King, North Carolina, U.S.A.
On Peter Butler's A Piece of Shrapnel
A Piece of Shrapnel by Peter Butler. Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK: Hub Editions, 2012. Paperback, 38 pp. ISBN 978-1-930746-96-7.
If T.S. Eliot wrote haibun, he may have done so like Peter Butler. A Piece of Shrapnel is Butler's first haibun collection, and a strong first outing at the form. The book is divided into three sections: "Taking in the Air," "Digging for the Past," and "Words with Bashō."
The first section, "Taking in the Air," begins with the poem "Wilde Night," which is about a night at an outdoor theatre performance of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Butler sets the scene in this poem very nicely (shades of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Preludes"):
The locals are better prepared with collapsible tables, canvas seating, scarves, flasks, sandwiches, wine, plastic cutlery.
Bad weather then sets in on the night, raining out the play.
The audience collects bundles, trudges through puddles up a darkening lane. Too wet to care we follow in search of a warm bar.
in the wind
A fitting end to a poem that feels as though our lives are always on stage, performing in some way or another and when they come to an end, only the things are still here.
Section one continues with several other solid haibun, including "Chicken and Egg," a kind of fable (think Mark Strand) that portrays a conversation between a God-fearing man and two Doubters:
'God created both the chicken and the egg,' announces the God-fearing man, inspecting his brood. 'But in what order?' the Doubter wonders. 'For that I shall pray for guidance,' the GFM says. 'What did Darwin say about it?' asks a second Doubter. 'He reached no conclusions,' says the GFM.
At which all three chorus: 'For sure, both are edible.'
In a thicket
the quick brown fox
And this brings to mind one of the true joys of the haibun form and how it is ever evolving from its origins of a journal-type theme to partly fiction and a mix in-between. Did this conversation that Butler writes about actually happen or was it simply made up based on a line or two he overheard and then applied the idea to form? Either way, it works and I would enjoy seeing more of its kind.
"The Hedge" is a haunting poem about a lady who is no longer married and now has become obsessive about her routine in keeping her hedge trimmed perfectly, something the husband used to do. This haibun begs attention to what we become in life to survive. How many people do we become in life? Do we change to survive?
There are a couple of lines in particular that stand out in section one more so than the poems themselves. The first comes from the beautiful and eerie "Van Gogh's Garden with Flowers" (which contains the painting on the page):
Everything is immediate, right in front of you. The path bisects banks of flowers. They demand your attention here and now. Do not circulate. Stay exactly where you are. This is a pathway not to be taken.
I am reminded of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Here, Butler does something very interesting, based on the painting, he instructs us what to do with a certain conviction, knowing that we are always in the garden of our lives, with paths this way and that, and where Frost tells us we have a choice on where we go and what we choose, Butler, with the help of Van Gogh of course, helps us out a little more by saying "This is a pathway not to be taken." As if it could lead to death or something worse—Hell, perhaps.
Another line that stands out comes from the poem "The Quiet Couple," which centers on domestic life:
But I don't know much about our neighbors.
This is such a simple, yet honest and powerful line, one that beckons to call, do we really know anyone? Can we even know ourselves? Which brings to mind the ancient tanka poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, which describes the human heart as being "unknowable."
Other poems worth mentioning from section one are "The House," "Absent without Leave," and "The Chair."
"Absent without Leave" follows a young couple, who leave everything behind but their love, simply floating through the day and the world, and this haibun flows very differently from the rest of the poems in the book, almost Pablo Neruda-like, and Butler probably could have forgone punctuation altogether to give it a bit more pure effect.
"The Chair" is a sad and heavy poem about a young married couple, making the best of their lives, while the husband is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheel chair:
They split a newspaper, she the family pages, he the sport. Occasionally he catches her expression as it strays from the radar, focusing on a void. Then he remembers how the terraces used to explode as he wrestled the ball over the line.
cheering him on
then the blackness
Section two, "Digging for the Past," begins with the book's title poem, "A Piece of Shrapnel." While this section is not as strong as "Taking in the Air," it contains, perhaps, the best poem of the book, "Instructing Mona Lisa," which I'll get to later. Meantime in "A Piece of Shrapnel," a very heartfelt poem, the author finds himself returning to his old neighborhood:
This is the blind bend where our goalie nearly got run over during kick-about . . . And the house opposite where a dog got killed. The bomb aimer missed the chimney, left the rubble sloping like a broken coat hanger. We hopscotched in brick dust. I pocketed a forbidden piece of shrapnel.
a strange quietness
parked in the street
There is striking imagery in this poem.
It's where a man came back from Dunkirk without his writing arm, another swallowed his teeth to dodge call-up, Alan the Cripple gave everyone a lop-sided grin and his mother never looked anyone in the eye. It's where we listened for Miss O'Cleary, with her Bible and tin leg, clattering the corner to straighten our surplices.
The poem ends with the line, "still fingering the piece of shrapnel grown smooth and friendlier through the years," which is a necessary way to complete the poem. Is Butler telling us that over time, our past becomes a little easier to bear? Possibly. Either way, we carry our past with us, and Butler literally keeps a piece of it with him.
The rest of section two falls a little short in being as memorable as section one, except for "Homecoming," "Mum and Dad at the Odeon," and "Instructing Mona Lisa."
In "Instructing Mona Lisa," the book's best poem, Butler freezes time past, present, and future in a remarkable, Frank Bidart-like way, going inside the mind of Da Vinci to reconstruct the scene of how the artist and the woman perhaps lived in the moment of developing one of the world's greatest paintings. It's easy to think about what the painting means, as it stands, but what about what went into making it, which Butler does in a totally original way:
Relax, Lisa. Not quite facing me, more a half-glance. Nails clean? Then hands on lap, right over left. As to expression, no laughing please without your teeth. Lips together.
Now imagine yourself in a post-coital situation—not with me, of course, nor necessarily your husband.
That is perfect, Lisa. Hold it if you can, several hundred years.
checking the time
to his next break
As for the third and final section, "Words with Bashō," I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It is simply a two page haibun of the author hanging out with Bashō and other "followers" as they have a conversation and offer different haiku versions of his famous frog poem. The poem borderlines on the absurd, and I am not a fan of this type of haibun. In fact, I think the book would serve better without it. And its title is just a bit silly—"Bashō's Batman"? Sorry, but this is just not for me.
Butler is at his best when sticking with memories of his real life, which I believe is at the heart of anyone's best work in the haibun form. Butler is a seasoned writer, after spending a long career as a journalist, editor, and feature writer in the book publishing industry. His prose is weightier than his haiku, but some of his haiku are excellent and when paired with his best prose, you get some of the best haibun being written today. His haibun is a pathway to be taken.