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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 1, March 2012

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Cynthia Rowe
Woollahra, New South Wales, Australia


On Owen Bullock's "Rotorua"

Owen Bullock's haibun immediately engaged my interest. I knew little about Rotorua, a place I have always wanted to visit and I found Owen's haibun to be replete with tantalising imagery. The prose is punctuated by several haiku – a change from the current trend of including only one, or maybe two haiku, or even none at all.

The author begins in a workmanlike fashion with

two coffee cups
& a burger
by the side of the road

so that we know the haibun is set in a tourist spot and that fast food has impinged on this surreal landscape. The reader assumes the author is referring to himself eating the fast food, but it could easily be someone observed or even the leftovers of a hastily-consumed meal. For these are the trappings of the tourist and the haiku sets the scene.

We read of the attachment to the land in the opening paragraph, translated as 'world' in a sign above the early thermal baths, another allusion to the tourist pull of this place. The prose, instructional to start with, soon becomes descriptive, lyrical when describing the strange beauty of this environment.

It surprised me to discover that there is abundant birdlife in Rotorua, and the second haiku illustrates this with the one-liner

the white of the pied stilt's belly sulphur lake

followed by

inky
the white landscape's
sulphur river

where juxtaposition is used with good effect, contrasting the murkiness of the river with the bleached surroundings.

The description of the lakes and thermal pools is evocative, with inventive language such as 'mud pfflopps'. 'drifts of sulphur-laden air speed into the lungs' indicates that one's lungs almost act as a magnet for the astringency in the atmosphere, the 'rotten egg smell' that is all-pervasive. There is no hiding; no escaping the sharpness. 'The singed ground is eerie.' If the ground is singed one wonders if the air is injurious to the human body. 'Even new timber is blackened.'

There is movement of another kind, above the water, in

thermal pools
steam drifts away
from the water

where the freedom of the steam drifting juxtaposes with the confined thermal pools.

Again Owen invokes the unnatural heat and movement in the pools with his haiku

hot pools –
lights across the lake
stay

where the world on the other side of the lake is still, unchanging; although the lights which represent the stasis of life will change with the coming of the dawn. Owen is then subjective, describing how he feels, his upper body cold, his legs 'bathing in warmth'. The prose becomes note-like from here on, akin to the poem-filled travelogues by Matsuo Basho, combining the qualities of diary and observations of nature. By now, most tourists have left the spa, and 'the rushing of the fountains is the only noise'.

The next morning he again observes the birdlife:

the gull
with something
mobbed by the others

followed by

black swans
skirt the shore
with no opinion

The latter haiku is anthropomorphic and presumably means that the black swans seem haughty; they glide by, disinterested in the passing parade.

The author keeps walking and we are treated to even more birds. Time has moved on and, in the middle of the day, we get the impression the geese are also weary of the tourists, no longer on the lookout for food, in

midday
geese with their heads
tucked in

Owen swings away to seasonal reference in

a return to winter?
leaves sidelong
through the park

then back to the birds with

a gull
diagonally into
dark clouds

He circles the city, also 'like a bird', as if wondering why he is there and what he is looking for. As if he is a child, bemused by his surroundings, baffled by it all in the metaphorical

a son
struggling to keep up with
the grown-up

in which the haiku revolves around the mystery of his journey, the mystery of this almost-alien place. Why is anybody here? Why are the birds here? Surely the landscape is too forbidding to be embraced by any living creature? And yet this is a thriving city, with a long history, a city of water-sport events, a city of contrasts.

In the final paragraph we see that even the permanent inhabitants are weary. Individuals are slouched on benches smoking, begging money from the tourists. Visitors passing by have trouble understanding the transparent excuse for demanding money. 'all he wants is two dollars for a pie' is the commonplace euphemism for man's yearning for alcohol. To forget this place with its blackened landscape? To blur his milieu with grog, rather than face the all-embracing sulphurous steam?

It is unusual for a haiku poet to use overt simile, but the concluding haiku

so many addictions
like a case
towed on wheels

does just that, and successfully. Owen brings the reader down with a thump, exemplifying the 'addiction' we all have, the ubiquity of 'wheelie' luggage. Again alluding to tourism in the final haiku he leaves us with the impression that he, too, will soon be departing with his 'wheelie' luggage. The richness of this haibun is an absolute delight. We are almost giddy with the profusion of images, the insight into this place like no other.

Rotorua

two coffee cups
& a burger
by the side of the road

A sign about the early thermal baths reads ‘hei oranga mo nga iwi katoa o te ao’—for the benefit of the people of the world. Interesting that ‘ao’ (usually ‘land’) is translated ‘world’ —we still can’t understand the attachment to the land itself, that we are all, potentially, people of the land, rather than possessors of it.

the white of the pied stilt's belly sulphur lake

inky
the white landscape’s
sulphur river

Steam pours constantly from the lake, pools and fumeroles in the parks; mud pfflopps, drifts of sulphur-laden air speed into the lungs with the distinctive smell, as if to immerse one’s body in the fact that we are here now. The singed ground is eerie, yet austere. Even new timber is blackened.

thermal pools
steam drifts away
from the water

hot pools—
lights across the lake
stay

My torso is in the cold air, my legs bathing in warmth. Late night, the spa almost empty of people; the rushing of fountains is the only noise.

Walking the lake’s edge, still dazed by the fact of morning. Sitting to watch the action.

the gull
with something
mobbed by the others

black swans
skirt the shore
with no opinion

I keep walking.

midday
geese with their heads
tucked in

a return to winter?
leaves sidelong
through the park

a gull
diagonally into
dark clouds

I circle the city like a bird—what am I looking for?

a son
struggling to keep up with
the grown-up

I wonder, achingly, about the city’s people; what are they feeling, what do they love to do, why are they here?

Here and there, on benches, people are smoking. A man tries to bum some money from a couple of visitors; they have trouble understanding him—all he wants is two dollars for a pie, he says.

so many addictions
like a case
towed on wheels


Note: Owen Bullock's "Rotorua" was published in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011

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