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



Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan, USA

 

On Gary LeBel's Abacus: Prose poems, haibun and short poems

Abacus: Prose poems, haibun and short poems by Gary LeBel. Baltimore, Maryland: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008. $9.95 USD. ISBN 978-0-9817691-6-5. Letter size PDF e-book. 232 pages, 8.5" x 11.00" with full color illustrations by the author.

Abacus, the first public collection of Gary LeBel's poetry and art, stands out as one of the most unique literary productions of 2008. For sheer scope and variety alone, one is unlikely to find its equal. One hundred and sixteen tanka sequences or sets, haibun, prose poems and tanka prose adorn its 230 plus pages, along with 40 full-color illustrations, the whole orchestrated in nine thematic sections.

How does the reader situate Abacus within the literary context of 2008? What is the book's relevance for tanka and haibun today and tomorrow? LeBel's talents are so various and his ability to shift between literary habitats so chameleon-like that he is not a poet that one can easily characterize nor does his writing lend itself to simple summary. To describe and assess Abacus for the reader, therefore, I've elected to comment initially upon the interplay of Japanese and European influences on LeBel's poetry and to follow those reflections with a survey, first, of the tanka sequences and sets, then of the haibun, prose poem and tanka prose works.

 

Kyoto and Alexandria by Lamplight: East and West Under One Roof

Readers of tanka, haiku and other Japanese forms now adapted to English literary practice commonly encounter allusions to the literature of the East, whether a reference is to a celebrated waka of the Kokinshū or to the butterfly dream of Chuang Tzu. Less frequently met by the same audience are tanka, haiku or haibun that presume that the reader shares the poet's fascination with Western poetry and art. LeBel's appetite for poetry and art is voracious but his references to his masters, East and West, is drawn from an intimate acquaintance with their works and is free of pretension. Yosano Akiko, Yosa Buson and Ono no Komachi are but a few of the Japanese poets evoked—names that will startle no one familiar with English-language tanka or haiku. An interesting example is the following tanka:

Just five lines
of Komachi
and the whole room turns
the deep red color
of her longing                      [169]

LeBel provides no prefatory comments or footnotes but concludes—correctly, no doubt—that most readers of tanka will be saturated, as he is, with the spirit of Komachi's tanka. Literate individuals schooled in Western free verse and stanzaic poetry may be utterly unfamiliar with the 9th century Japanese poetess but LeBel may expect them, not entirely unfairly, to make her acquaintance as readers new to tanka.

On the Western side of the equation, LeBel cites writers as diverse as Aeschylus and Thomas Pynchon, Sappho and Henry Miller. Nor are LeBel's masters in the art world neglected but paintings by Giotto, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Delacroix, Picasso, Klee and others are brought into play with a deftness and confidence that comes only from the poet's passionate study of the same.

This cultural background is as much second nature to LeBel as is his easy reference to Ono no Komachi above. Ironically, most of the figures listed in the preceding paragraph would pose no particular difficulty for the reader of Western orientation who was initially bewildered by Ono no Komachi. It should not pass without comment, however, that many individuals schooled in tanka and haiku literature may find allusions to Aeschylus or Pynchon as disconcerting as our literate Westerner found Komachi's longing. LeBel, again, provides neither commentary nor footnote but happily relies upon his reader's own curiosity.

Art and literature, East and West, play a significant role in LeBel's writing but, despite the number of writers and painters mentioned or the frequency of individual citations, only a handful of figures come up repeatedly, a circumstance that allows one safely to infer that their work has been of greater personal import to LeBel. Foremost among these figures in Abacus are Ki no Tsurayuki and Constantine Cavafy; their poetry, in relation to LeBel, will be discussed below.

 

Putting the Pieces Together: Tanka Sequence and Set

Tanka sequences or sets—nearly twenty in number—account for much of the content of Abacus. Some are tightly structured around a specific motif or subject while others are loosely joined by common principles of progression and association. Some total no more than half a dozen tanka while others contain 40 and more.

