Monday, June 15, 2009

Review of Ken Jones' STONE LEEKS

Stone Leeks: More Haiku Stories by Ken Jones. (Pilgrim Press, Troedrhiwsebon, Cwmrheidol, Aberystwyth, SY23 3 NB, Wales. 2009). 96 pp. ISBN 978-0-9539901-6-0. Price: 6 pounds 50
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Stone Leeks is typical Ken Jones. All these haibun follow the same path which his writing has followed in a long and distinguished career. Often reading these haibun I paused to reflect on the way these poems seem older, richer, more resigned versions of the same sort of haibun all the way from those of Pilgrim Foxes (2001, a volume shared with Jim Norton and Sean O’Conner), Arrow of Stones (2002), Stallion’s Crag (2003) and The Parsley Bed (2006).

There may be a little disappointment that there is no late flight of greatness in his writing, as he is perhaps one of the best practioners of haibun, if elegance and observation are criteria enough. We aren’t confronted with anything of strangeness or genius, but with a wry and beautiful understanding of the British countryside, and indeed, of human life.

This is not to say there is no development, or improvement. The collection contains five sections of 28 haibun on the themes of nature, absurdities, war, love and the inevitable winding down of life. Each section of haibun is interspersed with 59 free standing haiku.

The first haibun “Goodman’s Wood” is a fine story about an older, wiser narrator looking back on the woods where once lead mining took place:

Two hundred years ago there was some lead mining here—a truly hellish, poisoning occupation.

Spoil heap stained red
split needles
of the crooked pine
Now the writer is in the area felling old trees. Here Jones unselfconsciously lets his talent for description render the scene. Like his other penchant, that of sage commentary, this seems slightly incongruous, but it is so much part of his style that we come to accept it.

“Let Me Be” is a slice-of-life story where, upon entering primeval woodland, Jones encounters a woman:

And then, I see here. She is climbing the crag ahead up a steep deer track, agile and sure-footed. Fawn shirt and matching slacks, brown shoulder length hair, and—decidedly odd—not even a day sac. To catch her up I climb the bare rock over to the left—a granite boiler plate, sticking to my boots, clinging to my fingers.

The concluding paragraph gives a sympathetic description of the woman’s disfigured face as she lopes away across a field.

In the second section, “Theatre of the Absurd,” I enjoyed “Seat 16,” where the subject is given a brief, transformative insight that transcends the world of travel:

Nonchalantly I explore my own coach and the adjacent ones. Mine alone has four more seat numbers than any other, yet carries the same number of seats. Ah, the ticket collector! He just shrugs: L’actualite, monsieur, souvent c’est bizarre. At this, Le Monde Diplomatique is lowered just enough to reveal a goatee beard and an ironic gaze: Soyez stoique, mon brave! He grins.

It is not so much the substance of the story that matters as the way Jones tells it with humour, his occasional use of French words and phrases and the surprising denouement.

In the third section, “War,” Jones’ details are perfect and delicious. Jones writes often of his wartime experiences and in “’We Shall Never Surrender!’” he writes about the local war effort:

All the usual divisions in our local war effort are forgotten. For a start, there’s the Red Dragon which flies in front of the Prince of Wales (again is it Owain Glyndwr or “Mr Windsor”?) and the Union Glad which Parson King flies from his church tower. But not today.
Peaceful morning
both flags so limp
you can’t tell which
Mind you, Caradoc ap Rhys, landlord of the Prince of Wales pub, has won one concession. All orders shall be shouted in Welsh, in order to confuse the Germans (and probably half the village).

His use of ordinary people and the vernacular is admirable. With perceptiveness and wisdom, he neatly captures a bygone era.

In “La Liberation,” he and a friend trudge the “ancient pilgrim route from Winchester cathedral to Mont Saint-Michel.” This story is maybe a response to those who see Jones as a “provincial”: someone who only describes or appreciates his own country of Wales:

Baguettes and camembert in the shade of tombstones. Angoville-au-Plein changed hands three times in three days. Inside its eleventh century church, bloodstained pews and bullet marks. Here Kenneth Moore and Robert Wright, US army medics, tended eighty American and German soldiers—and one French child.
Army Surplus—
“Shell Wound Dressing”
5 euros
All Jones’ characters are practically interchangeable: their lives are different but they have a wry, elegiac tone. They remark and draw out rather than criticize. The effect requires a suspension of disbelief but, in the end, you come to accept it as unchangeable, and look for nuances elsewhere.

For example, consider the final sentences of “Belle Époque,” “Untidy Loves” and “Song of the Saws” respectively (from the fourth section, “Love”):


And now all over Europe the lights are going out. As a foreign national I depart on the last train.
August 1914
the porcelain shepherdess
her smile


“Oh God, why is life so harsh for some?” I ask. “It’s to teach us to grind our teeth down to the stumps, that’s what it is, laddie”. Barefoot stubs out his Woodbine—hard.
Old book cases
bowed shelves. A tumble
of reeling spines


What remains is a mound of sawdust swept in summer sunshine. She has wheeled the last load of firewood into the stable, to be stacked neatly in the stalls of farm horses.
A long, ripe marriage
drumming logs into the barrow
our fire dance
We cannot complain about writing this good. Jones wraps up his haibun with an authoritative voice, with a beautiful and complete sentence, followed by a haiku.

The final section, “The Stone Leeks,” is comprised of 10 haibun. One of my favourites is “All’s Right on the Night” about “the strange daytime of theatre,” with its evocations of props, costumes, scenery and the backstage labyrinth of stairs and passageways. A couple of haibun in this section bring the reader up-to-date with Jones’ reminiscences of surgery and the seaside town of Llandudno where the sick and elderly go to take the air and recuperate, as in this excerpt from “Costa Geriatrica”:
Sun and sky
a bright and breezy
way to go

Here in the sixth century Saint Tudno built his rough stone oratory for ascetic prayer, and gave his name to Llandudno. It is now a genteel resort, where the Grand, the Imperial, the Hydro, the King George and many more stand carefully preserved in pastel stucco.
bell pushes
which no longer work

However, the grim trio of sickness, old age and death are still muffled by deep pile carpets and the relentless keeping-up-of appearances
Expensive and well-cut
how they hang
on these poor wasted clothes horses

The final haibun in this wonderful collection is “The Project”—the author, preparing for his own wake, reminisces about projects he worked on throughout his life and comes to the conclusion—

I laugh at my own funeral oration, so solemnly intoned and recorded when a precocious forty year old. Poking charred diaries. A lifetime of stories told to myself, one as good as another. Knock, knock. Is there anyone there?
. Old Old summer house
settling out of true
to how it needs to be

Finally, the sending out of invitations to the Graceful Exit Party. From that celebratory wake I alone shall depart sober. And, on the back door, hammer the bottom line of a closed book:
Winter twilight
cutting timber by the Rheidol
all there is to know
This is a cunningly contrived, beautifully written and wonderfully readable collection. Not only does it say much about the poet and his roots, but page after page has the type of prose that can only be written by somebody who knows exactly what effects he means to create and exactly how to create them. A writer at the top of his form, in other words.
by Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

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