Haibun and I have had a rocky relationship over the years. I expect a certain something from the form and, it would seem, I'm very particular about that certain something.
Let's go right to the heart of the matter: if the haiku doesn't work on its own, I'm out of there.
Is this fair? Am I upholding my end of the relationship, am I demanding too much of a form that isn't simply haiku but haibun, the alchemical amalgam of prose and verse?
I suppose I'm not being fair but I've set a standard and I'm sticking with it.
I'm happy to report that so is the poet Jeffrey Woodward, in his fine new collection, Evening in the Plaza: Haibun & Haiku, published by Tournesol Books of Detroit, MI.
Evening is comprised of 40 titled haibun an 48 haiku, the later divided into 4 separate sections. Some of the haibun are outstanding, most notably "A Small Funeral," "Questions for the Flowers," "Family Album," "The Sweet Wild Grass," "Imago," and "Finis Terrae." There are many more that grabbed me, but these are the ones that had that special mix of great execution and personal (to me) appeal.
I'm sure there are others that will grab other readers.
A Small Funeral
Enough: a condolence that affords no
comfort, a eulogy too feeble to enliven the
perfect composure of its subject, a sermon
that promises peace where peace will not
Against fair hopes and expectations, to settle
now, as one must, for the recognized rites and
to commit this being, so precious, to a lasting
rest, the homily and liturgy an obligation:
a book of wisdom
is set before the world
and autumn deepens
The 23rd Psalm recited as, also, the "Our
Father," the congregation files out and forms
a corridor as if to wait not upon this final
parting but upon the arrival of a dignitary.
a tiny coffin
ventures out like a whisper
into the bright day
Not far behind, there on the steps before the
great door of the church:
about the parish priest
the wind is black
The emotion, the power of this piece is almost beyond words. Where there is "a condolence / that affords not comfort" and a promised "peace where peace will not / serve ...," what might be said?
And then the poet says it.
Here, in words that follow the lamentation of neither comfort nor peace, comes just what is missing: a true eulogy, a sermon on loss, on pain and on sorrow. As the poem unfolds, "this being, so precious" begins to realize a final rest; the book of wisdom open, but it is autumn that keens, it is autumn that deepens.
Now the being, the lost one, is a dignitary in the emotion of the attendees, played out in a ritual service after the formal one. The 23rd Psalm and Our Father echo, but it is the coffin itself that actually speaks, whispering out into the bright day the true message.
All ends with a perfect haiku - the wind, normally invisible, is manifest, and it is, yes, black.
What might be thought of as a companion haibun follows:
The Sweet Wild Grass
That's where we stood, that's where
beforehand we knew we'd end up, a gang of
boys, on a hot midsummer day, loitering about
a low retainer wall that marked an entrance to
a village cemetery—someone scuffling his
tennis shoes in the gravel, someone chewing
on a blade of sweet wild grass plucked from
the broad field across the road, someone
retelling an exaggerated tale that an uncle
Then the funeral party came, everybody in
black, everybody wrinkled and dry like pale
dust, everybody shuffling along in dead
silence except for the muffled sobbing of
A rote recitation
of the 23rd Psalm
Then a man in black suit and tie, a lean man
with a shock of white hair, approached us
from that party, approached with a slow but
deliberate gait, and he drew near and drew
with him the hush of his black flock
But before he reached that wall, before he
might come so close as to brush us with his
breath or tell us whatever it was he would tell,
our gang jumped up and scurried over the
road, each boy then looking back over a
into the deep
grass of summer
This poem at once seems almost a companion piece to the earlier poem, yet, really, there is no telling the chronology and even if they are related. Still, I had a Rashomon feeling while reading it, as if I was seeing the same event from a different perspective.
If possible, this piece is even more powerful than the previous. Here there is a lost innocence, not simply of the deceased, if something like this might ever be described as simple, but of the young observers.
Perhaps this was their companion - after the first death, as Dylan Thomas wrote - in any case, the power of the event is palpable. In its specificity, the poem almost crosses over into the domain of short story.
But the same might be said of many a haiku, which is the beauty of condensation.
Speaking of haiku, there are a number of very fine one's here:
with every blackbird,
the sun, too, settles deeper
into the cold trees
There are many superior qualities to this poem, not the least of which is its literalness: the settling of the sun, in the form of the birds (or reflected on those forms), into the trees as it sets on the horizon.
In addition to literalness, there is the poem's allusiveness - one can't help but think of Basho's famed poem of autumn, tree, and crow:
on a bare branch
a crow has settled
Woodward's poem is no mere pastiche or homage: it inhabits the same universe, the same world, both again literally and also figuratively.
a nest -
Here is an object for contemplation, akin in some ways to the famed half a glass of water. The reader at first seems to have little to work with, but this is not so.
Not at all.
of the city's old quarter
and red leaves
This is a poem of layer upon layer upon layer. It is a poem of civilization, a poem of nature and, for man, above all, a poem of time.
Ultimately, for me, it is a poem of stunning beauty, stumbled upon in an ancient square, in a forgotten city ... in an exciting new book.
A book I recommend for lovers of haibun, haiku, and poetry itself.