Canyonlands Journal, a website by Ray Rasmussen, offers a marvelous collection of haibun and photography recording the author's hiking trips to Southern Utah. The photography is exquisite but what distinguishes this from other publications about the region is, of course, the haibun. All were written and published separately from 2003 to 2009, so if you are a regular reader of haibun journals you will probably have encountered most of them already; in my own case, I remember several from early drafts on a workshop forum and it's a pleasure to read them again. But Rasmussen's new web site is much more than a beautifully repackaged collector's edition. The slideshow that is its centerpiece develops new ways of presenting haibun within a pictorial or graphic interface, thus opening possibilities for the form, not only for linking texts with images but also for linking themed works in longer series and working with point of view through photographic objectivity and first person narrative.
Despite the website's title, the slideshow presentation is not a journal in chronological arrangement. The haibun have been editorially selected to follow a meta-narrative with beginning, closure, and themed sub-groupings in between. The first two establish a sense of place for the series and introduce the narrator. "Desert Walks" opens with this pronouncement:
"In mountain wilderness, my habit is to walk from sunrise to
sunset . . ."
. . . and it ends with a simple, aphoristic haiku:
land of little water—
it's the walking
that washes you clean1
What follows is a meta-narrative in which we're sometimes on a Joseph Campbell hero's quest,2 sometimes a journey into picaresque. It is all presented through a well-designed, easily navigable site that reveals Rasmussen's long experience with web design. There's a single page design with colors selected to enhance the photographs and a navigation bar through which no corner of the site is ever more than a couple of clicks away. Throughout the slideshow, haibun alternate with photos. Each photo page includes a caption that documents where the photo was taken or perhaps, tersely, what we're looking at. There are no haiga, nor even is there any poetry at all on the image pages. The result is to sharply differentiate the two kinds of pages. The photo pages serve as cuts in the narrative that preserve the integrity of each haibun page while also creating a transition between them.
The images are never simply illustrations for the writing. For example, the haibun "Folded Knife" takes place near a cliff house with petroglyphs. The following photo page shows a similar site—Cedar Mesa Canyon, as the caption informs.3 But the petroglyphs do not quite match those described in the prose, and the Entry page for the slideshow has already told us that there are many such sites in the area. Thus there's a disjunct between the haibun and the image—a slight shift but one that's definitely there. It is the renku-style linking one finds in haiga (text/image) and in haibun itself (prose/haiku). When haibun and photo include a shared motif, the link may be obvious but at other times it's more on the level of mood ("scent linking"). The charm of the slideshow lies in this openness, the continual shift from one kind of linking to another.
A quarter of a century ago, William Higginson defined haibun as "autobiographical prose."4 Since then, haibun has broadened to include a variety of approaches, among them fiction,5 but the notion has persisted in many parts that a first person narrator in the haibun is the author. With Canyonlands, it's a reasonable assumption because what we know about Ray Rasmussen is consistent with what the first person narrator says about himself in the haibun, and we have Rasmussen's writings on haibun that specifically identify the first person narrator with the author's presence in the text.6 Still, however the author intended we should read his work, this is an assumption that must be unpacked and examined before we can understand how this multimedia haibun presentation works.
Doing so involves what in post-modern critical theory is called "the gaze." Gaze is a huge concept with ramifications in philosophy, psychology, medicine feminism, queer studies and cinema, and the academic scholarship that has gathered on it can be both intense and opaque. To keep things simple, it's an approach to textual analysis that concerns who is looking at what or whom in a text ("text" broadly including images as well as word-based works). For the purposes of this review, we'll be concerned with the gaze as it pertains to cinematic theory.7
Connections between haiku and cinema have been made before. In 2007, Alan Burns surveyed expressive effects that film deploys through mise en scène and montage camera techniques—cut, establishing shot, close up, voiceover, zoom, etc.. Burns made convincing comparisons in the way images are combined and juxtaposed in haiku, and while he did not get into gaze per se, among the camera techniques he surveyed was the point of view or subjective shot, with which "the camera reveals the perspective of a single individual, involving the viewer in that individual's perceptions and frame of mind."8
Technically this is the "intra-diegetic gaze," and isn't it precisely what we encounter in the first person narrator in haibun prose? There are a variety of cinematic gazes, five of which I see as important for Canyonlands Journal as well as for haibun form in general:
1) the intra-diegetic gaze: the gaze of the narrator and other people as they appear in particular haibun, as they see or interact with each other or with an animal or an object within the world of the text.
