Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand
On Ken Jones’ Bog Cotton
Bog Cotton by Ken Jones. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2012. Paperback, 96 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9572592-2-5. To order: UK customers: £12.oo post free albapublishing.com. From Alba Publishing, PO Box 266, Uxbridge UB9 5NX (cheques to “Alba Publishing”), or through the Welsh Books Council website gwales.com. Overseas customers: US$16/€15 via Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org).
That Ken Jones’ latest collection of haibun, Bog Cotton, forms a coherent whole will not surprise readers of his previous books, Stone Leeks and The Parsley Bed among them. Jones’ careful crafting of the 41 haibun and 77 freestanding haiku in this volume adds to the sequence of his volumes. Jones’ work stands at a pivotal point where the Welsh language is making itself felt in literature, life and politics. The haibun reveals a duality in voice, viewpoint, form and language—the one belonging to the English environment and the other to his Welsh heritage, a lost idyll, which he successfully captures in his writing.
Several of these stories follow the same path which his writing has followed in a now long and distinguished career. When reading these haibun, I often stopped and thought of the way the stories seem older, richer versions of the same sort of haibun all the way from those in his previous collections. We aren’t confronted with anything of strangeness or novelty, but rather with a wry and beautiful understanding of his country’s life, and indeed, of human life.
This is not to say that there is no development or improvement. The first haibun, “Followers of the Great Way,” is a fine story about an older, wiser narrator looking back on his visit to a stupa where each participant adds his or her stone to a cairn. Here Jones is unselfconsciously painting, ignoring his narrator to let his talent for description render the scene.
Jones is absorbed in history, archetypal figures and especially his Welsh landscape of bogs, lakes, rain and mountains. His images range through love, history, battlefields, hospital, and the processes of ageing, all encompassed within his Buddhist philosophy of life and lively sense of humor, as we see in this extract from “Witches White and Black”:
Red Sand Bay
even the devouring tides
can never scour it clean.
Dyed by some folk memory of a Viking massacre. Above, wild ponies graze the glowering hill fort of Arthur’s Table. Huddled uneasily between the two—bewitched Llanddona.
In those far off days before the Great War there came a young geology student, attracted by the fossil-rich limestone of that place. He was surprised that there was no inn in such a large village; was it the grip of Calvinistic Methodism, tight even for that time and place? No one would speak to him, not even to laugh at his sort of Welsh. He never forgot that flicker of fear behind their eyes. So it was beside the salt marshes that he pitched his tent.
His interest in the literal archeology of the landscape, in the myths and folklore of the places he visits, and the people he meets, is evident in several haibun. Jones’ work frames and is framed by domestic locale, as in his homage to the Welsh landscape in “A Plodding Present”:
Beyond the ruin a gap-toothed fence of upright slates. And a green track. Leaving the pasture it climbs steadily through scrub and heather, wild and lonely. I follow unseen black beasts, their hoof prints filled with thin Welsh rain. Each time they disappear into a bog finding the way on the other side becomes more difficult. Finally no more than a sheep path through dead bracken, round outcrops blotched with ghostly lichens. I hide inside my hood from a flurry of hailstones boxing my ears.
Perhaps most of all it is the language of place that Jones is closest to. “A Plodding Present” is a haibun in which the speaker relates his experiences. What makes the poem work is not only its sense of authenticity, but an ear attuned to the rhythms of speech, which combines intellectual rigour, a sense of the past rooted in the language in which it is expressed as well as an inventiveness which is a strong feature of his work. Place, space, fauna and flora are neatly and emotively mapped out.
Jones’ lyric propensities are infused with an emotionally charged wit and there is a constant sense of his heritage through his use of Welsh place names, as we see in “Dream Wander On”:
Window filled with drifting cloud
the day hangs in the air
On the patterned tablecloth the patterned map. A wild, rolling upland, reinforced with sellotape along the folds. The scarcely inhabited parishes of Llanddewi Abergwesyn and Llanfihangel Abergwesyn—I roll them round my mouth. My boots replaced with a magnifying glass and my imagination freed by confinement, I can cross both parishes between sips of coffee.
And that is how he sets the tone for a typical haibun—a haibun with occasion: Jones is a keen walker and the walker traversing the landscape and its history, its stories—sometimes alone, at other times in the company of others, is a characteristic of his work.
The same reverence for place is found in “A Waterlogged Dream”:
Jagged and buckled
by too many winters
the once-smooth tarmac
I abandon the car and trudge on through the forestry to the end of the broken road. Ahead rises a pedestrian nightmare. To the mountaineer a very modest massif. But so many ups and downs, bogs and tussocks, and neither paths nor tracks of man nor beast. Cresting each skyline, another skyline. Drunken, the compass needle reels this way and that.
In this haibun, various iconic parts of the landscape are used as reference points for authorial consideration. Elsewhere, as in “On the Sharp Edge of Nowhere,” where he lingers “too long on the ridge, recklessly sitting in the stone Fowler’s Seat, opposite the Fowler’s Horse Block, with a prehistoric circle between us,” the haibun evokes the land Jones lives in indirectly through the use of local icons. It’s this kind of haibun that the homegrown reader will find appealing. Of course, the danger inherent in focusing on Welsh scenery is that the whole can seem somewhat insular. Not in the case of Jones’ work, however. For Jones, the Welsh terrain isn’t just a symbol of national identity; it’s a springboard into the external, the origins, the heritage and the history of his world.
Other haibun in the collection recount and evaluate history. The deep impression made by history on Jones is apparent in a haibun such as “Things To See and Do”:
A group of elderly Germans is more interested in the mechanism. The rack is a full-sized working replica, elegant in polished oak. Vorsprung durch Technik. For three Euros you can try your spouse out on it and get them to confess. A family photo opportunity. But a phlegmatic Englishman says it’s nothing like as good as the Gestapo torture chamber near Mechlin.
