Travelling Light by Graham High. Blackheath, London, England: RAM Publications, 2010. 5 ¾" x 8 ¼," perfect bound, 96 pp. ISBN 987-0-9551915-3-4. Available £7 UK (plus 50 p.p&p), $11 US (plus $4 p&p) from Graham High, Bluebell Barn, Gresham, Norfolk, NR11 8RN, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: Graham High Website
Graham High, editor of Blithe Spirit, the Journal of the British Haiku Society from 2005-2008, has published several books of poetry and haiku and edited, with Colin Blundell, Dover Road and My Back Yard, the BHS International Haibun Anthology 2007.
Travelling Light contains forty of High’s haibun (several of them previously published) and the collection ends with a concise and informative "Postscript" about the origins of haibun and its fascination for Western writers. As High writes, "For most modern writers a haibun, simply put, is prose written in the style and spirit of haiku. Its qualities have become recognised as including a desire to present a realistic truth-like response to the natural world, experienced in the present tense defined by the limits of personal experience" (91-92).
High acknowledges that the genesis of his prose-poems is the Japanese haibun and says, "I have had an enthusiasm for the various literary forms that have a Japanese origin for over a decade, and have been a witness to the increased interest among western writers for this particular combination of experiential prose and haiku poetry" (4).
A wide range of subject matter travels through these forty poems, including aloneness, disassociation and ageing. However, the poet counterbalances these themes with moments of brightness, joy, warmth and humour. I find High’s haibun to be those of a "man alone": a man secure in his own thoughts and feelings, alone in the garden, on the beach, travelling or visiting his parents’ last resting place.
Only in one or two of the poems are we aware of other people, friends or family. In the second paragraph of the opening haibun "Table Turning" (9), we find the poet with friends at a séance:
All those years before, none of us had been closely touched by death. Our imaginations were fired with images of earnest Victorian spiritualists, gathering in the intimate and theatrical gloom of candlelight and dark satin drapes. We were so full of our own energy that we felt we could enlighten the darkest of metaphysical corners.
youthful séance –
a bowl of narcissus glows
white in the darkness
In simple, lyrical language the poet takes the reader into a situation he or she may not have experienced.
In contrast, however, is High’s love poem "Large Blue" (11) which is effective and refreshing in the way it captures the essence of spending time with a loved one:
We walk with the sun behind us as the day changes tense. Our visit to the beach becomes experience we already savour as lost. Back at our hotel, we reminisce, the sun lingering in our brows and shoulders; our lips tasting of salt.
drinks on the terrace
late sun melts in the distance
High’s acute eye for detail and his talent for stirring the senses are admirable. His attunement and oneness with nature and human nature come through strongly, allowing the reader to take part in many of the haibun. The haibun "Park" is one of my favourites. Here we see the poet in "what seems like a sculpture park just outside the town at Taman Rimba" (17). But we soon learn that this is no ordinary park:
There are pieces of rusted machinery whose eroded metals add rich accents of colour and texture to the sharp green of well-watered lawns. One turns out to be the boiler of an old steam engine that was originally made in Bradford long before the war. The Japanese found a new use for it. They stood it up on end. With additional vents and chimneys and a welded door it made a fine corpse incinerator.
we fall silent
bird songs fill the void
Of other poems, I found the haibun "Elle est Bonne" (24) a delight with its light humour. In the poem the poet sees a woman bathing in the sea. Here the single haiku from the haibun: "alone in the water / her hair pinned up / waltzing with the waves" captures the poet’s vision of a beautiful woman enjoying a bathe in the sea. "Drive" is equally rewarding. Comprised of two paragraphs bookended by two haiku, the poem successfully draws in the reader. The haibun begins with the title haiku: "travelling light—/ all night approaching cars / receding stars."
This is a book of people, places and moods but there is also an undertow of ideas and social concerns tugging at an apparently lyrical surface. In "Death Valley" (30), for example, the poet is "frightened that the Universe will see me"; in ""Scent" (31), he is "caught between the desire to act on the idea, to focus on my imagination and follow it, and the wish to savour the impulse itself . . ."; in "Lost City" (33), "History is for the young" and, in "Restorers" (35), "The man works with a simple wooden trowel, recreating the action of a thousand years."
There is often an "I" figure walking these paths. In "Underground" (37), High writes, "Sometimes, during the rush hour I seem disassociated from myself: commuting into the half-conscious as if down a rabbit hole: a different world." This "I" is an engaging, observant character, equally comforted and terrified as he rushes by train through the darkness. In "Tea and Cakes" (41), "We are all unused to the rhythms of relaxation and there is something strange and artificial in doing nothing but sitting and chatting." This fusion of peacefulness and the language of topical ideas—war, fuel crisis, health risk—makes me sit up and pay attention.
Now let’s take a quick look at some of the consistencies, the recurring words and images that form the text and the subtext that informs the different surfaces of some poems. First there is the landscape—the "ripples and eddies of the river," "the thirty paces to the pond," "the ragged palms and gnarled banyan trees." Then there’s a perhaps contrasting side which I hesitate to call religious but there’s no other word for it except spiritual. Not a received, institutional religion or a bodiless transcendence, but a sense of unity, acceptance, love, warmth and touch. As you listen to High, you’ll hear of a young lad who "turns and holds out both his palms," of how the poet wonders for the first time about survival, of listening to the silence, of writing a few words and then entering the comfort zone, and of the old lady of ninety: "Almost blind now, strong light clouds her vision."
Often it is in the least momentous poems that the reader harvests a pearl. Such is the case in "Haiku on a Bhakti Path" (65) where the path isn’t a mystical one but a small track that runs from "our side door to the shed at the end of the garden." Here the poet listens to the birds and watches fish in the pond:
|And now it’s raining again. The birds fall silent one by one and find shelter deep in the denuded trees. The fish in the pond gather towards the surface, fooled for a moment by the soft patter of droplets. They rise as though summer’s insects have returned.
rain on the fish pond—
say, where does the dance begin
and the dancer end?
High also finds pleasure in having the house to himself. In "Between the Window and the Door" (73), he plans to use his time writing but instead wanders around the house putting things in order. High creates a wonderful momentum that gives the poem an energetic edge:
|And so the afternoon goes. While there is light there are distractions; birds busy in the trees; cars passing; the crisp footsteps of a woman with her dog. As the light begins to fade I feel sure another cup of tea will help me focus on my work.
He also plays with an imagery which creates some unusual contrasts in many of his haibun, as in "Transplant" (75) where the images of the gritty ashes packaged in a gold plastic jar contrast with snowdrops and black peat:
|snowdrops over ash—
my brown topsoil hard to blend
with black upland peat
In other haibun, such as "Lodge" (83), High approaches a philosophical element akin though unlike Rilke in his visions:
|Gradually I feel more comfortable. A kind of nostalgia overcomes the need to stay sharp. The flurry of new images, the sounds and smells find a place to settle inside me to form a surface, a continuum that blends the old familiar with the new unknown.
dreaming of home
my postcards blow over
Graham High’s collection opens up a whole new vista with his investigations of nature and human nature. The haibun will stand up to many readings and in fact demand them from any self-confessed lover of haibun who wishes to be challenged. Travelling Light contains beautifully crafted work that arouses the senses and triggers a variety of emotions. It is a most satisfying read.
Graham High can be contacted through his email.