Auckland, New Zealand
On Steven Carter's A Green Pebble
A Green Pebble by Steven Carter. Alba Publishing, Uxbridge, UK. (2016). Pb, 176pp. RRP: US$15/UK£10/€12. ISBN 978-1-910185-31-5.
Steven Carter is retired emeritus professor of English and former Senior Fulbright Fellow at two Polish universities having taught for thirty-eight years. He has authored over forty published books. A Green Pebble: Selected Haiku, Haibun and Tanka is a collection of Steven Carter's published haiku, haiku sequences, haibun and tanka. The collection is divided into Book I Haibun, Book II Haiku, Book III Haiku Sequences and Book IV Tanka.
The collection begins with Book 1—a selection of haibun. In his prologue, "Before a Cold Fireplace," Carter writes fondly about a girl he once knew, Calico:
To me, what makes never seeing her again cruel—almost unbearable at times—is that aeons will pass, stars will blossom, wither and die, comets will fizzle out; the earth will be swallowed by the sun, creation will fade into a thin, cold haze and I'll still be bereft of her.
In "Night" he writes about Susan:
Susan, a goddess incarnated in the light on my bedroom ceiling (I was a first grader). Susan had created herself, more or less; I was simply along for the ride so to say.
"Letters to My Parents" recalls memories of his mother and father. These are heartfelt reminiscences of parents he lost many years ago. In "Dear Mom," he says:
Strange, but I didn't begin to dream of you until fairly recently, more than three decades after your death. Why? I can only imagine the physiological process of memories slowly percolating down, cell by cell, into mind storage, retrievable only now.
"Old October" is a wonderful invocation to Swan Lake, where the Carters spend several months each year:
They don't call it the big sky for nothing. Rowing on Swan Lake late one chilly afternoon I see diamond-white Mt. Aeneas, cut by frozen sunlight, dwarfed by thunderheads piling up over the "Chinese Wall" . . .
The title haibun, "A Green Pebble," recalls Sally and her toddler Jake:
One day she brought her toddler Jake wearing a miniature life jacket down to the water, where we talked and watched the little guy pick up and solemnly study the unique, beautiful green pebbles—found nowhere else in the world.
The haibun in A Green Pebble are concerned with memory. They seem to be uttered from a deeply inward, almost trancelike place, giving them a cryptic quality. Consider one of the most linguistically striking poems, "The Hills," which begins "A friend tells you: 'While you're there, you should visit the town next door where I grew up . . .'" and ends with ". . . Musical colors—my hills/my friend's/my hills/my friend's—." The voice of the speaker, here and throughout the haibun, declares itself confidently and meaningfully. The reader is often left to sift through the music and imagery, wondering what exactly has just happened.
The title is frequently a clue, sometimes a crucial one, in experiencing the haibun coherently. Passages of enchanting but seemingly inchoate language tumble from the haibun as in this paragraph from "The Cemetery":
At my parents' graves in Saratoga I feel the presence of something so much larger than I that, incongruously, the word ridiculous pops into my head. It awakens the decades-old memory of witnessing my mother's death; this time, however, it's something else that I'm experiencing. Well, if not death, then what?
Indeed, there is no resolve until we reach the final lines, "The something brings me to my knees in the tall grass. Leaning forward, I have to—have to —touch the names cut into dark grey stone." One of the most reflective haibun is "1991," where Carter writes about his experience of a visit to Auschwitz—"I saw more than one Fulbright Fellow throw up and return to the bus." Another haibun, "By the Pool," begins with the poet listening to the hum of a lawnmower, and continues as he meets his own ghostly twelve-year-old self—"bouncing up and down on the diving board before executing a passable jackknife." Each haibun is self-contained. For this reason, they can be dipped into to provide momentary access to another world. Strange, sensuous and bewitching.
One of the strengths of the haiku section in Book II lies in its spacing. Here, there are three haiku per page with plenty of white space between them, allowing the reader time to ruminate. The haiku range from three-lines to one-line, as in these examples:
Fast moving storm
The flagman's world
SLOW and STOP
The night too dark to hear what you won't say
The combination of humour and wistful seriousness recurs, as haiku after haiku continue to tell the truth with an empathetic touch. One of the strengths of the haiku is Carter's attention to detail. Sometimes, it is just a moment, as we see captured in the following two haiku:
Of a California gray
Above the songbird's song the songbird's song
The haiku sequences in Book III are titled: Auschwitz, Poland, Nov 1991, Anne Frank House: October 1971, Relocation Camp: Utah, June 1944, Anasazi, Chernobyl: Spring 1986, Custer Monument: May 1981, Flanders Fields: July 2001, Shiloh: August 2006. These are spare meditative poems: at times they are chant-like, other times loaded with surprises. Here is "Auschwitz":
Distant row of chimneys Work Will Make You Free
A child's charcoal sketch:
Why are there no butterflies here?
Treblinka starry crown of barbed wire
The section ends with an Epilogue from Ambrose Bierce, "What I Saw of Shiloh," in which he wrote:
Give me but one touch of thy artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of today, and I will willingly surrender another life than the one I should have thrown away at Shiloh.
Book IV contains tanka, two per page, with plenty of white space around them giving the reader time to contemplate them. Here are two of my favourites—one brief and to the point and the other involving a memory:
Shades of sun
In her dark curls
He's looking down on us
Grandma used to say of Grandpa
I always wanted to ask
What if we lived
At the South Pole
Apart from the polished precision and lyrical quality of his work, Carter's poetry constantly surprises with the richness and originality of its observations. His undeniable wit and wisdom shines in every poem. For the most part, the diction is a well-trained servant of the imagery, and it's this controlled service that gives the imagery such clarity and beauty. Some of the best poems are those which draw on Carter's ability to balance images in complement to one another while avoiding the feeling of obvious simile or metaphor. Among the pleasures of this book is Carter's willingness to admit mystery and vulnerability into the poems, disrupting the security of both reader and speaker. In these poems where the focus is primarily visual, these qualities add to the pleasure of the finely wrought line and the beautifully rendered image. Carter is a poet of considerable strength and talent, and this volume offers much to both the hearts and minds of its readers.