2) the extra-diegetic (direct) address: a gaze where someone in the text is looking "out of the frame," such as the Canyonlands narrator who speaks to the reader even as he is participating in the world of the text.
3) the camera gaze: the gaze of the film-maker, photographer or, by extension, the author, who is distinct from the narrator; the author is exterior to the text while the first person narrator, even if purporting to be a projection of the author in the haibun, is a constructed character within the text.
4) the editorial gaze: the process by which part the camera/author's gaze is selected for use and emphasis. The editor is the last step in preparing the work for viewing, so in the case of Canyonlands we may allocate to this gaze or institutional collection of gazes the selection and ordering of haibun and photos, introduction, captions and footnotes, and the design of the website itself.
5) the spectator's gaze: the gaze of the reader/viewer (that's us).9
Of course, all but the last are Ray Rasmussen wearing his various hats, but the distinctions are important to maintain. Gaze not only defangs the issue of autobiography versus fiction in haibun; it also provides a fresh way of seeing just how haibun as an art form does what it does. Throughout the Canyonlands haibun, there are multiple extra-diegetic gazes as characters come and go, but a constant is the intra/extra-diegetic narrator, our guide and storyteller in the prose.
This changes when we come to the haiku. As we cross the double space from prose to poem, haiku's traditional expectation of a zen-like transcendence of self kicks in. The seen narrator vanishes, replaced by an unseen, extra-diegetic voiceover. Sometimes the haiku complement the prose with classic haibun epiphany, but more often they serve to detach the reader from empathetic identification with the prose through irony. In "Folding Knife," for instance, the prose narrative develops into a panegyric in which the prose narrator begins to self-identify with the imagined manliness of the ancient hunters. In response to this, the haiku offered is about the yipping of coyotes.10 And then, sometimes the haiku voice is another poet entirely. Issa makes an appearance, as does an eighth century Chinese writer named Tu Fu (significantly, this is one of two first person haiku in the collection).11
A recent article by Jeffrey Harpeng here in Haibun Today has spoken generally of gaze in terms of "a kind of triangulation, by two viewpoints or images which direct the reader to a third that is not stated . . . it is a glimpse rather than an engulfing gaze. The points from which triangulations are carried out . . . shift states more in the intense gaze of haiku and its kindred ways of looking."12 Within the prose passages, there will be many such shifts as the reader, whose gaze is not constant, identifies with or draws back from different characters, feelings and experiences.13 No two readings will be the same, but Harpeng's metaphor of triangulation is a good characterization of the shifting relationship between author, narrator and reader in the prose passages. There is also the triangulation of gaze that occurs as the reader's passes from prose to haiku. The seen first person narrator falls away, yielding the reader to the more immediate experience of an unseen commentator in voiceover. It seems to me that this disjunct, the shift of gazes from prose to poem, is what distinguishes haibun as a literary form, and it's probably one reason why the first person prose narrator is such a reliable solution to the problem of differentiating parts.
But what throws the issue of gaze into such sharp relief in Canyonlands Journal is its visual, graphic interface. As the reader/viewer clicks through the site, page design and navigation arrows are always there at the periphery of vision, providing the frame through and across which gazing takes place, anchoring, orienting the reader, and giving him agency over his interaction with text. The Entry page announces as much with its choice of photograph, a hiker with his back to us, gazing out across the oxbow of a river canyon:
"Looking into the Grand Gulch from the West Rim," Canyonlands Journal Entry page.
The hiker is a repoussoir, a pictorial device that has been used in Western painting since the Renaissance and was especially popular in landscape painting of the nineteenth century Romantic movement—which itself birthed Western American photography through the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain Schools of landscape painting.14 The repoussoir may be a tree, rock or an area of shadow, a drawn curtain, or a person gazing into the picture space. Human figures are especially potent as repoussoirs. It's intra-diegetic, placed in the scene for us as viewers to gaze upon; at the same time it's extra-diegetic, its gaze drawing us deeper into the illusion. As one function reinforces the other, the repoussoir becomes our surrogate in the scene.
