “quake” (p. 37), finds a personified city of San Francisco addressing the reader: “1906, I am burning. Children running, crying, pushed together like cordwood around Lotta’s Fountain …. Stay away from my buildings! The liquefied ground eats some, but others are shedding bricks …..” Happily, the haiku that serves as postscript sheds this ill-conceived and verbose preface:

the picture on the wall

While the author, whether upon a determined aesthetic or personal affinity, restricts his haibun largely to the realm of autobiography, limits can constitute not only weaknesses but strengths. Owen, within the narrow compass he has chosen, writes crisply and evocatively, thus instilling in his reader his own sense of the marvelous within the everyday.

Haibun in English, even more so than haiku, renku or haiga, has few, if any, hard and fast rules. That Basho did not devote himself to haibun seriously until late in his life and never sought to formulate rules for its composition is an historical fact that may account for the questionable status of haibun in English. This same circumstance also accounts for a similar lack of strict aesthetic definition of the genre in Japanese literature. No better proof of this might be cited than to point to the dearth of accomplished haibun practice among the immediate disciples of Basho, to say nothing of succeeding generations of Japanese haijin.

Reading Owen’s collection, one is granted a kaleidoscopic view of his childhood in Texas, his military service and stint as a scuba instructor in Hawaii, his later career as an educator in California as well as being introduced, albeit briefly, to his intimate friends and family members. The reader, in short, leaves this book with a close acquaintance with its author.

The book is tastefully designed, like every Red Moon publication I have examined, with an attractive cover and nicely balanced typography that makes for both a legible and attractive text. Such production values honor the good work of the author and make small events a bargain for any reader interested in the future of English-language haibun.

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

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