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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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Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

Review of Steven Carter's Broken

Steven Carter, Broken, Alba Publishing, Uxbridge, UK. 2018. RRP: US$10 / UK $8 / €10. Pb, 60pp. ISBN: 978-1-910185-89-6.

In the Preface to Broken, Rich Youmans poses the questions:

Lightness, gentleness, smoothness, softness . . . a pattern
is emerging. Is this at the heart of haibun prose? And
was there something in the use of vernacular versus
"classical language" – perhaps, to advance the concept
a few hundred years, the difference between a common
tone and a highly poetic one?

Carter replies: “Do definitions matter?” He quotes Hemingway as saying that a writer must write about the world as it is – or as he sees it, experiences it. Anything more or less is dereliction of duty. Many of the pieces in the book are prose passages, but some are haibun if we take haibun to mean a prose piece with one or more haiku.

Broken opens with a Prologue, a poem entitled “Tina: Passing by the beauty salon.” The story is about a beautician: “an unbeautiful single mom." In part 3, Carter writes:

. . . Is she not the Christ?
Am I not humbled, between the invisible
Shadow of the Cross, and the bottles
Of beauty lotions, one for every day
Except, of course, Sunday? (p. 11)

The first prose piece “K.F.” is about a young woman who had been molested by her father. It begins:

I didn’t find out until later – “it” being her terrible secret. The father had molested her, more than once, when she was in her mid-teens. That explained a lot – why she was unusually skittish around men, and why she eventually turned to women for romance and solace. (p. 12)

“Sharon” is a lengthy haibun in four parts, in which grief plays a significant role: the grief of a girl’s suicide, the grief of the poet’s mother when she discovers her husband’s body and the sense of betrayal. Part 4 concludes:

In the end, what happened?

Hearing her dad’s car leave Twelveacres the next day, I wept;
even as she wept when he brought the awful news. Perhaps this was the
closest we would come to achieving the ghostly desire of all lovers:
to get out of our skins and dance.

Cut lilacs on the sill
Parting the leaves
– What disappears (p. 17)

“Mary Ann” is a seven-part haibun. The girl was an orphan at the Twelveacres group home, in which Carter also lived as a child. He writes:

Mary Ann was one of the few orphans at the Twelveacres group home.
Ugly is an ugly word; let’s say she was unattractive with protruding front teeth.

The haibun ends with part 7:

In the end (as if there was an end to things of the heart), the best that may be said of 12-year-old Steve Carter is that he was, and is, aware of what took place.

As for Mary Ann, I wouldn’t be surprised if, unlike me, she remembers nothing about that spring day 62 years ago. No matter.

It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
Confused, whirled in a tangle,
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking –
There is no end of things in the heart.
             – Ezra Pound, Exile’s Letter (p. 24)

The second section, “Intermission," begins with “Two letters to my mother," The first of which has his brother asking: “Why did she send us away?” The second letter focuses on his mother and her friendship with a black woman who is in a comparable situation to herself. “Except for skin colour, you might’ve been twins.”

In Part II of this section, Carter is age 74, preparing for a family reunion – “dreading it for no reason I can fathom except these are family I’ve never met.” The piece ends:

. . . My son, whispering from another generation: “Dad, it’s way past time to come home!”
If you don’t start doing what we ask, young man, you’re going to get a spanking.
Another, unfamiliar voice – feminine this time: “Steven, death is in our best interest.”

San Diego Exhibition ’35       Wish you were here (p. 33)

The haibun “Karen” is about a fourteen-year-old student of Carter's, and ends:

That was fifty years ago. Where is she now? Where am I? – Less blinkered than in 1966. Perhaps.

Soft yellow sun       the urge to touch nettles (p. 40)

“Entr’acte” is a short haibun printed in italics in which Carter writes about the way women’s tears affect him. The first paragraph is followed by a haiku and a further paragraph:

I ask the dead to give me strength. You will understand. O dead,
take the measure of my shadow’s length at twilight, the way the heron’s
lengthening shadow longs for darkness, shrinking the heron till it disappears. (p.46)

“L ’Envoi [1967]” asks “Why the desert?” After a journey on a Greyhound bus, Carter steps onto Arizona soil:

For one thing it seemed oddly – what? – non-judgemental, indulging at the same time a genius for making one feel tentative. (p. 53)

The Coda, “Beyond the hidden Berkeley,” contains Section I, a prose piece, and Section II, a poem in 3 parts. The first section is about a woman called Kathy who was “self-effacing to a fault – a virtue as I like to say. She jokingly referred to herself as the Monster of Mankato because her skin had been diseased thanks to the bone-marrow transplant that now had turned against her.” The first section of the poem begins:

I do remember him holding it, the Peruvian
Basket-bowl, and humming "The Big Rock Candy Mountain."
Craft for craft’s sake. Why not?

In part 2, he writes:

The bowl possessed/was possessed by
Aerodynamic qualities: in my dreams
When it flew around the living room
In search of what was not there.

Part 3 ends:

I wanted the bowl pure as my father’s death.
I wanted it pure as "The Big Rock Candy Mountain."
I wanted it filled with nothing even as
The day he died it seemed I cradled nothing
In my hands. Nothing cradled me. (p. 58)

Carter’s Broken strikes a beautiful balance between mystery and disclosure, bravery and tact, the kind of tact which nonetheless keeps his zeal in place. What underpins the whole collection is not simply a commonplace accessibility, but his dignified restraint; the lines are balanced and controlled, the vision never in question. It is a memorable book.

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