Contemporary Haibun 12, edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2011. 5.25" x 8.25", perfect bound, 112 pp. ISBN: 978-1-893959-099-6. $17 USD.
For twelve years this series has given readers who are curious about haibun and haiga a convenient way to take a few laps around the pool and see what's going on. As it has always been, it is a relaxed venue. There is no sense of "clubbiness" and no one is trying to tell you what end of the pool is best for a dip. The editors present their selections without 'preface' or 'introduction,' choosing not to annoy us with explanations about what they intended, about where they think the genres are going, or about how best to approach the diving board: no axe-grinding, no arguing, and no apologies or apologetics. This is a workmanlike production and makes perfect light-reading for a summer day.
Most veteran haibunists (a category that includes the editors themselves) have evolved a set of stylistic elements that characterize their practice in the genre and, cumulatively, make their work distinct from others. What is chiefly an anecdotal literature displays, surprisingly, wide compass and variation in persona, voice, subject matter, imagery, syntax and diction, to name just a few of these recognizable signature elements or markers. Each piece by these writers makes a good start for the reader, especially a newcomer to the genre, who is curious and wants to make their acquaintance.
The anthology affords the reader wide exposure and variety: Ray Rasmussen's amusing personal stories and confessions; Bruce Ross's subtle, matter-of-fact travel notes; Stanley Pelter's wild and woolly servings of word-soup, paradoxical association, and verbal barrage; Cherie Hunter Day's carefully paced, intimately detailed, lyrical narrative language; the surreal disjunctions of Jim Kacian's short piece in which the fragile poem "day / after day / your love" appends a prose description of an empty beer can strapped to the hull of a bathyscaphe, whereupon it "begins juddering at only a few meters, collapsing in on itself at a few hundred, and in the blackness beneath the photic zone implodes like a neutron star . . ."
To enjoy the presentation, I recommend you be adventurous and plunge in anywhere. This is not a themed anthology built around a particular topic or setting or philosophy, nor is there a dominant aesthetic program or curriculum to figure out or digest. The stage belongs entirely to the writer to whose work you happen to turn.
Of the short haibun (under 200 words), which make up fully half of the 67 in the collection, I most enjoyed Hortensia Anderson's elegaic contribution, given below in its entirety:
By The Bay
Dusk turns the water into a fire opal.
The fragrance of fresh earth merges
in the air with white flowers.
Waves seem to whisper through the
western windows of the cabin my grand-
father built for my grandmother.
"Love poems" she once told me.
As I hold you in the dark, I recall her
wistful sighs on the porch, rocking to
the rhythm of the sea.
I rinse the sand
from the sheets
What arrests me is the lyrical diction, the elegant, restrained movement of the prose, which reads like good free verse. The prose lines are noticeably much shorter (one must assume deliberately crafted that way) than those appearing anywhere else in the collection. The effect of this tactic is magical on the poem's pacing, on the way it unfolds, one or two details at a time. The piece exemplifies the capability that is possessed by the haibun form—actually to get behind the imagery into the emotional landscape, wherein subtlety can be made the servant of sentiment and remembrance, and the deep pleasures of serious feeling can be achieved with a haiku in the end-position, playing the primary role of resolving the sense, drama, and preceding imagery within a single, concrete moment. In skilled hands, a simple anecdote can be made to function as a stage upon which beauty, truth, or both together may at any time make their unexpected appearance, as here, in this poem about love.
Another stand-out for me in the short haibun category is this one, by John Stevenson:
Language is constantly changing. Only a few years ago the
standard answer to "thank you" was still "you're welcome."
Then it became some version of "no problem" and today it's
a series of doors
held open by strangers
Behind the perceived loss of civility in our culture may be just the kind of creeping linguistic deterioration (is it really decadence?) so well described in this lucid little satire. John Stevenson is a humorist a lot like Twain: he's always to the point, and he scores his laughs by keeping one clear, sober eye on the reality the rest of us pretend isn't there, even though it is stuck to our shoe and maybe also to his.
Among the longer pieces, my list of stand-outs must include all three of Penny Harter's—"On the Way," "Anchoring" and "Driving Home." "On the Way" describes a journey by train taken two years after the death of her husband. The second describes how "I have lived alone these months since my husband died . . ." and the third relates in unforgettable, haunting language ". . . this story dwindling behind us as the road unwinds through mountains . . ." This triptych warrants, and rewards, many re-readings. I believe the three together are a significant achievement in English-language haibun memoir, touching upon William J. Higginson as only his wife might share, a great soul lovingly remembered and much missed.
Coming from an entirely different mood and tone is Renée Owen's
"Florida Heat", possibly the longest haibun in the collection. Her narrative reads like an excerpt from one of the better novels by Judy Blume, relating in first-person a nine-year-old's experience of a trip to the beach with an older brother, a younger sister, and a mom who comes home early from work and thinks it might be fun to take the kids swimming. I'll not give away more than that here—except, trust me, it turns out to be a memorable day.
While the haibun are arranged alphabetically by the writer's last name, the 28 haiga appear to be scattered randomly throughout the book. All the haiga are reproduced in black and white and run the gamut of mediums common in this image-making: photography, ink drawing, brush painting (acrylic, oil, watercolor), and a few mixed media pieces that appear to involve construction and collage. Due to print quality and faint or small font-size, quite a few of the accompanying poems are difficult to read. A magnifying glass can help. However, the majority of images and accompanying poems are adequately clear. It is understandable that the huge expense of full-color reproduction remains a barrier. I'm happy that the editors have chosen to share this material in spite of the obvious technical problems it presents. One can still get a sense of this art community's somewhat funky fun and pleasures, and a fair impression of the kind of work being done by a variety of haiga-makers. First-publication credits and sources for the haiga are not given; in a few instances, dates of 2009 and 2010 appear within the artwork. The absence of this detail probably will not matter to most readers.
Overall, a good job has been done. The collection offers a fair sampling of familiar names in the field while also offering work by newer writers, including Sonam Chhoki, Susan Nelson Myers and Jann Wirtz, to name just three. Sources show an equally fair balance. While most of the pieces originally appeared in Contemporary Haibun Online [Volume 6], over eighteen pieces are drawn from other online and print sources, including bottle rockets, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Moonset, Notes from the Gean, Paper Wasp, Presence, Simply Haiku, Whirligig, and The Unseen Wind: British Haiku Society Haibun Anthology 2009.
Throughout this long-lived series of anthologies, the editors—themselves haibunists having distinct, independent styles—have consistently demonstrated a tolerant and welcoming attitude toward work that goes in directions quite different from their own. Inclusiveness has obviously been important to them, and has helped to create an open environment in which the genre may be expected to grow in good health and mature in its wisdom.