"Torn Curtains" is a well-orchestrated sequence on the traditional theme of the ruin of a house:

Among decrepit walls
of crumbling plaster and dust
leans a broken chair,
arbiter of a silence
even emptiness couldn't bear.                      [64]

While the descriptive detail is exacting, the ambiguity of the "silence" that this "broken chair" presides over is broad and invites several interpretations. This tanka neatly illustrates, also, LeBel's good ear for the phonic properties of language. The third and fifth lines are tied together, without apology, by the true rhyme of "chair" and "bear" while, with greater concealment, the first and second lines share the strict alliteration of "decrepit" with "crumbling." The second verse, too, is balanced nicely upon the slant rhyme of "dust" with the first syllable of "plaster."

I cited two poets—one Eastern, one Western—who receive special homage from LeBel: Ki no Tsurayuki and Constantine Cavafy. Tsurayuki (872-945 M.E.), one of the compilers of the Kokinshū and author of the Tosa Diary, requires no special introduction to readers of tanka. Cavafy (1863-1933 M.E.), an Alexandrian Greek poet, held a modest post in the civil service and died obscurely; he has posthumously won acclaim internationally as one of the finest modern Greek poets.

"Nine Songs I'd Sing to Lord Ki" constitutes a dramatic monologue addressed by LeBel to one of his masters, a monologue notable not only for its clear knowledge of the Japanese courtier's work but for its intimate tone of address:

My hometown lilacs are in bloom—
After 40 years they smell about the same
Just as all hearts (as well as yours),
Still come standard
With padlocked doors.                      [33]

The reference to "padlocked doors" here touches upon Tsurayuki's employment of a literary convention to mask his grief over a personal tragedy. In the Tosa Diary, Tsurayuki adopts the persona of a woman diarist who is returning from the provinces to the capital while mourning the loss of her child, a circumstance that was the poet's own when writing this early classic of tanka prose.

How many times
You wrote 'girl' or 'love' or 'crimson tears',
Though it was your 'wailing chidori'
That found a thing I'd long misplaced,
My cold New England sea.                      [33]

The Japanese "chidori" designates a plover and is an allusion to a waka by Tsurayuki from the third imperial anthology, Shūishū [cf. Earl Miner, An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, Stanford University Press, 1968, 94], just as the following tanka recalls another waka by the Japanese nobleman:

You made a poem
About a lonely hut
In fall I liked:
Smoke was rising,
Almost night.                      [33]

Two other titles in Abacus pay direct homage to the Japanese master: "Tsurayuki's Gull" (a set of 50 tanka) and "Rereading the Tosa Diary" (tanka prose). The former work has some particularly fine tanka that link, by their common motif of the sea, LeBel's origins in Maine with the cold sea of Tsurayuki's diary. Consider this moving testimonial to family and place:

The river laps brown
as the noon whistle screams
from the shipyard
that ate my father & his brothers:
map of my hometown.                      [43]

What about the Alexandrian Greek, Cavafy, then? Much of his fame is derived from the sublimation of his tumultuous personal passions in the classicism and cool objectivity of his poetic art. Cavafy was an admirer, too, of the tough and lean epigrammatic style of the Greek Anthology, an admiration that LeBel inherited, if we are to judge by "The Road to the Sea (Poems after Cavafy)":

For pleasure's seal
We offer flesh
As stamp
For a scroll that gutters
With the lamp.                       [180]

This sense of the sacrifice of youth and pleasure in the pursuit of poetry as well as a conviction that so much of that effort is futile—"a scroll that gutters / With the lamp"—is very much in the tradition of Western classicism.

Aestus, ebb inland now
Past every life I could have lived
And past the muddy shores
Of everything I tried to do
Or did.                      [181]

Again, one can hear echoes of Cavafy and the Greek Anthology in the dispassionate and apollonian tone. Though the Alexandrian is not acknowledged as a source, another tanka set, "Aestus Poems," demonstrates the same cool reserve and epigrammatic economy:

Laden with inland silt,
How you snake downstream
Beyond this ridge,
Your cursive undeterred
By the trestle-bridge . . . .

