Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Quartet: a string of haibun in four voices by Jeffrey Harpeng, Patricia Prime, Diana Webb and Jeffrey Woodward. Teneriffe, Qld., Australia: Post Pressed, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-921214-29-5. Saddle Stiched, 5 ½” x 8”, 24 pp, $7.00 AUD.

Reviewed by Joanna Preston
In late 2007, Australian haiku poet Jeffrey Harpeng came up with an idea for a haibun collaboration. Echoing Octavio Paz’s 1969 Renga (written over five days in collaboration with Edoardo Sanguineti, Charles Tomlinson and Jacques Roubaud), his aim was:

to compose a renga/haibun sequence where each writers’ link is, say six lines of prose plus a renga link - three & two lines alternating as per a renga sequence ...[and] to get each writer to reflect the state of the world through local issues and changes ...

The four poets involved were Jeffrey Harpeng (Australia), Patricia Prime (New Zealand), Diana Webb (England) and Jeffrey Woodward (USA).

Now the disclaimer. I’m in the odd position of having been initially sounded out for this project, so I have both a personal link, and access to background information. Hence this review is less “critical analysis of merits” and more “commentary on project”.

I’ve thought for a while that haibun was the most exciting form of poetry currently being written in English, and Quartet promised to explore some of those possibilities. How do you link one haibun to the next? How closely, how tenuously? What is the cumulative effect of these links? How would the four different poets play off their differences (of gender, of style and of nation)? Would the piece work as a whole? Become a single poem? Or remain an anthology of 36?

I really enjoyed this book. Virtually all of the haibun and haiku are of a high standard. What did surprise me though was how similar in level and mood the pieces generally were. Despite the original intention, the differences between the four voices were smoothed out rather than emphasised – maybe inevitable, given the nature of linking (trying to echo or resonate with an earlier poem) and the speed with which the book was written. Heightened by the fact that the four poets did not restrict their settings to their own countries – for example, some of Jeff Harpeng’s were set in New Zealand, and Jeffrey Woodward has pieces that are quite European (such as Picnic on the Grass) and frankly British (Garden Party). But many of the pieces from all four are not firmly located anywhere, which I think is, at the very least, a missed opportunity.

Stylistically, the haibun are mostly of the ‘short chunk of descriptive or narrative prose, concluded by one haiku’ type. Of the exceptions, two haibun begin with a haiku (Peace and Plenty and Marked), one (Concert in the Park) uses two haiku and one (Dead Letter Office) no haiku at all. (A fact which I missed in my first few readings – some evidence for Janice Bostok and Ken Jones’ contention that haibun doesn’t always have to contain a haiku?) In some cases, there’s a sporadic sense of one or other of the poets having an overarching story behind their links – again, something that would have been interesting to see explored a bit more consciously. (Haibun #1 & #5, #7 & #24, for those who want to check.)

There are a couple of things that recur frequently. Spiders and their webs turn up in 5 of the 36 haibun. Ditto butterflies. (Interestingly, not more than once in any one haibun.) Painting turns up in 6 (or 7, if you include “sketching”). But by far the biggest obsession here is children – they occur explicitly in 10 of the 36 poems, and are implied in many others. Children in parks, at museums, following parades. But most often grandchildren.

The links between the different pieces are sometimes subject matter (e.g. turtles, between #1 and #2), sometimes physical setting e.g. (rivers and boulders linking #32 and #33), emotional connotation (e.g. being trapped: an ex-con, trapped by a broken floorboard in #29, two nuns (and a spider) in #30), or reference to a specific word (e.g. “curtain” in both #15 and #16, “cloud” in #16 and #17.)

They’re of varying strength – sometimes close, sometimes very loose. (Not just between haibun and haibun, but also between prose and haiku.) I tend to think of them as step, stride and leap – step being only a small movement away from the previous piece (essentially ‘more of the same’ or ‘adding detail’), leap being a big change (often one that you have to puzzle out after the fact) and stride being somewhere in between (the sort of link that hits you a moment or two after you first frown and say “but...”) For those with analytical minds, my reading breaks the links down into 2 steps, 5 strides and 29 leaps.

Some of the leaps are wonderful – Patricia Prime’s Lovebirds linked to Jeffrey Woodward’s Garden Party by references to gardens and courtship, with a third link between Prime’s haiku (“gulls quibble”) and the characters (gossiping women) of Woodward’s prose. Or between Woodward’s A Dry Music (about watching a rattlesnake shedding its skin) and Prime’s Pieces of Sky (discovering a snail and thinking about a grandchild). It takes a moment before the links reveal themselves here – not just the natural setting, or the presence of a human watcher, or even the focus on a crawling animal (snake, and snail - maybe even young grandson?) but actual shared words: “diamond”, “rattle” and “cracks”. Lovely stuff.

All things considered, this really is an exciting book. Its failings seem to me to be mainly to do with opportunities missed. I would have liked to see the participants each establishing a specific ‘voice’ for their links, making more of the differences between each of the four people involved. Claiming images, moods, locations, types of link etc as their own. Thinking more about the meta-structure of the collaboration as a whole, and writing or revising to best serve that.

English language haibun is strong, inventive and endlessly flexible. An entire area of possibility has been opened up by this quartet of poets. Now it’s up to the rest of us to carry it forward.

by Joanna Preston
Christchurch, New Zealand

No comments: