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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 1, March 2016

line


Jeff Streeby
Bangkok, Thailand


A Close Reading of “The Western Front, 2015, ” a Haibun by Bill Waters

Bill Waters:
Bill Waters is a New Jersey writer with over 200 published works to his credit. He maintains a writing blog that discusses and promotes haiku and related forms.

“The Western Front, 2015”:
The subject of this discussion, a haibun entitled “The Western Front, 2015,” was published in Haibun Today, Volume 9, Number 2 (June, 2015).

Summary of the work:
In “The Western Front, 2015,” the narrator explains how each year French farmers, whose croplands were once the battlefields of The Great War, encounter debris from that titanic struggle. He marvels that such discoveries are predicted to continue for centuries into the future, and he muses broadly on the causes and effects of war, as well as on war’s constant presence in human history. In the end, the narrator laments the inability of people to learn from the past, the inability of any but the farmers at the site, who each year discover more grisly reminders of the conflict, to fully understand “war’s cost.”

Waters’ aesthetic framework:
Waters’ haibun is a Georgic that can be assigned to the subgenre of “loco-descriptive” or “topographical” narrative poems. It is presented in eight sentences arranged in three approximately equal prosaic modules with each module elaborated by or remarked on by a haiku. The first module contains forty-five words of narrative presented in two declarative sentences; the second, forty-four words presented as an exclamatory sentence, a fragment, and a complicated three-clause declarative sentence; and the last, seventy words presented in three rhetorically ornate declarative sentences.

Each of the three punctuating haiku are composed in a contemporary style—all three arranged in three lines but abandoning the “short-long-short” convention for line organization; all three forgoing the use of capital letters and nearly all punctuation, all three containing more than eleven syllables but less than seventeen. These patterns of organization for both haibun and haiku and these proportions of prose to haiku are consistent with modern haibun practice in English.

The work contains a total of 190 words, excluding its title. Nearly all words are frequently-occurring English words with the notable exceptions of “ubiquitous” (line three) and “ossuary” (line fourteen). The average sentence length is 19.88 words. The longest sentence is the first sentence, which contains thirty-four words. The shortest is the second sentence with eleven words. These variations in sentence length, along with the presence of the fragment in the second prose module, imitate both rhythmic and sense-making patterns of normal spoken discourse. Although Waters adopts, for the most part, a plain and straightforward diction and weds it to a conversational and natural-sounding voice, the haibun’s concept density, its average sentence length, and its syntactic and rhetorical complexity place the language in an academic register. This aesthetic strategy results in a reading level for the haibun that is accessible but high at 10.3 on the Coleman-Liau index (9.1 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale).

Waters uses for his haiku an organizational schema first described by Haruo Shirane. Using examples from Basho to verify his argument, Shirane suggests that effective haiku contain two indispensable structural elements: namely, a “horizontal axis,” a focus on the present moment, and a “vertical axis,” a focus on movement through time. Each of Waters’ haiku is consistent in both axes with the storm as the referent in the present moment and the oblique suggestions (usually through diction or context) of WWI as the opposite pole.

Waters, in keeping with Ken Jones’ suggestion that a similar conceptual framework may also apply to haibun “at least as a bonus,” manages to establish and maintain these axes in the larger frame of his work. His fourth sentence, the fragment (arguably a volta or narrative turning point) in the second prose module, so different in character and structure from the other prose and so similar in sound and effect to the three haiku, suggests that this emotional interrupting phrase, occurring as it does in the middle of the middle prose module, serves as the horizontal axis of the haibun. The three haiku, all of which record, as described above, some storm-related detail of the moment and all of which echo in their diction the inescapable influence of World War I, serve as the vertical axis for the piece.

Waters’ narrative design:
Waters’ haibun presents in its narrative a bucolic French landscape gradually recovering from war. Waters’ speaker offers his perspective through a classical, if abbreviated, story formula that is executed as three modules, each module concluding with a punctuating haiku—exposition/rising action (sentences one & two), climax/reversal or volta/falling action (sentences three, four and five), falling action/resolution/denouement (sentences six, seven and eight).

Waters’ first module is a rehearsal of pertinent historical facts and constitutes the exposition of the narrative by establishing time, place, prevailing conditions in the scene (including the presence of the detritus war), and the principal character, the speaker.

For nearly ten decades, French farmers have turned up bones when they till their fields—pieces of soldiers and animals blasted to bits by high explosives in the back-and-forth battles of World War I. Unexploded shells are unearthed as well, and the ubiquitous barbed wire.

In addition to their conventional haiku qualities in service to the final effect of the haibun, Waters’ haiku are integral to the function of the narrative arc. They provide essential exposition, contribute to an ominous atmosphere of conflict and tension, and reinforce theme. The first haiku uses sensory particulars (the suggestive color of the clouds, the smell of wet earth and the taste of bitter coffee) to anchor the reader in the scene in the haibun moment. In addition, with the mention of “bitter black coffee,” the speaker uses the sensory implications of coffee to show us how to view the history of these surroundings through a sort of communion by common experience. Since virtually identical sensations would have been available to soldiers in the trenches of WWI, these details collapse time, establishing a physical human experience shared between the speaker and the war dead. This tactic simultaneously universalizes and personalizes the anxiety and the sense of dread that grows in the moment in the storm/war atmosphere, elaborating the rising action both historically and in the haibun moment itself. The first haiku also fulfills a partial closure by summarizing the expository first prose module—“gunmetal clouds” echoes and creates the vision of war and the phrase “the smell of wet earth” equally recalls the torn earth under fire, the open trenches of the combatants and reports contemporary farming practice presently underway. With regard to thematic resonance, the storm/war analogy, which will be expanded across the next two haiku as a sort of ghost of war, is first established here.

gunmetal clouds
and the smell of wet earth
bitter black coffee

The first sentence of Waters’ second module, the single exclamatory sentence, suddenly and unexpectedly alters the character of the speaker and the tone of the speaker’s voice and suggests by its punctuation and by its use of epizeuxis for emotional effect that it is the climax of the narrative arc.

It’s said that war debris will continue to surface for centuries to come—centuries!

The second element in this module is a sentence fragment. Its form and content suggests the speaker has been moved by a sudden realization of the magnitude of the struggle that took place where he now stands and has begun a contemplation of more specific, more personal human concerns. Occurring as it does in the center of the center prose module, this fragment signals through its placement, its grammatical difference, and its support of the modified tone that it is the volta, enacted here with muted drama as an anagnorisis, the speaker’s recognition of and meditation on the true state of affairs. With this change in focus and concern, Waters makes the first move toward resolution.

So much hate pounded into such a long, narrow strip of land.

The last sentence of this module is a rambling three-clause compound sentence that uses the figure exergasia, repetition of the same idea using different words or treatments, to corroborate and emphasize the pronouncement in the preceding fragment, to expand its scope, and to amplify the emotional appeal introduced there. This completes the next step toward resolution.

Plowed deeply by explosives, the Western Front is still a battlefield; it’s mostly underground now, but it’s there.

The second haiku with its unsettling question seems to invite or even demand participation at first hand in the experience of the battlefield through discovery or revelation either in the haibun moment or as every year a French farmer might. This reinforces and summarizes the content of the second prose module of the narrative. By wedding the images of bone and earth and thunder in a way that suggests the destruction and tumult of war, Waters reasserts the storm/war as thunder/artillery to haunt the speaker’s experiences of the moment with a reminder of the site’s tragic history.

is that a stone
or a bone?
sound of distant thunder

Waters’ third module begins with a compound declarative sentence using anaphora to confirm and magnify the appeal to emotion. It also offers partial closure that warns the entire audience of its moral and empathetic insufficiencies.

Only the farmers can understand; only those who work the land and physically reap the reminders of war’s cost really get it.

The second sentence of this module is an intentionally incomplete grammatical construction that employs a variation of the rhetorical device anacoluthon to tease out the appeal to emotion undertaken in the second module. In support of this effort, Waters also uses appositio to lift the image of the ossuary into higher relief, and he uses enumeratio to call attention to a catalog of small grisly details of the French farmers’ experiences.

To visit an ossuary—the final resting place of countless unidentified bones—is a grim experience, certainly, but to pick up a single finger bone, a shard of skull, a broken rib . . .

The last sentence in this third module is a declarative sentence that provides closure as an anti-climactic denouement and as an indictment of the human race for its inability to learn the lessons of history, suggesting that, no matter the intimacy and power of the lesson, even these French farmers must re-learn it annually.

It’s death on a human scale and a lesson not easily forgotten.

The final haiku continues the experience in the moment as the speaker reacts to a sudden but unsurprising rainsquall, a climactic arrangement of details that is also a counterpoint and echo to the climax of the prose narrative in the first sentence of the second module. The sound of rain on a metal roof mimics the rattle of machinegun fire. This onomatopoeic effect ends the narrative with a final reminder of the site’s tortured heritage and concludes the storm/war analogy with the speaker in retreat and taking cover from rain and conflict.

taking shelter
the rattle of rain
on corrugated steel

Waters' prosodic patterning:
Prosody has been called the musical attributes of speech. It includes all “hearable” aspects of language, including melody (rhyme and other patterns of intonation), rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and pausing.

His sonic devices
Although staged as unlined prose, sentences in module one bear many hallmarks of Anglo-Saxon alliterative accentual poetry—stressed syllables are alliterated in discrete sequences for music and coherence and rhythmic effect.


Chiming vowels are deployed within and across the grammatical units to good musical effect in this prose module as pairs or as longer sequences: “. . . ten decades, French . . . / . . . unexploded shells . . . / . . . as well . . . ,” “. . . fields—pieces . . . ,” “. . . animals blasted . . . ,” “. . . back-and-forth battles.” This practice also helps the module to achieve coherence.

The haiku maintains the alliterative consonants “w” (World War One/well/wire) in “wet earth” and “b” (bones/blasted/bits/back-and-forth/ubiquitous/barbed) in “bitter black coffee” to closely bind the haiku to the prose.

The chiming vowel short “e” (ten decades, French/when/explosives/unexploded shells/well) is echoed in “gunmetal/smell/wet” to the same effect.

gunmetal clouds
and the smell of wet earth
bitter black coffee

In his second module, Waters continues to use alliteration to sustain coherence and music, but softens the effects by using sibilants (“s” sounds) rather than the many plosives (“b” and “p” sounds) that dominate module one. Module two makes little use of chiming vowels and is the least musical of the three prose passages.

It’s said that war debris will continue to surface for centuries to come—centuries! So much hate pounded into such a long, narrow strip of land. Plowed deeply by explosives, the Western Front is still a battlefield; it’s mostly underground now, but it’s there.

Waters’ technique of binding the haiku to the prose module through repetition of sonic features is confirmed in the second haiku. Half of the significant words in the haiku (line one with the word “stone” and line three with the word “sound”) recall the initial “s” sounds that dominate the second module. “Stone” and “bone” are bound together by rhyme. And “sound” in line three echoes the only example of chiming vowels in the second prose module (“. . . pounded . . . /Plowed . . . /. . . underground now”).

is that a stone
or a bone?
sound of distant thunder

Waters’ third module continues the effective use of alliteration but in a much less conspicuous way. In this module, Waters virtually abandons initial plosives (except for bones/bone/broken) and softens the mood of the module by maintaining the sibilance of module two with initial and internal “s” sounds (cost/ossuary/resting place/countless/experience, certainly/single/shard/skull/It’s/scale/lesson) and by adding other softer or more liquid consonants—“w”, “f” , “r”, and “l”. Contrasted with module one these softer sounds allow his prose to fade into closure. His use of chiming vowels (“. . . can understand;/. . . land/,” “. . . reap/ . . . reminders/. . . really/,” “. . . grim/ . . . pick/ . . . single finger/ . . . rib . . ./ It’s/”)  restores melodic coherence.

Only the farmers can understand; only those who work the land and physically reap the reminders of war’s cost really get it. To visit an ossuary—the final resting place of countless unidentified bones—is a grim experience, certainly, but to pick up a single finger bone, a shard of skull, a broken rib . . . . It’s death on a human scale and a lesson not easily forgotten.

As in the other modules, these patterns are confirmed in the haiku: the soft “s” sounds of “. . . shelter . . . / “. . . steel . . . ,” the tremulant “r” sounds of “. . . rattle . . . / “. . . rain . . . ,” and echoing “. . . scale . . .” in the last sentence of the prose, the chiming vowels in ". . . taking . . .”/ “. . . rain . . .”/ “. . . corrugated . . . .”

taking shelter
the rattle of rain
on corrugated steel

His devices of rhythm
Prosodic analysis is most often used as a tool of analysis applied to poetry or to spoken discourse.

Since most formal poetry is clearly distinguishable from other discourse by its intricately patterned forms and stylized rhythms—the frequencies and qualities its stresses and pauses, its shape on the page, its sound in the ear—prosodic analysis of poetry is most often concerned chiefly with rhythm patterns and line length because it is commonly accepted that “[v]arious rhythmical patterns have different effects on those who read or hear poetry.”

Distinct rhythm patterns in prose poetry and prose are harder to detect because these forms make no use of line breaks; however, prosodic analysis of free verse can serve as a model for analysis of prose and prose poetry. Free verse does not follow formalist rules for form, rhythm or rhyme but depends instead on the natural rhythms of speech for its principles of structure.

Among the conventions of lineation in free verse poetry is the practice of parsing sentences grammatically and allowing each separate element (word, phrase, or clause) of the sentence to occupy its own line. This technique of lineation demands that the reader depend a good deal on the poem’s syntax, grammar, and semantics to realize its aesthetic resonances. This corresponds in the main with the way readers normally process prose for significance and meaning. Prosodic analysis of prose as poetry can be accomplished then, by exploring the rhythms of each sentence’s syntactic components.

Although it seems impractical to attempt a full prosodic analysis of Waters’ work, it can be instructive to examine in broad outline its intonations, especially given the poetic qualities of module one.

Waters’ patterns of rhythm
Waters intentionally manipulates the rhythms of the prose portions of the work. His cadences in the first module achieve percussive onomatopoeic effects that are appropriate to a poem about war. Module one contains sixty-five syllables of which thirty-one arguably bear stress. Stressed syllables (many of which are plosives) follow each other with conspicuous frequency (“ten decades,” “French farmers,” “turned up bones,” “World War I”). In key phrases (“pieces of soldiers and animals,” “blasted to bits by high explosives”), dactyls and [trochees] rather than more natural iambs dominate. The effect of these intentionally patterned heavy stresses enacts the pounding rhythm of the artillery barrage.

For nearly ten decades, French farmers have turned up bones when they till their fieldspieces of soldiers and animals blasted to [bits by] [high ex] [plosives] in the back-and-forth battles of World War I. [Unex] [ploded] shells are unearthed as well, and the ubiquitous barbed wire.

Waters maintains these jarring rhythms of battle in the first haiku with a frequency of nine stresses in fifteen syllables. Trochees and spondees again are the dominant measures and these also echo and anticipate the storm that approaches in the moment of narration.

gunmetal clouds
and the smell of wet earth
bitter black coffee

The heavy trochee- and spondee-dominated rhythms of module one have somewhat softened in module two to more frequent iambic sequences appropriate to the meditative nature of the content. Rhythms of sentence five reestablish the concussive accents of module one, in thematic harmony with the reminder that the place will always be a battlefield.

It’s said that war debris will continue to surface for centuries to comecenturies! So much hate pounded into such a long, narrow strip of land. Plowed deeply by explosives, the Western Front is still a battlefield; it’s mostly underground now, but it’s there.

The second haiku mimics the rhythmic patterning of the second module, softer in lines one and two—line one with its two iambs, line two its anapest—and line three returning to the trochaic pounding of thunder/war.

is that a stone
or a bone?
sound of distant thunder

Module three demonstrates conventional intonation contours of normal declarative sentences, smoother here, yet preserving through several extra heavy stresses the concussive echoes of the earlier prose modules. These rhythms match not only the context of war history and the approach of the storm but also match the increasingly agitated emotional state of the speaker who is being assaulted on every side by evidence of barely conceivable human suffering exacted by World War I.

Only the farmers can understand; only those who work the land and physically reap the reminders of  war’s cost really getit. To visit an ossuary—the final resting place of countless unidentified bones—is a grim experience, certainly, but to pick upa single finger bone, a shard of skull, a broken rib. . . . It’s death on a human scale and a lesson not easily forgotten.

The rhythms of the haiku are consistent with those of the prose in module three. The two trochees of line one recall the early concussive rhythms. Lines two and three are progressively softer (an iamb and an anapest). Line three contains all iambs. The onomatopoeic effects are here as well but are subdued to a “rattle,” reduced from the thunderous accents of prose modules one and two. The arrival of the rainstorm and the subtle rhythmic shift help to achieve closure.

[taking] [shelter]
the rattle of rain
on corrugated steel

Waters’ haibun as the representation of a speech event:
A necessary background condition for all writing, including this haibun, is the assumption that there will be a public audience in a public world who encounters it through a common language, processes its structure, content, ideas, and value positions through shared intellectual, emotional, moral, and psychological filters, and accepts or rejects its message. A second background condition is the assumption that writing is the representation of speech. As is the case with every work of self-expression, to read Waters’ haibun is not to read the written record of an actual speech event but rather it is to read the realistic representation of a supposed speech event. The relationships Waters establishes between his fictionalized speaker, his speaker’s addressee (if such a one can be identified), and the reader for the haibun are unconventional and perhaps problematic. Waters constructs in his haibun an external speech situation made ambiguous by his blending of narrative and lyric modes and by his inconsistent management of point-of-view.

The identities of the speaker and his addressee
Waters relies on indirect characterization to present a participating first-person narrator whose qualities emerge from the narrative gradually. In module one, Waters’ speaker—as yet an unframed, almost neutral voice—has only a sort of lecture-hall gravitas to distinguish him. The speaker’s addressee and audience at this stage are completely undifferentiated.

The work begins in an apparently third-person objective exposition. This early in his monologue, Waters’ speaker is a composed and authoritative commentator who, if not omniscient, appears at least to be in disinterested control of a set of little-known facts and who delivers an unusually lyrical recitation of generally accepted historical information. These expressions of thought and opinion suggest the speaker’s priorities and value positions and affix the stamp of his consciousness on the catalog of details. The manner of presentation of this prose module amounts to what Jamie Edgecombe has called haibunic “Reportage Narrative.” Here, Waters’ first “. . . haibun moment is being reported, relayed . . .” to the reader with almost no indication of the identity or the priorities of the reporter. These sober, controlled qualities of the speaker will change later as he becomes emotionally unsettled.

For nearly ten decades, French farmers have turned up bones when they till their fields—pieces of soldiers and animals blasted to bits by high explosives in the back-and-forth battles of World War I. Unexploded shells are unearthed as well, and the ubiquitous barbed wire.

Aside from its distinguishing visual form, the first haiku is integrated unobtrusively into the narrative framework. The haiku’s focus and diction help shape tone and with regard to the storyline in the haibun, the haiku’s catalog of concrete details, apparently selected by the speaker, advances the narrative toward its climax in the third sentence by associating these sensory impressions and implications directly with the speaker. Waters thereby provides insight into the psychology of the speaker, which helps prepare the audience for his growing agitation.

gunmetal clouds
and the smell of wet earth
bitter black coffee

The third sentence is the climax of the storyline. It is at the very end of this sentence—with the last word “centuries” and its mark of exclamation—that Waters expresses suddenly and unmistakably the rising passion of his commentator. The sober, controlled lecturer of the expository prose module has become implicated emotionally in the oppressive atmosphere of the moment, its threatening skies that promise an imminent storm and in the tragic history of the site, the relics and remains of which “will continue to surface for centuries to come”. This switch from reportage narrative in the first module to what Edgecombe calls “haibunic prose” in the second changes the relationships that evolved in the first module among speaker, addressee, and audience. It is no longer a dispassionate monologue uttered by a neutral speaker to an abstract audience but is rather an excited expression of outrage or disbelief from a speaker who has lost his equanimity to an addressee or to an audience that can no longer be precisely determined. Since the audience as it identified itself in module one could not anticipate this shift, the audience can no longer participate in the haibun as it originally intended, cannot any longer position itself with certainty in relation to the message.

It’s said that war debris will continue to surface for centuries to come—centuries!

This uncertainty persists through the remaining narrative. The fourth sentence might be self-address or a first-person meditation, or it might equally be a dramatic monologue—remarks made to a silent auditor and overheard by the reader. Whatever the case, Waters uses a fragment to produce what Edgecombe calls the “Templum effect”. The fragment—a noun with a modifying phrase—contains fifteen syllables. As a fragment among full sentences, in structure and function it resembles the haiku poised between modules of prose, simultaneously integral and independent. And it achieves much the same effect as Waters’ haiku: the fragment records the moment when the speaker begins to recognize an important truth and this fragment suggests a plausible scaffolding for it. Whether or not the utterance represents self-address, internal monologue, or an address to an auditor present in the scene, the fragment has completed the reformation of aesthetic distance between speaker, addressee, and audience as altered by and asserted in the previous sentence. Although the content encourages the addressee and the audience to view the speaker as thoughtful and meditative, the audience experiences this discovery now as a witness, not as a co-discoverer.

So much hate pounded into such a long, narrow strip of land.

In the fifth sentence, Waters’ speaker recognizes the permanent presence of conflict as a feature of the human condition and then conscientiously rehearses in several forms his new understanding. Through this tactic, Waters restores the lecture-hall presence in the voice of the speaker, but it remains unclear for whose benefit he rehearses—himself? a second-person auditor? a witness? some other abstract, featureless addressee for the haibun? Although the speaker appears to recover his balance, the recovery is fragile and incomplete and this will provide more dramatic energy when his confidence collapses again in the last module.

Plowed deeply by explosives, the Western Front is still a battlefield; it’s mostly underground now, but it’s there.

The second haiku, phrased as a question, is natural in the mouth of Waters’ lecturing speaker and therefore natural in the ear of any addressee, auditor, or witness and for the audience for the haibun. Its grammatical difference is a mild but interesting surprise and elaborates to good effect the qualities of the speaker as sensitive and meditative, all without resolving conclusively the identities of the audience receiving the message. The sound of thunder in the last line is the drum roll that anticipates the drama in the final module.

is that a stone
or a bone?
sound of distant thunder

In the sixth sentence, Waters’ speaker universalizes war by his reference to a generalized idea of “war’s cost,” but in the confused syntax of his sentence, he suggests, illogically, that only French farmers with their superior but melancholy wisdom can understand the cost of war. This incomplete processing of meaning by the speaker and the inconsistencies of his expression speak of an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance now in full flower. This dawning of awareness in the speaker, witnessed by the audience as another lapse in the lecture-hall voice with an accompanying failure of logic, still does not establish clearly from what vantage the reader should experience the work—as addressee, as first-person through identification and self address, as witness in a dramatic monologue, as an overhearer of a meditation or reverie, or as some other distinct audience. Although the generalized indictment of all of us offered here by Waters’ speaker is certainly overbroad and therefore invalid (veterans of war and the families of veterans understand war’s cost even better than the French farmers who cultivate No Man’s Land), it evokes powerful emotions. Waters will use this pathos to build an emotional intensity in the poem to serve the thematic climax that he will deliver in sentence seven.

Only the farmers can understand; only those who work the land and physically reap the reminders of war’s cost really get it.

In the seventh sentence, Waters’ uses the figure aposiopesis to further heighten the emotional appeal. The speaker claims he has been deeply affected by war’s grim evidence compiled in the ossuary, but when he imagines the experience of French farmers, he demonstrates that his reason has been overwhelmed by emotion to such a degree that he cannot conclude his thought. This is a tactic of oratory and as such, it suggests there is a public audience for the remark. This sentence is the speaker’s staged surrender of logic to passion for the benefit of yet another audience of which neither its makeup nor its angle of access to the speaker can be accurately determined.

To visit an ossuary—the final resting place of countless unidentified bones—is a grim experience, certainly, but to pick up a single finger bone, a shard of skull, a broken rib . . .

In the eighth sentence, Waters’ speaker summarizes the lesson local French farmers re-learn year after year. The emotional force of this experience is further compounded by a complementary failure of the speaker’s powers of logic. By beginning the sentence with “it’s”, the speaker ignores or obscures or blends rhetorically determined referents, and in this last sentence, the speaker appears to have conflated himself, the undifferentiated audience, and the French farmers as beneficiaries of the “lesson” of the battlefield although the logic and the grammar of two previous sentences contradict this in so many words. This contradiction is never clearly resolved nor is the issue of point-of-view ever made clear.

It’s death on a human scale and a lesson not easily forgotten.

In the final haiku, the speaker simply retires from the scene and (in an accidental twist evoking A Farewell to Arms?), leaves the audience alone outside the shelter in the rain.

taking shelter
the rattle of rain
on corrugated steel

Conclusions
Waters’ poem fulfills the conventions of the haibun genre and provides through its aesthetics, narrative design, and prosody a mostly satisfying read.

Waters’ haibun as the representation of a speech event presents some possibilities for controversy. Whether or not Waters’ uncertainty regarding point-of-view in the piece is intentional can’t be resolved. This uncertainty would be a fatal flaw but for a substantial but equivocal adjustment to meaning that he achieves in the last sentence. Whether Waters’ substantial recovery of broad meaning through the use of the rhetorically ambiguous “it’s” in the last sentence is intentional or merely fortunate can’t be resolved.

The poem as it appears in publication:

The Western Front, 2015

For nearly ten decades, French farmers have turned up bones when they till their fields—pieces of soldiers and animals blasted to bits by high explosives in the back-and-forth battles of World War I. Unexploded shells are unearthed as well, and the ubiquitous barbed wire.

gunmetal clouds
and the smell of wet earth
bitter black coffee

It’s said that war debris will continue to surface for centuries to come— centuries! So much hate pounded into such a long, narrow strip of land. Plowed deeply by explosives, the Western Front is still a battlefield; it’s mostly underground now, but it’s there.

is that a stone
or a bone?
sound of distant thunder

Only the farmers can understand; only those who work the land and physically reap the reminders of war’s cost really get it. To visit an ossuary—the final resting place of countless unidentified bones—is a grim experience, certainly, but to pick up a single finger bone, a shard of skull, a broken rib . . . . It’s death on a human scale and a lesson not easily forgotten.

taking shelter
the rattle of rain
on corrugated steel

line

end

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