St. Louis, MO, USA
On Colin Stewart Jones' Bashō Has Left the Building
Bashō Has Left the Building by Colin Stewart Jones. Gean Tree Press, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2012. ISBN 978-162314957-4
Scottish poet, Colin Stewart Jones, has written a book, Bashō Has Left the Building, of intimate disclosure, yet one accompanied by an objective regard for the dangers inherent in such candor. It is also a book that reveals the power of what contemporary haibun, tanka prose and haiga can be in the hands of a skilled poet. Jones' work makes clear how critical to success is the dictum of the exact word in juxtaposition to others of the same precision. It is the implementation of this understanding that elevates haibun, tanka prose and haiga from the level of description, anecdote and confession, to that of art.
In a book comprised of mostly personal content and revelation, the first haibun, "A Priori," demonstrates the poet's versatility and, by extension, of poetry and its various functions in the world.
A poem that includes current events among its catalysts is always fraught with risk.
. . . Now as I look across the Euphrates I see my cousin and must hate him because he is descended from Ishmael and I don't care for his religion . . .
Too often these events become an exploitative vehicle for partisanship or gratuitous drama. Jones avoids both because his motivation is ahistorical and exemplary rather than didactic or political. The narrative ends with a bold declaration of vocation:
"I am Poet . . ."
the "I" here standing for more than the author of one particular poem. The concluding haiku is nothing short of a skillfully timed, poetically visceral blow.
The longest piece in the book, "Take the Weather," is a combined haibun/tanka prose that gives voice to a hyper-manic episode of mental illness resulting in hospitalization. The relative incoherence of its narrative, coupled with a strange and unnerving internal logic, makes for harrowing reading:
. . . I have the first, right, running, blowing, slower, I think, right it is, not that bad, not too bad, the same, over and over, leave, not many have heard, where are they now, commemorate, celebrate memory, play it by ear, excited now, suppose, ping, pong . . .
The rant ends abruptly giving way to an unexpectedly lucid and observant haiku:
Then, just as abruptly, the frenetic monologue resumes with all its former delusional velocity:
. . . together in chains, caring, mind at rest, easy, in the vice, won't feel a thing, sure, a few minor modifications, rope, this is new, green, chew through it all, better, more appropriate, still fire, rocks, struggle, listen, icy wind, take in some air, breath . . .
I see a fly on the wall
scratch its head
It is this artful handling of sensitive material juxtaposed to powerful caesura that makes "Take the Weather" so compelling. The skilled hand of the poet remains almost invisible throughout, its deft pauses cutting into the narrative, restoring a temporary equilibrium that mirrors the effect of the sedatives administered.
Several pieces in the book, including the above, showcase another of Jones' gifts as expressed through illustration, painting, collage and graphic art. Many of these works incorporate text in the fashion of traditional haiga, while others stand alone as concrete or contemporary visual poems ("vispo"), representative complements to the text with a poetic integrity all their own. Jones' attempts to extend the ideas and parameters of haiga are a contribution to current discussions surrounding English haiga and its evolution in the early years of the 21st century.
Bashō Has Left the Building flows with a raw humanity as it touches upon the experiences of lost innocence, impossible loves, poverty, and mental illness. Its haibun and tanka prose are laden with the sights and smells of sea, soil, and the human body. A restrained lyricism pervades the collection, a lyricism always in service to the seemingly quotidian. With its acceptance of hardship, an uncooperative land, and the vagaries of the human heart, song rises from a stark realism free of affectation or sentimentality:
. . . I look at things much more closely now. Yet, still the yearning for the four-year-old who saw further.
in a jar
("Where is Your Sting?")
Jones' vision is one of transformative imagination, aware that how one sees can be as important as what one sees. Nevertheless, this imaginative way of scouting-out possibility is never permitted to devolve into a denial of present realities:
. . . the old school of both our mothers demolished, gesturing protection. Choices made simpler – playthings – not stumbling blocks.
the yellow broom
casts a shadow
It would be misleading to depict Bashō Has Left the Building as a volume of unrelieved misery. Underscoring its terrors and suffering is an often self-deprecatory, ironic sense of humor—every crisis be damned! It is humor which refuses to over-simplify matters by taking them too seriously. There are truly funny moments of sudden awareness tempered by a wry tenderness toward self, others, and even the awareness achieved:
A bird starts singing. Somewhere over in the bushes. A chaffinch maybe. Ha! As if I could tell . . . .
my sexy dream girl
roughs my hair
My wreaths and bouquets are simply wind-blown sweet wrappers and crisp packets caught in the weld-mesh fence
For the rest of the journey I curse myself for always thinking the worst . . . I exchange smiles with the baby boy and look up to his scowling mother who pulls the pram closer as I pass.
so many scenarios
yet to play
Colin Stewart Jones is a poet with an identifiable voice expressive of something new slowly entering into short-form English poetry. Seemingly incapable of being boring, it will be interesting to follow the trajectory that his art takes as he continues to hone his craft, explore his complex vision, and challenge the status quo that remains an ever-present threat to every genre. For now, with such a poet in our midst, it seems we needn't be overly concerned.