I’ll Tell You So: A Flash Story/Haibun Collection by Jeffrey Winke. Ellison Bay, WI: Cross+Roads Press, 2010. 5” x 8,” perfect bound, 102 pp. ISBN: 978-1-889460-23-9. $12.00 USD.
“Poetry is imaginary gardens with real toads in them."
~ Marianne Moore
Jeffrey Winke provides a hint about the nature of his most recent collection when he uses "flash story" in the title and when he says about his life one piece, "I figured it out. ... My life is a mystery novel."1
His writing persona brings to mind the mystery noir writing of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler whose characters are Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. The genre generally depicts life-wounded detectives who live in litter-strewn, one-room apartments located in the mean streets of large and decaying cities of the western world. Even the names of the journals where some of Winke’s pieces were first published carry the noir feeling: Mad Swirl, Gloom Cupboard and The Battered Suitcase. And if that doesn’t convince you of the noir-like qualities of his work, examine some of his titles: "A Wake of Toothless Smiles," "Head like Termites," "Hunchback with the Toy Poodle." This shouldn’t make you worry about whether the collection is actually haibun, as opposed to flash fiction – for one thing, the pieces appear in the mainstream haiku genre journals too – Modern Haiku, bottle rockets, contemporary haibun online and Haibun Today, to name a few. For another, each piece is accompanied by a more or less traditional (not fantasy) haiku which, for reasons discussed below, sparkle.
To illustrate why many of the 85 pieces in this collection remind me of the noir genre, here’s a description of a woman his persona encounters in "Bait Floats to the Bottom" (26).
He orders breakfast, with a voice raw from too many unfiltered cigarettes, and smiles politely at the waitress. She is too busy staring at the pale blue lines on her order pad to notice. He tries to catch a glance with his alluring sea-blue eyes. He tosses bait out, like a good fisherman, and hopes to catch something. She’s a cute sunfish – smooth scales glistening moist with glimmers of color. Most of his bait languorously drifts down to the murky depth where he occasionally snags a bullhead or catfish – bottom feeders. The waitress is preoccupied. She's wondering if hergraduate thesis topic – "Metaphors and Paradign Shifts in Ildefonso Falcones' Cathedral of the Sea – will be accepted.
Depicting women as "cute sunfish" or "bottom feeders" is, of course, politically incorrect and in some minds might raise the spectre of sexism. We’re supposed to admire women for their minds and spirits, not the particulars of their physical attributes. But Winke is expressing the way many men enjoy the visual world of women and he’s speaking as if he’s a Sam Spade who couldn’t care less about political correctness. Is Winke condoning the objectification of women? I think not. Consider the self-deprecating aspect of his persona’s self-description (“his alluring sea-blue eyes"), the fact that he's being ignored and that most of his bait "drifts down to the murky depths." And I think the answer to the sexism question comes with the poetic power that a haiku adds to the prose. A good haiku creates a focus point and demands a shift from one kind of mental activity (reading a story) to another kind (reading a short, intense poem) and then to a third kind (connecting the two). In this collection, the creative fantasy writing coupled with the bring-it-home-to-the-normal-world haiku are Winke’s strength. Consider the haiku that goes with "Bait":
|catholic 1st grade
half the boys yearn
to become priests
Winke’s haiku allow us to see the noir in ourselves, that is if we’re willing to consider our noir sides. What have Catholic school boys and priesthood to do with the bait caster and cute sunfish depicted in the prose? One could argue that the suppression of the libido surfaces in a variety of dysfunctinal ways: neurotic behaviour, sexual dysfuction, sexism and misogamy. This is akin to Freud’s main premise in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Winke's haiku sent me spinning back to my own boyhood. In Catholic school, I learned early on that it was best to pretend that I wanted to become a priest. But ever since that first kiss of Maggie in a remote corner of the school yard, for which I paid with a public yard sticking from Sister Veronica, I too have been casting bait, if for nothing else than simply to catch a woman’s eye, to get that quick smile of acknowledgment or even better a return flirtation—in short, to feel present and alive as a male in the eyes of the ubiquitous femme fatale. Is this a good way to exist in the complex world of men and women and today’s sexual politics? The exaggeration in Winke’s characterization should give any male pause for thought. Who wants to think of himself as the bait caster in this piece? And to depict women merely by their physical attributes is clearly a remedy for less than fulfilling relationships and likely for a less than fulfilling life.
