Sunday, December 28, 2008


The Note-taking Habit

Assistant Editor: Patricia Prime

I have been turning the pages of a thick octavo notebook tied with rubber bands and stuffed with photos, rail tickets and other odds and ends. I wrote in it nearly twenty years ago. I was then on a trip to China and Tibet for six weeks with a friend. At one end of the book are notes on various sites we visited: some of these were off the beaten tourist track. My friend and I were both early childhood teachers and our interests lay in seeing various places of education from pre-school to university. At the other end of the book are haiku.

When we returned from our trip my friend published a book of haiku called Caterpillar. I submitted several of my haiku to various journals. The notes lay dormant for several years until we decided to form our notes into haibun which we self-published in booklet form, together with tanka and haiku.

It is only now that I have re-read the notes for the haibun that follows. Had the notes been written last week I would rewrite them now to make the account less clumsy, stilted and repetitive. But since it was written long ago and in order to safeguard the immediacy of the record, I write it word-for-word with all its infelicities.
We are caught for a moment on this narrow rim of road overlooking the Li River. The sheer karst peaks are sewn with saplings, slender roots and half-grown bushes. Weathered cliff faces and rock surfaces are striated in various shades of colour. The wide green waterway idles below.

It is so still, you say, so still—the only moving thing a fisherman’s boat way down there; yet seeing straight away how far from true this is: everything moves, trapped with the two of us in a ripe giddiness of heat which shakes the mountains until they cheat reality. They threaten to collapse and in their downfall fling themselves upon their images floating in the Li—for it already holds them in its sway, rooted in the current.

reflecting river—
mountains shiver
In broad sunlight

And look, see how the river even now will not allow these ancient rocks one moment of repose as our guide tells us the legendary stories behind them. Most are magical and love stories. They have imaginative names that he translates as Elephant Trunk Hill, Pagoda Hill, The Emperor’s Seat and The Three Princesses.

The fisherman releases his cormorant into the water where it dives for fish. When the bird catches a fish it returns to the boat and the fisherman removes the fish from its throat. The secret is that the fisherman places a cord around the bird’s neck to keep the bird from swallowing the fish. When the fisherman stoops to release the fish, the vast pink-veined karst shudders and shakes in the silent river.

the long shadow
of a cormorant’s neck
among reeds
Once these jottings have begun to find their way into sentences, no matter how crude, the mind can find a purchase and trace patterns that gather shape. There’s a long way from the words in a notebook to the shaping of a poem, and thinking about them brings a perception that emerges involuntarily, despite the conscious effort to bring them to completion. They emerge from the untidy notebook where so many images have been stored until they reach the finality of the poem.

The words do not take me back to the reason I made the entry, but back to the felt experience, whatever it was. This is important, for I imagine the significance of the event. It is the instant I catch in a notebook, not the comment, not the thoughts. And this is what I hope to achieve in writing haibun, whether these are of childhood memories, travel experiences, nature, looking at paintings, meeting unusual people or writing about relationships.

by Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

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