All five cinematic gazes are also present in the Canyonlands photo pages, though asymmetrically and in different ways. We don't process images the same way as we do written texts, and the image viewer's gaze is not the same as a reader's gaze. Despite the factuality of the captions, there is a great deal of mood in the photographs that belies the pretense to objectivity of the camera lens. While the haibun speak of a harsh, dry, hot desert, the camera prefers to train on scenes of indirect lighting and often features water in the form of waterfalls, puddles and skies heavy with rain clouds. In its choice of such compositions, the camera almost subverts the written text by triangulating a different landscape, one that's more nourishing of life than hellish in its sublimity. The result is a continual, rhythmic shifting of gaze and address, a dialogue of parts as the multimedia presentation moves from page to page. Like the call and response of voices in a renku, it deepens the layering and enriches the aesthetic experience beyond what either haibun or photographs could on their own.
In a review that is ultimately going to say that Canyonlands Journal is a beautiful website well worth the visit, it may seem that post-modern cinematic theory has ventured too far from the subject, that I'm reading into the text things the author did not intend. Perhaps, but I myself have been groping towards combining haibun with images and had already begun to sense the importance of gaze. In adopting different solutions from mine, the Canyonlands slideshow has helped me to understand much better how prose, poem, image and the shifting identities of author, camera lens, narrator and reader/viewer can work in multimedia haibun. I'm confident that even if you do not intend to become involved with images in your own writing, Canyonlands will teach you a lot about the potential of haibun as an art form. At the very least, it's a stunning read.
2 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Bollingen 1949, rpt. 1968 and 2008; for a brief overview see Liz Warren, "The Hero's Journey: Summary of the Steps," Maricopa Community College, online at http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/smc/journey/ref/summary.html.
4 The Haiku Handbook, 1985, quoted in Haibun Today, December 16 2007.
5 Ken Jones, "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," Contemporary Haibun Online, September 2007 vol. 3 no. 3; Margaret Chula and Cathy Erickson, What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps, Lake Oswego: Katsura 2009
6 Ray Rasmussen, "Characteristics of Contemporary English-Language Haibun," Haibun Today, December 9, 2007.
7 The seminal article for gaze theory in cinema is Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, vol. 16 no. 3, pp. 6–18. Beginning or casual readers may prefer the following more accessible state-of-the-question explanations: Dino Felluga, "Modules on Lacan IV: on the Gaze," Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, Purdue Univ. 2002, and Daniel Chandler, Notes on the Gaze, Aberystwyth University, 2000 .
8 Alan Burns, "Haiku and Cinematic Technique," Frogpond, vol. 30 no. 3, Fall 2007, pp. 55-64.
9 Chandler, "Forms of Gaze."
10 http://raysweb.net/canyonlandsjournal/pages/03.html; given the coyote's importance as a mythical trickster in Native American mythology, this comparison adds another layer to the stories the Canyonlands narrator is telling us in the prose—see Kathleen L. Nichols, Native American Trickster Tales, Pittsburgh State Univ.
11 http://raysweb.net/canyonlandsjournal/pages/07.html and http://raysweb.net/canyonlandsjournal/pages/21.html.
12 Jeffrey Harpeng, "The Ghost in the Haibun," Haibun Today, vol. 4 no. 3, September 2010.
13 Chandler, "Related Issues."
14 For a good online survey, see American Eden: Landscape Paintings of the Hudson River School from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, exhibition June 6 - August 29, 2004. The extensive literature on Western American landscape photography may best be accessed through a search engine. Early photographs of the Grand Canyon and Southern Utah make interesting comparisons to Rasmussen's compositions, e.g., The New York Public Library's Digital Gallery, "Early Landscape Photography of the American West." Considering 1) that "male gaze" has been central to cinematic gaze studies from the beginning, and 2) that Rasmussen's haibun "Folding Knife" includes a female character who refers to the author's hiking as "your man's thing," the following feminist survey of landscape photography is also interesting: Martha A. Sandweiss, "Laura Gilpin and the Tradition of American Landscape Photography" in Vera Norwood and Janice Monk (eds.), The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art, New Haven: Yale Univ. 1987, rpt. Tucson: Univ. Arizona 1997. Alas, it is available online only in cache copy without illustrations.