Thus, the witty social satire in Winke’s characterization allows us to examine our own psyches. To paraphrase Krishnamurti2, we can’t become non-violent by simply repudiating violence. We first have to inspect our psyches and find the violence in ourselves. Applied to Winke’s characterizations, we can’t become non-sexist without recognizing the sexism inherent in our psyches and its pervasiveness in our society. Reading this type of self-reflective poetry that exposes the toads in our minds so to speak, is one path to becoming aware of sexist attitudes and of becoming non-sexist. Through his characterizations, Winke brings us the possibility of insight along with a good belly laugh.
To further understand why the ‘haibun noir’ label, consider the political incorrectness in "Big Yellow Boots" (29) where the focus is on a male character:
We’re hunkered – and that’s the correct word – in anticipation of a major snow accumulation. Streets are pretty much empty, except for delivery trucks and mad-driving SUVs. I’m in a coffee shop where a big man wearing big yellow boots just walked in and ordered a small cup to go. He holds the paper cup daintily with his big fat fingers that look like mutant alien slugs. His mouth squawks like a pterodactyl. The snapping action of his jaws looks mildly menacing, even though his eyes crinkle with friendliness. Everyone talks about the weather as though we’re all college philosophy students examining truth as intently as a Fabergé egg.
This kind of hard-edged and fanciful description isn’t often found in today’s typical haibun where writers so often use descriptive detail in both prose and haiku to take us along on their nature walks. In this piece, Winke uses the politically incorrect fat-word when we’re not supposed to notice that people are fat but instead pretend that all people somehow look the same and that it’s the inner person who really matters. Winke not only uses the fat-word, he goes over the edge when he likens the man’s fingers to "mutant alien slugs" and depicts him as "squawking like a pterodactyl."
Now consider the "bring-it-home" haiku that goes with "Big Yellow Boots":
a sparkle flake rests
on Elvis’ head
It’s tempting to treat this haiku shallowly and resort to orthodoxy and complain that "snow" is simply repeated from "snow" in the prose. But as with all good writing, rules can be broken. This haiku leaves the reader free to make his or her own associations. What has Elvis to do with the café scene and mutant alien slugs? I thought about the relationship with Elvis’ costumes, certainly mutant and alien to many of us then and now. And of the Elvis copycats parachuting into and appearing on the Las Vegas stages. Then there’s the image of a miniature Elvis frozen forever in a crystal ball, an Elvis with sparkles on his outfit and the sparkle of falling snow on his head. Winke may be asking us to consider whether our own ever-so-serious discussions of poetry and life are somehow akin to our culture’s addiction to music and film stars, in this case to Elvis’ music, gyrations and costumes. And are our discussions as patently shallow as philosophy students discussing the nature of truth? Is this one?
Here’s another look at womankind through his male persona’s eyes from "Anticipation of Seeing Him Seeing Her" (23):
... The perfect man is real to her and, yes, she believes in love at first sight. That’s why she’s never shy about scanning crowds with anticipation of seeing him seeing her and WHAMO – the whole trunk of Chinese fireworks igniting at once. She seeks eye contact with only tall, fit and chisel-chin handsome guys. There’s no way the perfect mate for her could be short plump, or myopic – no way! She soon turns 29 and her plan to be married, with two kids and a SUV parked in the drive of an over-sized suburban home by age 30 is looking unreal ... there are only two men showing earnest interest: Marino, a Romanian circus performer she met at the big-top two years ago ... and Ernie the bespectacled 43-year-old bachelor in Accounting who lives with mom ...
it smolders –
from her hand
As for the prose, I suspect that many of us male readers will identify more with Marino and Ernie than with her chisel-chin target. Here again, the haiku shines and invites self examination. Do we men at times feel as if we’re "snuffed cigarettes" when we see women moving inexorably toward the "chisel-chins?" Do we wishfully see women as "smoldering" in the way that Lauren Bacall’s character smoldered in To Have and Have Not when she pursed her lips and uttered her now Hollywood-famous words: "You know how to whistle don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." Unless we’ve somehow managed to suppress all of those endowed male genes which are the target of the 40s Hollywood noir films, that’s the women-as-fantasy image that many men carry. Is this sort of self-examination important? I’d argue yes. How do we move beyond unless we see ourselves more clearly? Social satire holds up a mirror and asks us to consider, Is this me? Can I be something else? My answers are, "yes" and "maybe, but it will require more than simple denial."