With sparks and hammering
They bind the iron bones
Of brand new ships,
Not for Homer's taut sails
But Fortuna's wide hips.                      [186]

Perhaps one last tanka might be cited—this from the set, "European Windows"—to demonstrate how deeply this current from Cavafy runs in LeBel's work:

What did you feel, Merisi,
as you finished your limp Christ,
applying nearly the same pigments
with which you'd brought
your Bacchus to life?                      [149]

The allusion here is to Caravaggio and, in a spirit of irony very like that of Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians," LeBel ties together two of the Baroque painter's works ("The Entombment of Christ" and "Bacchus"), the first on the Christian Savior, the second on the pagan god of license and debauchery.

Other tanka sets in Abacus include nakedly autobiographical works such as "Joyous Lake," "Popham Light" and "16 Thank You Notes to Eros" as well as ambitious works that assay other artistic or historical subjects such as "20 Guilders (Verses to Rembrandt)" or "The Sound of Horses" (on Hadrian and Antinous).

 

Justified, Left and Right: Prose Poem, Haibun and Tanka Prose

"Prose poems, haibun and short poems" proclaims the subtitle of Abacus and so we turn our attention now to the varied prose poetry forms (prose poem, haibun and tanka prose) that comprise roughly one-half of LeBel's collection. To convey adequately the many varied styles and methods employed would require more space than this article affords, so a brief sampling of representative titles must suffice.

An excellent introduction to LeBel's mastery of prose is the haibun, "rose madder":

A few months ago the neighbors across the street lost their second child in late term. Their house stands empty this morning, the curtains drawn open, a few lights on, lifeless, sold. I hardly knew them. Upstairs our two teens are sleeping like royalty in their rooms: what do I know about sorrow?

morning twilight
I crack the ice
for thirsty dogs                       [54]

The title alone is indicative of the way LeBel, deeply imbued in graphic art as well as poetry, views his world—with the eyes of a painter. What better than "rose madder" to unite the cool pinkish rose of first light and a child lost "in late term"? The objective and impersonal note of classical restraint that we found in LeBel's homage to Cavafy is here reiterated but now in a contemporary suburban American setting where the poet juxtaposes a neighbor's tragic loss with the untroubled sleep of "our two teens." In the concluding haiku, the "thirsty dogs" for whom LeBel breaks ice so they may drink on this chilly morning are emblematic of the living going about their business, irrespective of neighboring misfortune. How appropriate, also, that the very tongues of the dogs lead the reader back to the title, "rose madder," once again.

"Vowel" may be a somewhat more conventional haibun, insofar as it is engaged with nature and with the poet's reception of it:

Can it be the same bird I saw yesterday drifting alone across the windrows at the river's mouth? Out beyond the breakwater lies the western edge of its realm: an empty, windswept island withdrawing slowly from a day that glitters off the ocean.

I had watched the bird yesterday as I do today, admiring its ancient look in silhouette, its trailing wake of a long and slender sentence without a period, and I stay until the diving accent grave of a lone, warm vowel slips quietly away into the river's ink.

trusting in tides—
in the lightless depths,
the cormorant                      [193]

Cormorants figure often in Abacus, invariably with the same attention to the bird's habits as the poet demonstrates here, habits that anyone who has observed cormorants will recognize in LeBel's sketch above. A close reading of this accomplished haibun will discover as much poetry, if not more, in the prose as in the haiku, especially where the poet pauses to admire the cormorant's "trailing wake of a long and slender sentence without a period."

One prose poem, entitled "The Stars Misplaced" [130-132], is truly remarkable and worthy of greater analysis than I can afford to give it in this venue. The narrator of this work is driving on the interstate when he is suddenly passed by a Dodge "transporting a body," but he is less surprised by "a body bag in full view" than he is fascinated by the driver:

He has a full head of thick white hair, slicked back and shining, not a strand out of place, late middle age, a dapper man, like the one who never talks in film noir. Though his window's down, the hair doesn't budge . . . . I'll call him Charon, after the Greek underworld's chauffeur.

The narrator's interest now shifts back to the contents of the vehicle:

I watch the wind blow eerily through the bag, alternately expanding and deflating, rippling at times from head to toe. When it collapses, the nose and feet protrude.

