Haibun Today

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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 3, September 2010


Tish Davis
Dublin, Ohio, USA

Review of Ruth Franke’s Slipping Through Water

Schwerelos GleitenSlipping Through Water by Ruth Franke. Schweinfurt, Germany: Wiesenburg Verlag, Bilingual—English/German,  2010.  7 ¾” x 9 ¼,” hardbound, 120 pp. ISBN: 978-3-942063-40-1. $19.95 USD. Distribution: Red Moon Press, P.O. Box 22461, Winchester, VA 22604-1661.

Slipping Through Water engages the reader with a stream of sensory impressions.  Ruth Franke’s twenty-two haibun and assorted haiku feature themes based on the writer’s observations and the experiences that shaped her.   Many of the haibun take place in the writer’s homeland, thus providing the added texture of her local landscape. Others have settings that are universal—an art museum, the garden center, a department store, the bedside of a loved one.

Water is a common element in many of the works—the sea near Sassnitz where “plain honest tradesmen and fisher folk,” like the writer’s ancestors, set sail (82). Sometimes it’s an “enchanted lake hidden among woods”—the place where daring girls steal away on moonlit nights and share fairy tales and legends (76). In “My Island,” the reader will find himself above the water and in the clouds on a Nils Holgersson-like journey on the back of a flying goose.

In “Hunger Cast in Bronze,” water appears only in the haiku.  The narrator, while attending an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s art, pauses at one of his sculptures, Le Chien—Dog:

. . . memories of wartime and the post-war years—starving dogs roaming the ruins of cities, eyes down, looking for something to eat, or searching for a master buried under rubble (51).

As the narrator prepares to leave the exhibition, there’s another series of Giacometti’s works that makes “a lasting impression: Femmes de Venice, nine sculptures of women”:

Outlandish, elongated representations of the ideal woman, some almost as thin as a needle.  Motionless and in their extreme length inaccessible; human existence stripped bare in a way that creates space and distance.

            lily pond
            a lovely blond
            displays her curves (51)

Skillfully written, Franke’s use of comparison and contrast guides the reader from animal to human, from the primitive nature of the art to the primitive savagery of war. There’s space for the reader’s reflection and multiple levels of interpretation.

The leap in the closing haiku is very effective. It can be viewed in a literal sense and in juxtaposition to the prose. The images outside of the museum are quite different than those inside. A deeper meaning is also possible. Franke reminds us that environments can heal; survivors can return to their routines, even though one can never forget the atrocities of war.

“Blankenburg” is a rich and sophisticated work where historical references are delicately woven into a narrative about the writer’s journey through the setting of her grandmother’s youth, the place also where her grandmother met her grandfather:

Never would I have suspected to find him here, the bronze lion.  He gazes northwards from the Blankenburg Palace, the summer residence of the Welf dynasty, towards his counterpart, the original in Brunswick.  For many decades the pair was divided by the Iron Curtain (24).

But now, the pleasure gardens are deserted and even the Palace gardens are thoroughly overgrown:

. . . Dusk falls. A bench looking out over a small pond under mature trees. Long grass, rhododendron already in bud.  Was this where they met, my grandparents? It is very peaceful here.

In the darkness I follow the narrow footpath high up above the town to my hilltop hotel in the middle of the Upper Harz, a mountain region which I want to explore the following day.

a pale moon
glides through dark clouds
Walpurgis night (24)

This is a well-executed haibun—the sentiment held in check, the prose showing but not telling, the employment of sentence fragments purposeful and appropriately portioned. Franke acknowledges the irreversible passage of time—both historically and personally. One can walk on the path of the past, but in the present the landscape is different.  The last paragraph of prose paired with the haunting haiku that concludes the work, however, reveals the narrator’s unanswered questions about human nature and, one can infer, the reasons for war.

In “The Touchy-Feely Robot,” the title gives away too much too soon.  Situated in the last section, “Autumn Storms,” its focus is on the institutionalization of the elderly and the oftentimes insensitive ways in which they are treated.

rice, yoghurt, stewed fruit
the bowls rotate themselves
in endless rounds (110)

While the haibun is thought-provoking, I found myself expecting much of what happened next.   The disappointment did not last long, however.  Franke’s concluding paragraph leaps to an evocative haiku that will be remembered long after the book is closed.

Franke is a skilled haibun practitioner accomplished in a wide range of techniques. Five out of twenty-two works are the basic haibun unit—prose with a concluding haiku—whereas seventeen contain prose with multiple haiku. One haibun, “Summit Ice,” contains six haiku including a sequence of four.  For an added effect, those four are presented “ladder style” in four steps in this haibun about a couple’s first climb to the summit of Mont Blanc.

The book is arranged in four categories: The Old Trails, Long Shadows, Sea and Dreams, and Autumn Storms and, when I first received it, I immediately looked for my favorites.  Afterwards, I selected haibun and haiku at random, either because the title appealed to me or because that was where the book opened.  The most stunning surprise for me, however, was the mood, the artistic space created when the book was read front to back.   This was especially noticeable with the haiku which are arranged one per page at the conclusion of each chapter. 

In “The Sea in Their Blood,” for example, the author writes about her great-grandfather who “had loftier ambitions than his forebears.”  He “gained a licence in Stralsund that let him sail ships of any size to anywhere (82).” Unfortunately, her great-grandfather drowned “just as he was dropping anchor” in Kingston-upon-Hull and left his new bride behind pregnant with their first child.

Several pages later, Franke offers this haiku:

the little mermaid
a beach sweeper
cuts her in two (88)

Slipping Through Water, ably translated into English by David Cobb and Celia Brown, would make a fine addition to one’s library and would also be a much appreciated gift. Reinhard Stangl’s paintings, with their vibrant colors and water-based themes, provide a prelude to each of the four chapters and further add to the atmosphere created by a cover-to-cover read.

end

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