I’m a guy so it’s rather easy for me to apply Krishnamurti’s "know thyself" admonition as the path to transcending to something better. But will women readers also gain some self insight? How much truth is there in the idea that women tend to choose the chisel chins over the Marinos and Ernies? Sure, I know that many women manage to bond with less than a chisel chin and that the Marinos and Ernies for the most part manage to marry. And what about the ways that women present themselves to the male world? Is there an impulse to play the Lauren Bacall role in real life? Stepping aside from inspecting our navels, will both men and women have a chuckle or two over the black humor and steamy language? I did and I'd like to think you might too, but I think that Winke’s social satire offers much more than a chuckle.
In "Gathers the Volume up" (39), Winke shows off more of his fantasy muscles:
“You speak German?" She asks while biting her lower lip in faux perplexity while staring at the well-worn splayed cover of Traktat über kritische Vernunft by Hans Albert. He quickly gathers the volume up and inserts an old St. Louis MetroBus transfer stub to hold his place. She giggles a bit as he deftly unhooks her vintage charcoal pencil skirt, releasing her from her afternoon appointment, while steering her hips to the nearby rolled-arm silk-upholstery white settee.
Unless you’re quite gullible, you can’t take this story seriously. Here again we have a male’s fantasy woman, in this case cooperating only in ways that can happen in Hollywood movies after he offers the bait that he’s a deep man (reading philosophy treatises) from humble origins (who else rides the Metro?) yet open to uninhibited sensual pleasure. I’m guessing that Winke was actually sitting on a bus when he spotted an attractive woman and then spun a story about where his fantasy took him. I looked up Hans Albert and Traktat über kritische Vernunft which translates as Treatise on Critical Reason. Albert is a well-known German philosopher and it’s safe to say that no one would be reading this book unless he or she was a hard core philosopher. So what’s going on here? In my present self-confessional mood, I can recall the times I’ve put out a book or piece of information I know little about as a means of being more attractive to a woman. And have you, male or female reader, done something as patently false in order to seem more attractive to another person? Indeed, in "Says with a Delightful Sneer" (71), Winke returns to this theme of falseness and displays a disdain for the male protagonist. In what might be a self-referential piece, Winke may also be showing a disdain for his own "PO-et" tendencies :
"He is such a pompous mini-prick," she says with a delightful sneer. "Talking about decay and bleached bones, like anyone is impressed." The pompous prick in question refers to himself as a published PO-et, which means he offers platitudes about life in "poetic" form. Like many PO-ets, he wears his neuroses and insecurities like finely tailored cloth. ... She collects her things and walks toward the door, leaving PO-et wondering why she wasn't interested in purchasing his latest book of PO-ems, "Desert Days of Revelation," which he'd happily inscribe with a personal message before signing with a flourish.
Damn it, Winke! I just finished putting together a collection of my published pieces on travelling into Utah's deserts.
I don’t want to give the impression that all or most of Winke’s pieces focus on a Sam Spade type of world with Sam mainly lusting after the dames. The collection includes scenes from the neighborhood, restaurants, bars, shopping malls and the world of work – encounters with both males and females, many of whom are playing out the types of exaggerated roles found in fiction elsewhere. As an example of a very different kind of piece, "And Prying, They Thought" (22) caused me to reflect on the life we writers lead:
It’s a small house located in a small town where the retired poet lives a small life. ... Call it small town trepidation or misplaced mores, but all [residents of the town] resisted the dare to rap on the door of the small house where the retired poet lives to ask: Can a poet really retire from poetry?
a single ant
slowly passes by
In this piece, Winke has ably brought to life the feelings I often have as I focus my own writing on the small pond called haibun. And the haiku is again outstanding: how antlike goes our writing, how little hoopla there is for our efforts. What meaning has an appearance in a haiku genre journal with perhaps a thousand readers, many of whom won’t read either my haibun or this review? Winke may or may not live in a small house in a small town, but clearly he hasn’t retired from poetry. And, for what it’s worth, nor have we.
