Antibes, Alpes Maritimes, France
On Steven Carter’s ripples
ripples by Steven Carter. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2012. Paperback, 80 pp. US $12. ISBN 978-1 936848-10-2.
There are a handful of haibun in this collection that I find exquisite, where subject matter, language, structure, emotional tone and strong haiku merge to invite the reader to experience their worlds. “1965,” a haibun about the death of the narrator’s mother, is one of my favourites.
It opens with the bleak, declarative sentence, “Finally I was able to write about witnessing the death of my mother” and closes with a haiku that evokes death and pain: “ghostly sun / a sudden urge/ to touch nettles.” The three paragraphs of prose explore what is remembered, what is not remembered, and how we create metaphors in an attempt to express the inexpressible.
The economy of this haibun is at odds with others where the language becomes discursive or too much time seems to be spent getting to the heart of the subject matter. “Topaz,” the first haibun in the book, gives background (mother’s death, losing touch with family) and context (the name of the documentary film-maker, the series’ name, the TV channel), all of which isn’t absolutely necessary to feel the impact of suddenly seeing your father staring out at you from the grainy film of a Japanese internment camp. The haibun could have started at a more dramatic point, manipulated time perhaps, to capture the reader’s attention sooner.
“A Green Pebble” and “In Lieu of an Elegy” both recount fatal accidents—motor and air traffic—and while most people can’t read about the loss of even a stranger’s life without having some empathy, I’m left unsure what these haibun are about. They’re tragic anecdotes but anecdote has to be infused with meaning for it to become universal. I don’t feel the material had been translated into literature with its language choices acting as vehicles for ideas.
Carter is undoubtedly a fluent and considered writer but I often find his language too dilute for the intimate subject matter these haibun explore. “Heavenly City, Earthly City” releases the story’s tension by dropping the redundant, “I’ve never enjoyed sharing baseball more with anyone, male or female,” in between the precise details of this shared passion for radio baseball games and the moment when the young man asks the girl out and is rebuffed. So the dramatic development in this haibun is unsatisfying.
The prose of some of the haibun vividly evokes a past event or experience.
There we were, boys and girls together, quivering on the horizon of adolescence, washed up on an island of oak trees, yellow fennel, blue lupine and golden poppies, with little to do after coming home from school but develop crushes on each other and perform innocent experiments with sex under the trees . . . (“Spring Equinox”)
It continues in a similar vein and ends powerfully. But the problem with too powerful an ending to the prose is that it amputates the haiku, making it appear like an afterthought rather than an integrated part. If the haiku is also rather slight then that effect is magnified.
I am disappointed with the majority of the haiku in the book and too many slip into the habit of inverted syntax: “incense–/ most comforting/ the saddest hymns” and “gray ice–/ slipping and giggling/ two college girls” are just two examples. “Topaz” concludes with “floating in the haze/ snowy mountains/ dreams of escape.” Apart from reading like a list, the imagery is just too repetitive: haze, snowy, dreams. There’s no contrast or juxtaposition that the reader’s imagination can respond to.
In contrast, the haiku that closes “Reasons” works competently with the prose, creates a satisfying link and shift and invites question. And isn’t that the kind of response we want from our readers? Active involvement, not passive audience? The haibun deserves being reprinted in full.
I don’t drink tea, but because she once held the tarnished brass teapot in her hands, I want to hold it in mine, up to the light. And because the last time we made love—both of us knowing it was the last time—she said: I want to keep you there forever.
how we know
the darkness from the darkness
My first read through the collection was as a reader, not a reviewer. I wanted to let the pieces speak to me, either prose or haiku, or both, and mark those that did. There were only eight haibun out of thirty that prompted me to make a mark. But I’m pleased that the title haibun, “Ripples,” fell into that category. The prose is more innovative: it uses the third person, past tense. It moves from dreamscapes to harsh reality. But again it is let down by a weak haiku: “fog/ ghostly city/ her coat neatly folded.”
I tried not to let a personal bugbear, but one a lot of editors rail about, affect my overall response to the collection. Fancy fonts. The prose is in a standard font but the haiku have been printed in a sharp annoying, unusual one. Any effects we want our writing to achieve should be created in the language itself, not in decorating the page.
I want to like ripples more than I do because of those few haibun that did have an impact on me. But I close the book with the impression that the potential of the content hasn’t been fully realised. Too often I found myself asking, what was that about? Or, what relevance does that detail have to the theme? These aren’t the kinds of questions we want to leave a reader with.