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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 3, September 2012


Results of the British Haiku Awards 2011 (Haibun Section)

The adjudicators were Jeffrey Woodward and Lynne Rees. The winners each receive £125.

The winners:

  • “North By Northwest” by Steven Carter (USA)
  • “Seasonal Lights” by Diana Webb (UK)

Steven Carter, USA

North by Northwest

Then, suddenly, the last day of autumn: last chance to savor the sadness of red leaves and what she once called blue and gold days: fields of wheat—stubble glowing under a sapphire Montana sky.

They called her Sonny when she was growing up in a tiny town just eight miles from the ranch, where she moved after marrying in 1942. Their first daughter was born with cerebral palsy and died before her third birthday. After that, friends stopped calling her Sonny.

She had a passionate obsession with flowers—wild, cut, even legume blossoms in the fields like a neighbor's gorgeous acres of sainfoin: tall lavender blooms reminding her always of Indian paint brush. Every year the window-box in front of the house, where she once saw a cinnamon bear cub peering in at her, exploded with petunias and begonias; after her death, it became a twisted mockery of mangled stalks and gray earth.

The real change in her came after the change—menopause—quite late in life. No one knew why, least of all her husband, who was on the phone to my wife constantly about such strange behavior—taking off in the car without saying where she was going, returning late in the afternoon, announcing that she'd driven up to nearby Glacier Park and sat most of the day in a meadow of mountain' daisies. A doctor would've diagnosed depression, and so it probably was, but there was something different about her moods too, something we couldn't put our finger on.

In the end, sadness for her was nothing to savor—free-floating and like a cold wind down Black Leaf Canyon, it wasn't something she had but something she was, or came to be. Maybe she was afraid, thinking of the red leaves of autumn only as brilliant flags in the ranks of death. Yes, death is the magisterial mystery, but there are mysteries and mysteries; like a cat staring into space, she seemed to see something no one else could. Since then, I haven't been able to think of an afterlife without chills sweeping over me, like that wind down the Black Leaf.

She'd often flip through the family album, pausing to gaze at photos of herself as a little girl, surrounded by stray dogs she took in until her mother put a stop to it. And once I saw with my own eyes a heifer she "befriended" amble up to her, rear up on its hind legs like a walking dog, place its hooves gently on her shoulders, and lick her face.

The ambulance came on a Thursday, second day of a wind arch over the Sawtooth Range twenty miles to the west, signifying rain. The hearse was a pickup truck loaned to the small funeral home by the county coroner.

Official cause of death: pneumonia.

no harvest—
after the hailstorm
harvest moon

tall timothy grass—
almost hidden
a rusty scythe

Canadian geese—
shadowing a toy ranch

Jeffrey Woodward writes on “North By Northwest”:

This sharp character sketch of a neighbor woman lately deceased shows fidelity to the conventions of biography—an omniscient third-person point-of-view and a voice of cool detachment. Depiction of the protagonist proceeds by way of skillful relation of anecdote and accumulation of detail. We learn that the neighbor died on a ranch not far from the village where she was raised, that she had the habit, as a loving child with the bright nickname Sonny, of adopting stray dogs, that she, as an adult, had an “obsession with flowers,” both wild and cultivated. We also discover that her designs, throughout her life, suffered frequent frustration—that her mother “put a stop” to her eager rescue of strays, that she lost the nickname Sonny after her first daughter died in infancy, that her proud petunias and begonias, upon her own death, “became a twisted mockery of mangled stalks . . . .”

The narrator, meanwhile, reveals his hand only in quiet parenthetical asides that set him in opposition to his subject. He recollects Sonny in his opening sentence by associating her with the present time and scene—“the last day of autumn: last chance to savor the sadness of red leaves . . . .” Much further along in his tale, however, the narrator recognizes a gulf between his desire to embrace this “last chance” and his neighbor’s distance from such longing, for “. . . sadness for her was nothing to savor—free-floating and like a cold wind down Black Leaf Canyon, it wasn’t something she had but something she was . . . .” This icy gust might be the embodiment of his neighbor for all that, a suspicion that seems confirmed by his unguarded personal reflection upon her demise: “Since then, I haven’t been able to think of an afterlife without chills sweeping over me, like that wind down the Black Leaf.”

