Haibun Today
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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 3, September 2011



Richard Straw
Cary, North Carolina, USA

 

Keeping Silence

When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. . .

A photograph by Lucien Hervé, through Snark International, graces Sister Edna Mary's The Religious Life, a 1968 Penguin paperback, a Pelican Book, A961 to be precise. Six monks in black and white on a wooded hillside below Eveux and northwest of Lyon in southeast France, stand on the doorstep of a Dominican monastery―the Convent de la Tourette, designed for 100 occupants by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, aka Le Corbusier, the self-renamed Swiss-French father of modernist architecture. A "Brutalist" because he used "béton brut," French for "raw concrete," Le Corbusier noted that it is "a material that does not cheat."

on a path
around a stone house
disturbed rocks

With one functional eye, Le Corbusier, avowed atheist and sometime agnostic, learned as a youth through John Ruskin's writings about the Charterhouse of the Valley of Ema, a Carthusian monastery in Tuscany near Florence, which he visited and used as a model for urban planning. Married later to an alcoholic who forbade architecture as a topic of conversation, he became a philanderer, one of Josephine Baker's lovers, according to letters to his Protestant mother published after their deaths. During his wife's cremation at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, he leaped from a chair to retrieve one of the unburned cervical vertebra from her neck and carried it in his pants' pocket thereafter, placing it on his drafting table while he worked. One early September evening, three years before Sister Edna Mary's book was printed, Le Corbusier's body was on its way to be cremated, also at Père Lachaise, but made a detour from the Mediterranean to be displayed in its closed casket in the sanctuary near the altar of his Convent de la Tourette. Five years after he had presented them with a home, the brothers prayed around him through a night.

a stranger pays
for a stranger's room
the silent road

In the photograph, five monks in white stand in sunshine in front of another monk, a giant man in glasses, a white shirt, and a dark cowl. He's in shadows, his back to the monastery's wide entrance. An empty bench waits in an open interior. In the book cover's cropped upper right corner, full-growth deciduous leaves descend like a waterfall and nearly touch in the background, an optical illusion, the thin Christian cross screwed invisibly to the monastery's boxlike bell tower that's wedged on a finlike triangular base.

silent and tattered
a pale blue monkshood
carnivores nearby

Off to the right in the photograph, a young man stands, left hand on left hip, elbow out, right arm dangling, fist clenched. He appears to be eavesdropping quizzically to the conversation of the three monks closest to him, who are older and face each other in a triangle, sharing a private fact or a prayer. Perhaps the young monk is trying to listen over or through the trio to what the giant may say in his dark habit. The giant in turn avoids eye contact with the monk in white to his immediate right and glances instead toward the trio to his left. The ignored monk in white―both hands on his hips, judgmental―may be talking to, or at least staring at, the dark monk, too. Maybe he's about to start an argument, his right foot advancing in a boxer's stance. He's the only one tonsured, or perhaps just middle-aged and balding. Three of the other white-cowled monks have full heads of hair, as does the tall dark one. The shortest monk in white though has a receding hairline and either holds his hands meekly behind his back or rests them satisfyingly on his belly (it's hard to tell because of his cowl's folds). Three of the four visible pairs of feet in the photograph are in street shoes. One monk, the one standing straightest, wears Jesus sandals. The young monk on the far right may be sneakered.

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

What was said or heard long ago by the monks has passed from silence to silence. All may be as dead as the architect or otherwise moved on. Each of them was some woman's son, perhaps a sister's brother or a niece's uncle. Their monastic school later became a pilgrimage site for architectural students. It may now be closed for restoration as a conference center, its raw concrete walls cracking and discolored from the weather, torn plastic tarps snapping in the breeze.

It's impossible now, of course, for anyone about to open Sister Edna Mary's book to say with certitude what the monks were discussing outside the Convent de la Tourette and whether they spoke carelessly or idly or at all. It's perhaps not as difficult to guess, even judge, whether László Elkán of Vasarhely, Hungary, who escaped the Nazis and became Lucien Hervé, French Resistance fighter and later photographer and friend of architects, snapped his shot randomly from the hip or whether he waited quietly and long for his moment to compose a candid, eternally silent image.

leaves nearly gone
seeing more deeply
into maples

 


Author's Note: Matthew 10:19, the epigraph, and Matthew 12:36-37, the second Biblical quotation, are from a 1972 large print second edition of the Revised Standard Version (Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 1946). As of July 19, 2009, the cover for Sister Mary Edna's book could be viewed online at http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/pelican-books/5#i207 (enlarged at http://www.coverbrowser.com/image/pelican-books/207-1.jpg). For details on Lucien Hervé and his life, see Olivier Beer, Lucien Hervé: Building Images (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2004). The Le Corbusier quotation in the opening paragraph is from "Cinq questions à Le Corbusier," Zodiac, No. 7, 1960, p. 50, which was cited by Danièle Pauly in Le Corbusier: la Chapelle de Ronchamp (New York: Springer-Birkhäuser, 1997, p. 102). For details on the architect's life and his monastery, see Nicholas Fox Weber, Le Corbusier: A Life (New York: Random House, 2008) and Philippe Potié, Le Corbusier: Le Couvent Sainte Marie de La Tourette / The Monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette (New York: Springer-Birkhäuser, 2001). For online overviews, see http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/latourette/index.htm, http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=36049, and http://8333696.fotopic.net/c1631663.html. The author thanks Jeffrey Woodward and Roger Jones for editorial advice on prior versions of this haibun. Whatever errors of fact or interpretation or style that remain are solely and wholly and resolutely his own.

Editor's Note: "Keeping Silence" was first published in Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 2 (Winter 2009).

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