The narrator picks up the chase, drawn along by "that immaculate hair, the resolute, forward gaze" as well as by "the rippling body bag foreshortening feet-first a few yards in front of me like Mantegna's Dead Christ." Just as the narrator realizes that he is seeing "death and its business-like aftermath . . . no tears, no flowers, no hearts being weighed by Thoth,"

. . . Charon shoots abruptly off the interstate toward one of those small Tennessee towns with a Native American name, his taillights swallowed by the exit ramp and the hips of crouching mountains. In truth, I could have turned off and followed him.                       [132]

That is where the anecdote ends, with the possibility that the narrator could have "followed him" but, of course, did not. The reader is suspended briefly here, in this point without resolution, in this mystery that proves as large and striking as life itself—or death, if you prefer. It is difficult to imagine a text of roughly 400 words that might surpass "The Stars Misplaced" in subdued understatement and resonance.

Some works, such as the tanka prose piece "Yosano Akiko" [144], aim no higher than a kind of act of appreciation and statement of solidarity with a kindred spirit, in this case the celebrated tanka poetess whose photographs LeBel is examining as he writes:

I had expected another face, but what that was I can't describe . . . . Where is the recklessness, the passion, that lusty electric soul? It is there as it always will be: I'm looking in the wrong place.

How tamely coifed
that legendary mane of hair
in the photograph:
did you glimpse your own 'pale rose'
beyond the shutter?

Even in a work of more modest scope, such as this one, the poet's individual stamp is there in his piercing observation of the ambivalent presence, in one image, of Yosano Akiko's lover:

Sitting beside her, Tekkan reads a book and seems self-absorbed, preoccupied—or is he posing?

Perhaps one final work, the fine tanka prose composition "Curve" [136], can be quoted in full and without expansive comment, if only because its nostalgic tone of time lost is so unmistakably realized in the present:

Today in the North Georgia mountains the sun's straight up, school's out—boarded-up shops and broken soda machines, filling stations with no tanks or recent calendars: all wait their turn to disappear under the great sleepy eyelids of kudzu and cicadas.

Two young boys are following railroad tracks between mountains, one of them short, the other taller by a foot. It's all there on four legs, their youth and friendship, the boundless summer stretching out ahead of them somewhere down the tracks as the tall one leans over the shorter who tilts his head to cock an ear.

'Whither do they go,'
vanishing side-by-side,
train rails
and the bend
of a river?

 

Conclusion

Gary LeBel's artistry is multi-faceted and encompasses both the plastic arts and many poetic genres, from tanka to haibun, from the epigram to the prose poem. With Abacus, too, LeBel shows considerable skill in editing and assembling the various components of his work—collage, tanka sequence, haibun—into an attractive and coherent package.

Does everything that LeBel touch turn to gold? Of course not. No artist or poet, however accomplished, is without imperfections. But in this survey of what is a highly ambitious and fascinating first book, I wanted to draw attention to his many strengths and real achievements. His voice is unique and distinguished in the tanka and haibun communities as much for his distinctive style as for the subject matter that he assays. Even in this positive assessment, I've not been completely fair to LeBel, for his subtitle does not include tanka but the term "short poems." He is cognizant, no doubt, that some readers may deny that certain of his poems qualify as tanka, their five-line format notwithstanding. This is due to his frequent and unapologetic employment of rhyme, to the loss of autonomy of individual tanka in sequences that subordinate the part to the whole, to the taut and terse epigrammatic style that shows some allegiance to Constantine Cavafy and to the Greek Anthology. Whatever consensus may be reached on these matters, that certain poems herein are indisputably tanka is beyond doubt. That poems with the above qualities may or may not be tanka does not alter their status as poetry and, in fact, as very fine poetry, indeed.

I've devoted no space here to a discussion of LeBel's graphic work. That he is as productive with collage and paint as he is with the written word and that he sees these various artistic disciplines as interrelated is the chief reason, I suspect, that Abacus is published as an e-book. His striking paintings and collages are full color; reproducing 40 such works in a poetry volume would make for a very costly investment for all but the largest commercial publishers.

I do not know if LeBel's voice is the voice of tomorrow or if he will stand tanka, haibun or poetry on its head. I do know that his voice is compelling, one that we should cherish and, as such, I recommend Abacus to the reader as one of the best books of 2008 in both the tanka and haibun genres.


Note: First published in Modern English Tanka V3, N2 (Winter 2008).

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