Ultimately, some aspects of this haibun’s execution shade off from purposeful ambiguity into obscurity. The title, “North by Northwest,” has no direct referent or decipherable allusion. The author coolly repeats the coroner’s finding (“cause of death: pneumonia”) but that verdict holds little meaning and does nothing to unravel the riddle of the changes wrought in Sonny or to remedy the incomprehension of her husband and friends. We should concede that this existential mystery may be the author’s central point, however, while recognizing, in his deft use of colloquial idioms, an air of poetic sincerity and authority.

A set of three haiku acts as an envoy to the prose and, in doing so, affords some clues as to the ambiguous situation of our protagonist. Each haiku depicts Sonny’s homestead now, after her death, in barren terms. The poet presents a “harvest moon” to illuminate a deficiency (the lack of a harvest), then shows us a rusted scythe amid overgrown grass, the scythe, with one stroke, pointing to a plot of land run to seed as well as evoking its conventional association with death’s personification, the Grim Reaper. The migratory geese of the final haiku cast their shadow upon the “toy ranch,” an odd perspective, certainly, where the narrator invites us to view Sonny’s diminished dwelling from the elevated point-of-view of the passing fowl while simultaneously offering an ironic judgment with the qualification “toy,” as if the ranch, far from being a living enterprise, were an idle pastime only.

Diana Webb, U.K.

Seasonal Lights

days of spring rain—
a pattern in rainbow yarn
for an unborn child

Convent educated, I still find meaning in the stories, peace in the sacred places. The women move quietly in corners of various churches, not wanting to disturb me as I light my votive candle. Sometimes, one of them apologises for someone else’s chatter.

neonatal care—
feeding my sandwich
to a cygnet

Nobody seems to mind the stranger creeping in from time to time to take a cylinder of slim white wax out of the box, ignite the wick and place it in the dark iron ring among the other flickers.

baby’s op day—
a conker gleams
from its shell

So many flames that dance with prayerful energy, send positive healing waves, or just a flare of thankful joy.

first frost—
buying a tiny coat
striped with sky blue

Towards the year’s end I tiptoe in as usual. The women are busy with polish and winter foliage. Not yet in full view, waiting in the vestry, ready to be brought out at the appropriate moment, I catch a glimpse of the familiar nativity figurines. Again as I leave, one of the women gently smiles and whispers “I hope we didn’t disturb you”.

Christmas eve—
amid the coffee shop hubbub
my grandson gurgles

Lynne Rees writes on “Seasonal Lights”:

There is a formality to the structure of ‘Seasonal Lights’ that suits the subject matter. Just as a sonnet controls and adds dignity to an outpouring of grief or passion, the form here—alternating haiku and understated, brief passages of prose—provides an assisted, staged journey for the reader through the narrator’s prayers and hopes for her grandson’s survival and well-being; a journey which also takes place across the four seasons, from ‘spring rain’ to ‘christmas eve’.

I am not a Christian or even a believer in a supreme being and I was rather surprised to feel so drawn into the story. It is probably the understatement the narrator uses that contributes to that feeling of inclusion: there is no didacticism in the prose, no call to pray with her. And the haiku exist outside of the reverential atmosphere of the church interiors: they all include a seasonal image to anchor the reader via her own experiences of the natural and human worlds.

There are other worlds interacting with one another in this haibun: the external and the internal, the explicit and the implicit. What the narrator does, shown to us in the prose and the haiku (buying wool, lighting candles, feeding a cygnet) and what is suggested by those actions: hope in the lighting of the candles, nurturing in the feeding a young bird, the image of good health in the shiny conker.

There is such relief when we read that final haiku, a haiku that, if I am honest, would not be strong enough to stand alone, yet in this context it is what a reader wants, and needs, to hear.

‘The women’ the narrator meets in the churches seem more than ordinary women as we read through: they adopt a more mythical role, as guardians of the flames, of people’s prayers and thanks. They do not interfere; they cannot offer anything but their presence and the protection of a place where people might find some comfort.

There were stronger pieces of prose in other haibun submitted to the competition. There were stronger individual haiku. But, for me, no other haibun achieved such a successful integration of those two parts, the flow from one to another and back again. No other haibun felt as consciously structured, taking advantage of the unique opportunities the haibun offers to a writer: the intimate relationship between prose and poetry.

Administrator’s Note:

There were 31 entries from four countries. Our thanks go to all competitors for taking part.

Many thanks go to Lynne Rees and Jeffrey Woodward for the time and careful consideration they have put into the task of reading and selecting the winning haibun and writing their thoughtful reports. They have judged haibun for both the 2010 and 2011 British Haiku Awards and have earned some time off! The judges for the 2012 British Haiku Awards will be identified in the 2012 rules for entry.

David Steele



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