Despite the humor Jones exhibits, the haibun extends the ethos of self-understanding through contact with a past world and as well advances the juxtaposing ideology that to reminisce about times past is to make one’s self a better person.
The haibun run the gamut, or the testing gauntlet, of different styles; Jones handles them all ably, and they all carry his own voice. He is not betraying his instincts and those of us who are fond of his writing will, I think, be pleased; they hold up well against his reputation, and some approach the solemn beauty of his best prose. “Colophon,” quoted here in full, is indicative:
This slim volume
of lyrical verse
my neighbour’s wife
There she lies, on my desk, appropriated and reified in Perfect Binding, the kind that comes apart all too easily—but coveted nonetheless. With infinite grace in brittle sunshine she hangs out the family washing. Up there with Donne she’d never guess herself possessed by a marbled and slightly foxed old neighbour, lusty once, now bound in buckram and reading out his final years.
The warm sun
brightens an old carpet
as it passes
It’s old-fashioned, even twee, but self-assured and artful, poetry not written to be fashionable, but with an honest attempt at the craft. This particular haibun is an example of the extended Metaphysical conceit, as one might have surmised from the allusion to Donne. Simple on the surface, multilayered immediately below the fine finish. There are not many haibun of a similar length, and some are more successful than others—occasional, yes. Try “The Dying” (quoted in full) for a good expression of the voice he puts on in these shorter works:
if the sun shows up
together we climb the hill
For now the turning world is squeezing the sunshine out of the deep valley of the Rheidol. So each morning I have to climb higher and higher behind the house to reach my bright, warm-hearted companion. There I find her just peeping through the saw-edged line of spruce which fringes the skyline on the other side of the valley. Twilight in Coed Simdhe Llwyd—Grey Chimney Wood—now haunted by the yellow fronds of dying bracken, standing spectral in the stillness of the evening. The bracken, the silent oaks, and this old man, all bewitched together.
Cutting through my reverie
the sharp splatter of rain
on dead leaves
At the centre of the book, and perhaps of the duality I have mentioned previously, is the gorgeous haibun “Leonora” which is a haibun more ambitious with its language. Long sentences curl around his theme of the beautiful woman giving her favours to young men of the International Brigade who are off to the defense of the Spanish Republic:
On the rack of an old man’s cough
at dawn I confess
these sweet bitter dreams
Once upon a time, in a south Wales valley, there lived a woman called Leonora. How can I forget the flamenco swirl of her brightly coloured skirts? So come with me, bach, to the little coffee house she inherited from her Italian father. This is a place of slate-roofed terraces, dominated by pit heads and slag-heaps. In the coffee-house is a giant Gaggia coffee machine, of polished silver, topped with an eagle spreading its wings. It towers above the sawdust floor and the sepia photos of Turin.
The poem ends with these beautiful lines of sadness at the loss of so many young men and the haunting melody that echoes throughout the coffee house:
Many of our best have never returned. Unmarked graves on the banks of the Ebro. One wet Monday evening, lingering alone over my cappuccino, I hear her behind the Gaggia, winding up that gramophone of hers. Between Verdi’s swooping melodies her quiet weeping.
Wound up with vigour
The Force of Destiny
and then the voices fade.
This is a slice-of-life story, where Jones gives a vision of life which often occurs in his characters, those without any special perceptiveness or wisdom. The world can never be quite so changed for the more self-conscious. His details are perfect and delicious. Jones uses his poetic skill to ensure this story crucial to an understanding of a situation that is neither forgotten nor mythologized by telling it in controlled language as historical fact.
Another of Jones’ great themes in his writing is that of death and dying, and how it alters our experiences. The final section, “The Grave and Constant,” focuses on various aspects of this theme. In the following haibun, for example, he writes eloquently about war:
The Journal of a Siege: 1st May 17—
Written in a dank, iron casemate. Only on a peaceful summer do these forts, so artfully conceived by Monsieur de Vauban, look their most elegant. All was prepared before the investment, now in its second month, had begun.
Ravelins and counterscarps
clad all in sweet green grass
mown ready for the dead
They have yet to bring up their siege guns; their cannon balls disturb us little.
“Stone Age” is perhaps one of my favorite haibun in this collection, a strong story drawing together the great and small of existence:
on its face
a dance of mayflies
I plant my eighty-one year old shadow in the circle surrounding the Menhir, the great standing stone. My folding chair squeaks uneasily. For each of the stones in the circle stands for five years of my life.
Jones essentially ends his haibun in hopeful resignation, seeing that the most beautiful and awful things are destined to take on a different character as memories.
If one element binds the whole together, it’s probably Jones himself whose biography resonates throughout, and for whom I have great respect through reading much of his earlier work. His innovative and varied poetics and his need for control, formality and certainty in a traumatised world—in his anecdotes, and his geography of place, we see a poetry that is physically embodied. In throwing up possible connections between disparate elements, Jones is a master.
For their feats of association, for their use of the vernacular and descriptive language, for their rapid way of describing experiences as they unfold, Jones’ haibun have attracted many readers. This is a poetry driven by a remarkable mind. The beautiful haibun in Bog Cotton remind us that the plainest words and the hardest facts must be sounded for their profoundest and deepest meanings, and that haibun has a strong part to play in literature. Only an assiduously calibrated work of art, of the ambition and artistry of Jones’ Bog Cotton, can take us beyond the dazzling and distracting surface, into the mysterious region in which place and personality bond: that region to which those born to a place are defined by it. In Bog Cotton, we experience the landscape in a way no mere tourist could.