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

Volume 12, Number 3, September 2018

J Hahn Doleman on Hiroshi Matsuoka’s “Alone in a Train Car”

My commute includes travel on a public rail system, and during these trips I am alternately reading, observing other passengers, or lost in thought. There are times when I am alone, times when it is standing room only. Depending on my mood, I may welcome the solitude of an empty car, wish for it to fill, or both. The title of Hiroshi Matsuoka’s haibun points to that paradox of the human condition, that desire to be left alone while also pining for company.

In the prose section, Matsuoka describes a wordless encounter with a stranger on the train, yet the encounter comes near the end, after we learn the reason for the trip and the narrator’s wistful state of mind. I relate to the narrator because of my own mother’s recent battle with cancer, which she won, but not without sacrifices, including the predictable hair loss and a lingering neuropathy that plagues her still.

The loneliness expressed by Matsuoka’s narrator informs a sense of helplessness I experienced throughout my own mother’s illness, and the plain, fluid writing lulls me toward that link. Matsuoka’s repetition of words such as “station,” “car,” “feel,” and “passenger” conveys to me the clacking monotony of train travel, reinforces a feeling that I am riding along with the narrator, and stirs my own personal recollections.

The narrator finds solace in the presence of the old man despite no dialogue between the two. Initially, I thought it odd that someone would be comforted by a stranger who enters their car uninvited, sits opposite them, then says nothing. Irritation or unease might be just as likely a response; however, it occurred to me that the old man is more of a representation than a character. He is a proxy for Matsuoka’s hypothetical reader offering long-distance succor. That notion, which presumes more than perhaps the story implies, nevertheless makes the final connection to the haiku stronger in my mind.

Nostalgic haiku are easy to find, Bashō’s ironic longing for Kyoto being one example, but few that I’m aware of signify the idea so successfully as Matsuoka’s does without speaking to it directly. The juxtaposition of hot noodles and a mother’s smile is at once witty and comforting. Surely noodles can be shaped just as readily into a frown, yet their softness, flexibility, and the warm broth in which they swim suggest a happier state, and Matsuoka’s insertion of winter salts the haiku, striking the perfect balance between joy and yearning.

I superimpose my own experience of comfort food over these noodles. When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother routinely prepared their own unique style of Ukrainian borscht and served it on any occasion, regardless of weather or formality. This peasant dish from the old country was a ubiquitous, and delicious, staple in our household. When I make it myself now I naturally think of my own mother, her smile, and how the soup carries on a family tradition of unity even when we are not together. Matsuoka’s haiku and the real or invented old man combine to shape a rejection of loneliness as despair, creating a place of warmth in the winter of the soul. There are as many smiles available to us as there are noodles in the world, even if at times they are only remembered or imagined.

Bio: J Hahn Doleman is a hospital-based speech pathologist with haiku or haibun appearing in Acorn, Contemporary Haibun Online, Ephemerae, Frogpond, Haibun Today, and Modern Haiku.

Hiroshi Matsuoka

Alone in a Train Car

It is a cold winter evening. I am on board a train on my way back home from the hospital where my mother is hospitalized with leukemia. I am the only passenger in my car. Soon the train stops at a station, but no passenger gets on my car. At the next station, again, no one gets on it. Thus, nobody gets on it for almost an hour. I feel lonelier and lonelier as the train runs through the dark country. I feel as if I were the only person in the entire train, in the entire world. I want to see someone desperately, when an old man walks into my car from the adjacent one and sits on the seat opposite from me. His being relieves me from loneliness. He might have been feeling just the same way as I.

hot noodles
in winter
my mother’s smile





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