Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Four Tellings: A Trans-Tasman Haibun-Renga by Owen Bullock, Joanna Preston, Jeffrey Harpeng and Beverley George. Post Pressed, Queensland, Australia. 2008
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
It has been an experience to read the haibun-renga Four Tellings, which comes on the heels of Quartet, also directed by Jeffrey Harpeng and published by Post Pressed. Cover image, book design and layout are also by Harpeng as they were in the previous publication.

The difference here is that the four poets are from the Southern Hemisphere. The collection came into being as a result of the Haiku Aotearoa 2008 Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the four poets represented met. Two of them, Owen Bullock and Joanna Preston, live and work in New Zealand and two reside in Australia. The poets are of different backgrounds. They are of different ages. They do different jobs. But there are similarities in their writing. They have a background of writing Japanese short forms of poetry; their technique is very similar and their subjects, and what is made of them, echo each other.

Jeffrey Harpeng’s selection makes up an intriguing, moving and impressive body of work. The language is informal and prosaic, often conversational. Harpeng writes flexible prose and haiku with lines that vary between two or three lines. Most of his haibun contain two or three short paragraphs followed by a single haiku. The speaker is predominantly a reflective, conversational one, mulling over memories of saying goodbye to a loved one, writing about a depressed woman, signing the word ‘flower’ for a deaf person and playing with a granddaughter.

Indeed, Harpeng’s haibun are often anecdotes of family life, dealing with relatives and friends. Incidents are recalled, reflected on and brooded over by an intelligent and urbane speaker, full of sympathy with those he speaks of, still involved with them, part of their world. “A sigh full or roses” is an example of this kind of poem. It is an account of a hearing person communicating the sign for flower to a hearing impaired person. Presenting the point of view of a particular figure in a particular world dominates Harpeng’s poems and, the reader assumes, this is Harpeng himself. “Liberation,” for example, is spoken by a man attempting, by reading the prayer on a mani stone, to connect with someone he said goodbye to five years previously. In “Heart Offering” a woman suffering from nervous strain and whose house stands in the grounds of an aged care home, is treated by a doctor with an injection of B12 who hopes “that soon she can cope with public places again.” “Horse Tale” looks into the mind of a grandfather playing with his small granddaughter:

How I listen as my fingers gallop toward my granddaughter, off the table and on out the window.

Outside the almost laughter of a kookaburra, the supernatural quardle of magpies and her answering the “h h h oo” welling from the hearts of the doves.

Owen Bullock contributes four haibun: “Silence,” “Relief,” “Shortest Day” and “Hello, Waihi, I’m home” which centre on personal matters. These are minimalist haibun containing one or two short prose paragraphs followed by a single haiku of two or three lines. “Silence” allows Bullock to evoke and speculate on a relationship for a brief time, but it is something one feels he doesn’t want to peer at too closely. I quote the haibun in its entirety:

I didn’t ask what your perceptions were when we started out, but crowded you with mine. It’s easy to get upset, to feed the smouldering of a self-involved habit.

Today, I feel like beginning again, but don’t know how. Familiar things are attractive and empty.

on the post

The haibun has in common with others by Bullock a sense of the suggestiveness, the transcendent implications of particular experiences. “Relief” is another poem about a relationship. In it, Bullock says, “I write that you are my finest teacher. You’re more than that: lover and friend. I can consult with you because I trust you.” “Shortest Day” looks wittily at how the speaker enjoys silence, but only certain kinds of silence: “ . . . something I can’t name, that results in peace.” A memory, as in “Hello, Waihi, I’m Home,” prompts reflections on moving to a new home in an area lived in before and, perhaps forming a new relationship, although the speaker is adamant “I long so much to be alone.” The recorded experiences are simply themselves, presented without amplification, but rich in some kind of ambiguous significance.

Moving, domesticity and memories are suitable subjects for Joanna Preston’s haibun, which are one paragraph, one haiku in form. Memories and moving, by their nature, are liable to be elusive, for Preston is fascinated by the transient. She writes of the last day in a house (“Leaving”), the simple act of dishwashing (Meditation”), a memory of growing up on a farm (“Winter”) and her childhood bedroom (“Nylon summer”). Preston’s canvas is unashamedly small scale: moving, rural life, washing up, memories of childhood on a farm. Here is a passage from “Winter”:

Running barefoot across the frost. Reaching the barn, scrambling over the gate. The cuffs of my track pants glittering with crystals of ice, like stars. Like embers. Cobs of dried corn piled high in the back of the barn.

However she points explicitly beyond these limits to a wider world, as we see in “Leaving”:

This new life will be exciting. New country, new chances. An adventure. So why the hell is the sight of the old spare bed – wrapped in plastic and paper, ready to be put in storage – a bed I’ve never even slept I, for christ’s sake – why is its presence in the room making me feel so small? Why am I crying?

Her central concerns may be of transience, but the beauty and pity of things are already of great substance.

Beverley George paints on a larger canvas. While two of her haibun “Ribbons” and “Brown bread and honey” concentrate on family relationships, “Autumn Oaks” is based on a conference she attended and “Matsuyama Footprints” is about a trip to Japan where she also attended a conference. One poem that well represents George’s art is “Autumn Oaks.” We note her largely informal language, the three pithy prose paragraphs, the figure who guides her, the local ambience, the universals, the idea that there’s no money in poetry:

There’s no money in poetry, she says above my rumbling wheels, not a liveable wage anyway. Think I’ll go back to my old job, life model, part-time.”

“Ribbons” employs a similar conversational tone. It also uses the moment, the individual discrete experience of death, the child’s way of dealing with grief to point the way people cope with tragedy. “Matsuyama Footprints” focuses on foreign travel. The Asian landscape is deftly woven into the text: pavilion, sculptures, tatami mat, cheery blossom, pathside vendors. The speaker describes the discomfort of the Westerners in the meeting room with her usual wit and wisdom:

They sink down gracefully on cushions on tatami at low tables around four walls. As Westerners from diverse countries, we do our best to emulate them, divert our attention.

“Brown bread and honey” offers a picture of the poet as a child visiting her grandparents on their farm. It is a remarkable evocation of childhood, the love of and for grandparents, and finally, the death of her grandmother. The poem is utterly contemporary and utterly traditional at the same time. George shows herself to be truly perspicacious in her vision of the complexity and diversity of human relationships and coming to terms with grief.

There is plenty of drama inherent in both the narrative and settings of these haibun. Many elements and ideas will resonate with readers. Despite the tension created by the poems, the most memorable moments are when the speakers reveal their vulnerability and humanity. This haibun-renga is representative of a kind of strong poetry that is both contemporary and traditional, a personal lyric that can light up the material and emotional world, and give it a powerful resonance.

by Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

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