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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 2, June 2012

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Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand


On Jane Whittle's Footprints

Footprints: from the maze path by Jane Whittle. Wales, UK.: Cambrian Printers, Ty'r Gawen. 2010. 21 cm x 15 cm, p.b. 104 pp. No ISBN given. Price: £9.50 (includes postage).

Jane Whittle's Footprints is a collection of haibun and haiku, beautifully illustrated by the author. As the title suggests, Whittle's book takes the form of a journey. Her primary interests are pilgrimages she made that continued over time and space, moods and seasons, and her interior journey of self-discovery and her experiences of nature and human nature. Titles such as "Pilgrimage to the Land of Thak," "On Tyneside," "Poseidon's Isle" and "Hermit Island" give the reader some idea of the poet's travels, both in her native country and overseas.

The haibun which interested me most, such as "Pilgrimage to the Land of Thak," "The Lettuce Bed," "St Anne's Well" and "Short Night on a Bare Mountain," flicker with energy and are open emotionally and imaginatively, and are convincingly authoritative in tone. Here is the opening paragraph and first haiku from the opening lines of "Short Night on a Bare Mountain":

It is mid-summer and the moon is full. I am climbing Cadair Idris to spend the night alone on the summit. Legend has it that I will return a poet—or mad.

alone on the mountain
each slow step draws me closer
breathing the wind

which reflects the poet's solitary journeys. The poet is telling the reader a number of essential things: first, that the poetry per se is less important than the emotions that stimulated it; second, that the poet wants to speak to the widest possible audience, including readers who might consider themselves unable to penetrate the complexities of haibun; third, that the poems are designed to speak directly to the reader, rather than through metaphor, symbol and other devices.

With these assumptions in mind, Footprints achieves essentially what it sets out to do. It communicates through prose and haiku ideas the poet sees as important. "Reflections on Lac Lemon," for example, contains six haiku interspersed within five short prose paragraphs, to show the poet's sojourn for a week at the lake where, she finds

There is no traffic here; the lakeside belongs to dogs, cats, children and well-dressed people, strolling. Old men stand for hours along the marina wall, leaning out towards the open water, intent as scrawled italics, fishing.

the heron watches
lunch-time children come and go
on roller blades

Other haibun are revelatory of the poet's relationships with family. In "On Tyneside," for instance, where she shops with her daughter, she realizes the changes that come about with growing older:

We arrive on bikes, three generations puffing uphill to come upon something so big it must be holy.

standing under
a giant planted for pilgrims
clouds and cars race past

When we go shopping I encourage my daughter to buy a skimpy black dress while she can still wear one. It is like old times, except I am three sizes larger.

And in "Invisible Thread," she shows a mother's concern to get things right when her daughter attends her "first grown-up party":

You have chosen to be the Queen of the Elves—romantic and mysterious in a gown of cobwebs and falling water. You need pointed ears for this. We visit Hallowee'n stalls and the Gothic Shop, devoted to vampires and devil worship, where they sell false skin, wounds, scars, horns, blood, daggers, chains and ghastly death masks with long, black hair, but no false ears. We return with modeling clay, casting rubber, glue, make-up, dye, two black hairpieces and yards of expensive soft blue silk.

Whittle's haibun suggest a number of continuing preoccupations with her personal life, as we see in "There and Back," which begins by admitting "I haven't seen you for months and now we are driving to the cross-channel ferry, on our way to a family wedding in Brittainy." Others are more distant as they observe and pronounce on nature, as in the haibun "Now":

One night the cloud clears. The moon—an outsize silver hole in the sky—never had so much black space to travel through. It rises and sets so far north all the shadows go the wrong way.

now
considering a hip operation
I see dew drops dance

The haibun are an amazing recounting of Whittle's life and times. They are a carefully and passionately constructed kaleidoscope in poetry of how she sees herself in general, particular and exotic circumstances, as well as how she views the world through the microscopic lens of haiku that opens itself to wider angles of fate, accident and juxtaposition. The collection is a poetic memoir, a story of adventure and discovery, and a reflection of human experience. In "Predators," for example, she writes about a mink that threatens her pet duck:

The animal flattens itself against the ground like a fur snake, motionless, watching me watch it—a mink. I turn my head carefully, looking for a weapon, and pick up a small rock. It's a baby, too petrified to move, an easy target. One second stretches to three. The coat is smooth and glossy—beautiful. I cannot do it.

In "One Man's Island," she relates the story of travelling to an island on the mainland ferry. Here, she discovers:

The island is in mourning. Last rites were completed yesterday when Spiro, the young owner of the largest taverna on the quay, was buried in the graveyard at the top of the donkey steps under the bell tower, beside his father.

old fishermen
stare into deep waters
we cannot see

"Hermit Island" is a journey taken to "the small rocky cove of Cafn on Ynys Enlli." From the summit of the island she sees "the mainland—its mountains shrouded in mist, hayfields gleaming gold."

Whilst engaging in poetic language and poetic structure in her haiku, Whittle's prose lines are just that—prosaic. I believe this may be seen as either strength or weakness in the book, depending on the reader's stance. In its hovering between the responsibilities of the social world and the invitation to examine the solitary journeying of the poet, Whittle's haibun permit the reader to be happily certain of his/her own uncertainties. There is a gentleness here, a carefulness and an ease that make the haibun very readable. Whittle's work invites readers into a world of observation and understanding of both human nature and of nature itself.

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