I do have a few reservations about Winke’s writing style, none of them important enough to dissuade readers from purchasing the book, which is one that I think should rest on every haibun lover’s bookshelf. Winke tends to use long strings of adjectives, often hyphenated: "sequin-encrusted magenta-color padded satin sleep mask" (57); "punch-metal gray-steel guard station" (34). Sometimes they work effectively as part of Winke’s characteristic hyper-embellishment, but sometimes I have difficulty getting my mind around them, much less reading them out loud. This was particularly distracting when I started reading his collection given that I’ve spent so much of my writing time trying to eliminate those unhaiku-like extra words. But the sparse haiku-like prose found in many of today’s published haibun would likely fall short of transmitting the quasi-fantasy experiences Winke is sharing with us. And, after all, don’t we all dramatize our perceptions of the world? He or she who hasn’t embellished can feel free to cast the first stone.
In reflecting further on this collection, I don’t mean to imply that Winke has simply modeled the Mystery noir genre. Winke has his own unique voice and the linking of noir prose with less abstract, reality-based haiku helps us to step outside of the noir characterizations as mere entertainment and question our own lives and society. In contrast, the 40s noir films don’t invite self-exploration. Instead, I’d argue that they are merely entertainment and that they led to a generation of males wanting to be very much like the fictional Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes, tough-minded, alpha males who are in control of their destinies even if they are chain-smoking alcoholics, chronically depressed and unable to form meaningful relationships. Okay, they also almost always get the bad guys and the Laurens which, perhaps, is why us non-alpha males want to be like them.
A key reason that I prefer haibun to fiction is that I can sense the writer’s presence in a piece and I prefer renderings that are clearly self-revelatory. While the embellishment and fantasy are obvious in his work, I’m convinced that Winke is telling us about his own life, lived and imagined. He’s telling us, in effect, that thoughts that I, and perhaps you, manage to suppress most of the time about how we see and interact with other people in our complex and difficult world are part of being fully human and can be expressed with humor. I’ve come to like the honesty of his work for that reason.
Related to this is the work of poet Robert Bly of men’s-movement fame who spoke of the shadow side of men’s psyches.3 As seen by Hoff, Bly "... offers a powerful analogy on the role the shadow plays in our lives.4 We spend the first twenty years of our lives stuffing parts of our personality into a big bag that hangs behind our shoulders. ... we put the best and most creative parts of our personality in this bag in an effort to conform to society's norms. By the time we reach adulthood, the bag may be two or three miles long. We drag it behind us. We then spend the rest of our lives trying to retrieve our true selves out of this bag." In this collection, Winke has clearly let the cat out of the male bag and it’s a black and witty one. Why do that? The answer, I think, is that once our toads are out and hopping around, we can acknowledge them and press further into the garden.
English-language haibun is a relative newcomer on the haiku-genre scene and some have expressed a concern that the genre has prematurely settled into a narrative-plus-haiku orthodoxy. Read this collection and you’ll find a refreshing challenge to this orthodoxy. And if your own writing is feeling somewhat stale (aka orthodox), buy this collection and allow yourself to loosen up some of those rules of haibun composition that you too may have let seep into your work.
So pick up a copy of Winke’s book, pour yourself a shot of your favorite whiskey or a cup of hot chocolate topped with whipping cream and have a good read on a rainy evening when you’re feeling particularly alone and a little depressed. Winke is good company. As Dashiell Hammett said: "You got to look on the bright side, even if there ain't one."
1. "I believe I am," page 43 in I'll Tell You So.
2. J. Krishnamurti, Talk and Dialogues Saanen 1967, from Juddu Krishnamurti Net.
3. Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).
4. Bert Hoff, "Our Shadows: A Review of Three Excellent Books," Menweb Website, 1997.
Some of Jeffrey Winke’s regular and "noir" haibun can be found in the archives of Haibun Today and by searching Contemporary Haibun Online.