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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 2, June 2018
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Tony Beyer
New Plymouth, New Zealand

Review of Marshall Hryciuk's Haibun Hotels

Marshall Hryciuk, Haibun Hotels, Imago Press, Toronto, Canada, 2017, 144pp, ISBN 978-0929489-30-7.

Subtitled "A National Sales Rep’s Haiku Journal" or "A Haiku Poet’s Sales Reports," Marshall Hryciuk’s solid volume begins with a homage and invocation to the shades of famous fellow-travellers, Bashō and Jack Kerouac. This affiliation is both a strength and a point of vulnerability. Unlike those of his predecessors, Hryciuk’s travels were motivated by commerce, the simple need to earn a living, rather than by spiritual or artistic aspirations. It is to his credit that he has discovered both these supposedly more crucial factors amid everyday transactions and interactions.

For six years, this doughty voyager traversed Canada from coast to coast, often by bus, as a publisher’s representative, attempting to market books in a country notoriously (see Malcolm Lowry) averse to them. Accommodation on the road seems often to have registered fewer than the desirable number of stars (if any). On internal evidence, the text, combining sections of prose narrative and haiku, took many more years to reach its final form. Again, this is both a weakness and a strength. Some of the anecdotes are baggy, too personal, or uninteresting outside the very narrow circle of Canadian haiku politics (unimaginable as that sounds as a topic). Perhaps some have also just dated.

Knowing how far to go too far is an essential tenet of avant-garde literary practice. This needn’t worry Marshall Hryciuk. Because he puts everything in – family memory, sexuality, trivial exchanges, separation and divorce, and much more – he also gathers together many riches. The book abounds with delightful encounters and contretemps: with the police in Moncton, New Brunswick; the best nudist beaches in Alberta; a guaranteed animal-free girlie establishment in Vancouver; and Chock Stecking, all caught my eye.

If the prose lumbers at times, this is rarely the case with Hryciuk’s interspersed haiku. He is an expert at selecting the exact juxtaposition, so vital in the haibun genre. Often the moment, experience or response is brought into accurate focus by just the right image:

the spider
in its stillness
outlasts my silence

Here the patience of both the poet and the misunderstood or put-upon travelling salesman coalesces. There are many other such occasions throughout the text, though it is inevitably negating to quote the lines out of context.

Of course, a lot depends, in such an individual account, on the presentation of the speaking character. Autobiography is never completely a non-fiction genre (nor is non-fiction!). The personality we encounter in Haibun Hotels is generous in the level of access it allows to Hryciuk’s both attractive and unattractive characteristics. Most endearingly, he can laugh at himself, less so – but probably just like the rest of us – he can hold grudges. The overall impression of a large, garrulous, genial man is one of the elements that gives unity to the enterprise.

In this review so far, I seem to have quibbled about issues that are really to do with form rather than content. Like most of the Japanese poetics we have acclimatised into English, haibun has become a short form in our thinking. Yet its origins go further back into the past than Bashō and his contemporaries. Mediaeval court diaries like the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, perhaps more elegantly, combine prose and poetry to respond to social and cultural mores of their era, more or less as Marshall Hryciuk has done in his haiku journal.

My reservation concerns editing, rather than the definition of brevity or of the genre. Hryciuk’s knowledge of the field and his respect for his predecessors can’t be faulted. Nor can precise insights like:

purple-streaked
Cineplex Odeon
blocking the sunset

or:

rubbing the vapour
off the windows
for the blossoms

Typically, these verses relate to the tension between the human and natural worlds, and how these can interrupt or sharpen our perception. If Hryciuk’s ‘sex haiku’ are less to my taste, it is probably because they are less successful.

Elsewhere, there are passages of quiet but telling humour. Most writers who have been associated with a small press during their careers will have been confronted by the reluctance of a bookseller to stock a marginal title. Marshall Hryciuk describes the passive-aggressive obtuseness so necessary to survival in retail with considerable accuracy. He is fun, too, when it comes to dedicated participants who should never be allowed anywhere near books.

One of the key purposes of creative writing is to signpost and celebrate the diverse possibilities of existence available to everyone. With this in mind and with his geniality, pinpoint haiku and warts-and-all personal candour, Marshall Hryciuk has done a respectable job. Neither his time on the road nor his time spent honing his poetic voice has been wasted.

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