Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review of Richard Straw's THE LONGEST TIME


The Longest Time: Haibun by Richard Straw (privately printed: 107 Mont de Sion Drive, Cary, NC 27513, USA. 2009). 21 x 14 cm chapbook, obtainable from the author. $5 US; $8 US abroad (added S&H). Cover photographs are by Marissa Rachel Straw. Other images are from family albums and postcards.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Richard Straw’s collection of haibun, The Longest Time, is, in its own way, about explorations and discoveries of the self which are as much cerebral and metaphysical as geographical and physical. Mostly, the paths readers are taken along by Straw have origins that are intriguing and transits that are stimulating. Each haibun describes a memory—from childhood growing up in a “walk-up apartment above a soda shop” to the poet making resolutions to himself in the final haibun, “Whether Together or Apart,” before going to sleep:

What was it I told myself last night before going to sleep? Just before the headlights dimmed against the wall, after the last neighbor pulled into the parking lot outside my window, I’d promised myself something that I can’t remember now, even though with three cups of coffee drunk and a fourth one brewing on the hotplate. I haven’t been able to remember anything lately unless I wrote it down.

Straw’s opening line to the succinct haibun “First Impressions” exemplifies the ethos behind this collection. Memory, confrontation, and deconstruction: this is a book laden with possibilities and the permutations and permeations that result from the memories of a lifetime. So often these haibun arise out of an engagement with the personal and the landscape, real but also charged with poetic diction. Take the following prose excerpt from “A Helping Hand”:

And I peer past my ear into the black air register from which, as if quaking in my bedroom on the other side, Fay Wray screams and screams and screams as she’s carried into the jungle by King Kong.

Here the reader’s taken through a landscape that’s at once familiar and yet subjective, a combination that ensures that our view of the recognizable and intimate can become at once estranged and unfamiliar. The entire transformation hinges upon memory—upon whether what is remembered is truthful or a fabrication with a kernel of truth which transforms it.

It’s a battle of words versus memory that’s present in all the haibun. “Sunday Drive” (illustrated by a photo of the poet’s parents) is an evocation of a visit to a relative’s farm:

Our parents take my sister and me to a relative’s farm near Sunbury. The barnyard’s full of running headless chickens and a crazed dog. The farmer uses a tree stump as a chopping block. Much later his son dies James Dean style on graduation night.

empty space
where flower pots were
a wasp returns

“Katallagete,” apart from being indicative of Straw’s delight in playing with recall, assumption, locale and history, personal and collective, also epitomizes an authorial interest in friendship and the poetical exploration of youthful experiences:

Bright spots are rare in this small town, even on Christmas Eve. Earlier tonight, after watching a campy movie in a cold theater, I joined a couple of older friends, Junior and Jesse, to go caroling. Rather than ask them to drop me off at home later, I agreed to chug-a-lug beers at their apartment above Jack’s TV shop. Then, on Junior’s dare, we almost got shot at by Foxy on Senate Street because of something Jesse said to one of Foxy’s girls. We got separated at The Attic after I was pushed down the wide wooden stairs for getting up on the bar with a go-go-dancer.

“Festival of Lights” is a lovely depiction of nature observed on a journey home from work in wintertime:

I drive home from work. Bright colors frame windows and doors; electric candles rest on windowsills. Pine branches drape entry ways, even garage doors. Pulsing lights reveal the limbs of leafless saplings. Wooden Santas, nutcracker soldiers, and white deer pose on snowless lawns.

at home
blue menorah candles

Several haibun focus on Straw’s father. “Stronger Grip” reflects on his father’s illness in a heartbreaking contemplation. Before the writer hurries off to catch a plane, he plays a childhood game with his father who is in a private hospital room:

I tell him that I have to hurry back to the airport for a midday flight. Then I reach for his hand, and we play an old game: “Who has the stronger grip?” This time, I let him win. I try to smile as I say, “Bye, take care.”

After saying goodbye and talking to a nurse, the poet tells us his reaction:

I rush into a bathroom and begin sobbing. I continue to cry in the empty elevator, then in the rental car all the way to the airport, quieting finally on the packed plane.
Easter snapshot
a boy and his dad
cast one shadow
“Handed On,” is a fraught personal reaction to the father’s death and funeral. It is a personification of all the conflicts—belief-versus-practice, memory-versus-history, public-versus-private space—that engage Straw’s work:

Before the funeral service began, my cousins gave me a silver frame, “In Loving Memory of My Father . . .,” with a photo of dad and me shaking hands and smiling on one of our birthdays 20 years before. A pianist played favorite hymns, the new minister from dad and mom’s church did the eulogy, and solemn men from dad’s lodge performed from memory a ceremony in his honor. Asked to say a few words, I merely recited with a bowed head Psalm 23 from an open Bible:

rain on a road
before his coffin is closed
touching dad’s hand

In the lengthy haibun “Sketching from Life,” Straw rightly notes his father’s dislikes and his lifelong job as a welder, and his discovery of a sketch he found on the table a week before his father died:

Dad did one other sketch that I found on his kitchen dinette table the week before he died. He drew it with a ballpoint pen in blue ink on a brown envelope containing a coffee-table book I’d mailed him for what turned out to be his final birthday the year before.

The poignancy of this haibun, with its meticulous attention to detail and its reference to a birthday present that will never be looked at, is extremely touching.

With equally heartfelt empathy, in “Perennials,” Straw writes about his mother:”After 50 years with multiple sclerosis, every nerve she has is scarred. And since dad’s death, premature senility has taken her mind.” He completes the haibun with this poignant memory of his mother:
During her first winter there, mom told me she’d been studying “a large menacing goldfish” in the front lobby’s aquarium. She said that most of the other fish in the tank had disappeared, except for one or two hiding in corners. She whispered, “I’ve always been a small fish watching and staying out of the way of larger fish.”

long winter
in an untended flowerbed
tulip bulbs

For Straw the personal so often acts as a medium transporting haibun and reader to another terrain—historical, psychological, religious and physical. As well as seriousness, there’s a great deal of playfulness to be had here too. Take, for instance, the powerful “Fiddling On,” a haibun scanning symbolic and real events. In this excerpt, Straw writes about a photo he shows to his children:

The kids study it, but draw blanks. So, I tell them that years ago my mom photographed my dad, his brother, and me in an Ohio apple orchard. Dad’s and my uncle’s sacks are chock full and sit lopsided in tall grass. The apples lasted until Thanksgiving and went into pies served hot with vanilla ice cream. Our kids never met my uncle, though, and they saw my dad just once or twice. They barely recognize me with my moustache and long hair.

This is typical of Straw’s trick throughout The Longest Time: to guide the reader along trajectories that derive intensity from memory and locale. Quite simply, the book moves us. Through its charting of historical and emotional spectrums, we’re untroubled in attaining the collection’s higher philosophy.
by Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

No comments: