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

Volume 13, Number 1, March 2019
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Steve Andrews’ “Peas on a Knife,” a Commentary by J Hahn Doleman

I did not know my paternal grandfather well; in fact, the only confident memory I have is a fleeting scene of a wooden toy cowboy he danced on his knee for my entertainment. Much stronger is the recollection of my dad and I in the red barn behind grandpa’s house the day after his funeral, opening tin cans full of rusty, bent nails that dad said my grandfather kept and would take the time to straighten because he lived through the Great Depression, when waste of any kind was considered criminal.

Those memories surfaced as I read “Peas on a Knife” by Steve Andrews, who transforms a few seemingly insignificant moments from his past into a moving episode with just two paragraphs of prose and the same number of haiku. In the short time it took me to read his haibun, Andrews transported me back to my own childhood and the personal myths residing there.

I am impressed by how Andrews divides his haibun into two slightly offset sections, plumbing each paragraph with an apt haiku, one that opens with a friendly welcome and another that closes with a wistful wave goodbye. Each haiku could easily stand alone, yet without them the haibun would not extend as it does beyond a basic narrative. The haiku reach into the story from both directions; they are not simply a preface and an epilogue, but rather integral parts of the whole, no less important than the roof and foundation are to a permanent home.

“Peas on a Knife” had me contemplating a collective unconscious of the generational kind that supplements standard archetypes. Every era has its own myth markers, and those of us living through the same time period share a taxonomy of arcana - bent nails, mashed potatoes and peas, for instance - not readily available to others born much earlier or later. This generation gap, though, can be bridged by universal experiences. The Great Depression may not figure prominently in the minds of many people today. But, who does not remember at least once blowing the seeds from a dandelion head?

With his opening haiku, then, Andrews invites readers of any age into his world, bridging a gap that may not otherwise be crossed by everyone. The wish could be anything, and it extends a hearty handshake to all. The author uses another universal image from nature - the sparrow - in his closing haiku that suggests isolation, perhaps even loneliness. Yet, it could be something else, something so much more, and once again Andrews allows readers to interpret the haiku themselves, relating it to their own life.

This multiplicity is often what satisfies most in the best haiku: their ability to convey an ordinary experience while still remaining deeply personal, even mysterious. Andrews knows not to straighten all the nails when building his haibun, and the result is an example of what skillful writing can achieve on both a technical as well as an emotional level. Though each section has its own energy, the haiku and prose in “Peas on a Knife” fit like the joints in a finely crafted house. Many thanks to Andrews for a compelling haibun that opened new doors to my own experience.


Steve Andrews

Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, USA

Peas on a Knife

dandelion puff balls
on the farmhouse lawn
full of wishes

I remember watching with fascination as he moved the knife across the dinner plate, picking up just the right amount of mashed potatoes as it headed for the green peas. Then, when a line of peas had been swept into the potatoes, the knife blade came up and disappeared into his mouth. I tried to imitate him, but usually ended up with mashed potatoes on the table and peas rolling on the floor. My mother told me to stop playing with my food and that some mysterious hungry child in Europe would be grateful for such a meal.

He had sold the farm to his son-in-law, my father, the summer after World War II ended when I was five years old and had moved to the tiny house he owned in a nearby village. Each morning thereafter, his old Plymouth rolled up the farm driveway and he began his day of cutting weeds and fixing fences. On rainy days, he and I spent hours in the tool shed straightening bent nails, a task he had deemed essential during the Great Depression and the war years that followed. I waited for those rainy days.

sipping rainwater
on the cow path
one sparrow

 

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