More than a few moons ago, a poet I know asked if I would look over her manuscript of a forthcoming collection, with the possibility of providing a back cover blurb. Since I've always enjoyed her work, I was happy to do so.
The book, The Galaxy of Ourselves by Theresa Williams, was a volume of haibun.
I've never been a big fan of haibun. There is a very fine balance between the prose and poetry elements of haibun and, usually, I find one, the other, or both deficient. Rare, indeed, are the times when the two click and become that rare thing: a true haibun. Though I probably couldn't come up with a decent definition of prose poetry, it is a form that, when done well, I love. I probably know that it is unfair to ask the prose part of a haibun to be up to the level of a prose poem, but I do it anyway. At the very least, the prose should build up to the ecstatic haiku moment. I believe there should be some otherness, some building toward transcendence that requires a more charged language or imagery (or both) than is found in standard prose.
Think of The Great Gatsby, followed by the ultimate haiku:
So we beat on,
boats against the current,
borne back ceaselessly
into the past.
Yes, I know, it's not a haiku, but you get the idea.
In most haibun I read, the prose is either an explanation or extension of the haiku. For me, the measurement for this is simple: can the haiku stand alone? If it can't, the bottom drops out. No true haiku, no true haibun.
The Galaxy of Ourselves, thankfully, repeatedly, proves me wrong.
As with many wonderful books of poetry, The Galaxy of Ourselves is the chronicle of a journey. In some books, the journey is figurative, in others quite literal. Like the haibun, Theresa Williams' journey is a blend, a fine blend of the figurative and the literal.
If the theme of The Galaxy of Ourselves were a heavenly body, it would be one which we, the readers and the poet, circle around again and again. In this case the theme or leitmotif is the loss of a companion, a friend, a husband, a lover, whose absence is as if a physical presence, with the weight of gravity, which we constantly parallel and are drawn to, to which we constantly return.
The haibun that chronicle the poet's journey do not stick strictly to a particular approach. Sometimes the haiku comes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, sometimes, as is more traditional, at the end. This approach feels natural, feels organic: the haibun overall is what it is, it comes into being in its own right and, as it result, it feels, as it should, precisely so.
The journey, with the poet Ryokan and a dog as occasional companions, goes up and down rivers, across plains, and through the vast landscape of memory. It celebrates the mystery of not knowing, the pain, joy and suffering of the journey, the bedrock certainty of the unknown. Here are three fine examples:
The great steamship Arabia was built here in
Brownsville, the city that dies beside the Monongahela
River, the city where my own journey begins. I will
float a thousand miles to Cairo, faring better, I hope
than Arabia, which disappeared in Missouri mud in
1856. More than a century later, when the ship was
found, the trappings of daily life were intact: cooking
pots, shoes, flasks, and pipes. But where the beloved?
This human sadness, no one is immune. Even Ryokan
sleeps with his sleeves turned back to show his grief.
And, traveling by boat, Princess Kagami once said,
"Even a breeze may fail me when I desire it." And now
my own boat is ready. I push off. Out there: remnants
of the Teays, salt licks where mammoths died beneath
the muck, earth tombs of the mound builders.
a coal train clattering
on the tracks
In 1878, the Steamer John Porter, up from New
Orleans, suffered a broken rocker shaft and stopped at
Gallipolis, bringing the yellow fever that killed 66-
people. Today a man comes into the shoe repair
wanting new soles on his cowboy boots and the scuff
marks doctored. He's middle-aged, tired and thin. His
wife was sick a long time before she died. "I got
married again," the man says, making an uncomfortable
sound deep in his throat. He takes out his wallet. "See,
here's a picture of her right here." The cobbler takes a
deep, long look at the photograph and nods his approval.
Then he delicately slips a boot over a metal form.
it marks the height
of prior floods
Parting with Grief
We live a life of emotions, moving from one to another
sometimes with great difficulty. Parting with grief, for
instance, might be like trying to go through a river lock
for the very first time. One imagines getting stuck
outside the impossible gate, forever circling. One
imagines cutting the motor, drifting toward the bank,
watching the stag come to drink. How he burns. The
wound is red, the skin transparent over the ribs. The
clenching heart can be seen.
a figure passing by
a lighted window
One thing I like very much about these poems is the room that they leave the viewer, the reader, the listener, to wander. The emotional arena opens up like a Midwestern field on a crystal clear, cold evening or, better still, the sky above that field, a vast emotional canvas filled with stars.
Looking back on the blurb I wrote so many months ago, I wondered how I would feel now, rereading the book many months later. Here's that blurb:
Beyond form, beyond style, there is a great wisdom here -
in the mundane, the everyday, in sorrow, in grief, in joy,
in ecstasy - which is the essence of the word, the essence
of poetry. It deserves the greatest compliment any book
might receive: this is life.
So long ago these words were written: did they still ring true? Reading the blurb again, I remembered I originally read the book again and again and again, not so much for the little details it might give up through close attention as to let the pure feeling wash over me again and again, a feeling of wisdom and love and wonder.
Turns out this is one of the very rare times, indeed, when I wouldn't change a word.
to my window
he comes as usual...
translated by David G. Lanoue
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