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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 2, June 2013

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Chen-ou Liu
Ajax, Ontario, Canada


On Beverly Acuff Momoi's Lifting the Towhee’s Song

Lifting the Towhee’s Song by Beverly Acuff Momoi. Snapshot Press, 2012. eChapbook, 26 pp. Free and available online at http://goo.gl/3Ijy7

The thing that is truly superior and extremely rare in poetry is not the fine line, or even the percentage of fine lines which people think they can point to in a work and deliberately single out from the whole; it is, in my opinion, the composition of that whole, by which I do not at all mean the logical sequence and abstract hierarchy of ideas, but the composition which ordains the succession of forms, images, tones, rhythms, and sonorities, and which alone makes of the poem a unity that is indivisible . . .

—Paul Valéry

Beverly Acuff Momoi’s Lifting the Towhee’s Song, a 2011 Snapshot Press eChapbook Award winner, is a collection of 19 haibun “written in the weeks after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan . . . . The chapbook began two weeks after the initial disaster, moving between California and Fukushima, what [she] heard on the news and what [she] learned from [her] family.”1

The thematic threads that run though much of the chapbook are the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and their after-effects, emotional, familial, communal, environmental, and socioeconomic, such as “Mornings I sit. Buddhism teaches non-attachment, but I am terrified. I close my eyes, and with each breath, waves slam against the harbor . . . . Since the earthquake, 10,418 people are dead. The number of victims is expected to grow. The meteorological agency has issued warnings for a severe drop in temperature . . . . Sometimes he waits eight hours for a quarter-tank of gas but he does not dare let it drop to empty. He does not know where, or if, another station will be open . . . . she became hysterical, throwing herself against her mother and crying, ‘I can’t stand this! I can’t! I can’t!’ She recalls my grandmother looking straight into her eyes and saying, “Yes, you can. You can stand it. You will . . . . Every night now I fall asleep with the television on. Sometimes it seems my husband does not sleep at all . . . . Four weeks after the quake, and there is no running water in the shelter . . . .The man shakes his head. He was in Kobe in ’95. Helped in the recovery after the Great Sichuan Earthquake in 2008. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ . . . . Does grieving ever end? For weeks, people in northeast Japan wander among the wreckage of their lives, looking for family and friends, praying to find their bodies . . . .” Thematically speaking, each haibun in the chapbook not only works on its own, but also can be read as a juxtaposed haibun to the 19-haibun sequence through the “content link.”2

However, these 19 haibun vary little in structure, corresponding relationships of prose to haiku, and style. All the haiku, except the two in the title haibun, are solitary and used as the closing verses. Eight haibun consist of one paragraph and one haiku, and another eight two paragraphs (usually one long and one very short) and one haiku. Structurally speaking, most of the haibun in the chapbook function like the basic unit of standard haibun as described in Jeffrey Woodward's “Form in Haibun: An Outline”: the prefatory prose, “a vignette that focuses upon detail carefully chosen for its significance to the motif and a closing haiku’s sensory perceptions compared with or contrasted to the imagery of the preceding paragraph.”3

The prefatory prose is written mainly in the two styles, emotionally evocative and journalistic, which are exemplified in the first two haibun:

March 26, 2011

Mornings I sit. Buddhism teaches non-attachment, but I am terrified. I close my eyes, and with each breath, waves slam against the harbor. In . . . and out. Homes, now kindling. Family cars in Tonka toy pile-ups. In. And out. And with this breath. People scrambling, leaving all but life itself. Again. In. Out. How do I let them go? A woman sitting, palms joined. No words. Just the ocean. And this moment. In. Out.

Earth Hour—
it’s lights out, just the stars
what’s left of the moon

Snow Country

The interpreter’s voice is tight. Her words stumble, start over sharp intakes of breath. The water in reactor number 2 is extremely high—ten million times higher—in radioactive substances. The source of the leakage has not been determined. About the workers who stood in irradiated water in reactor number 3, the degree of injury may not be known for several weeks. The government has criticized the utility for improper management.

Since the earthquake, 10,418 people are dead. The number of victims is expected to grow. The meteorological agency has issued warnings for a severe drop in temperature. High winds, rough seas are also likely. People are advised to take care.

not a cherry blossom in sight
spring arrives late
in snow country

The obvious weakness in these two haibun is that the closing haiku are not strong enough to cap the prose and function as the culminating point of the composition. It’s because in the first haiku, “it’s lights out” is implied in its preceding line (“Earth Hour”) while in the second one, lines 2 and 3 are explanatory. Like the first two haiku in the chapbook, most of the rest cannot properly fulfill their functional role mainly due to the overuse of figurative language and the weak cutting effects created by the juxtaposed images in the haiku,4 such as the following:

full moon maple
struggling to bloom
March flurries

(in "Waiting for Gas")

shadow of spring—
how hungry the waves are
reclaiming the land

(in "Asleep")

this precarious spring
see how the bamboo bends
bows

(in "How the Bamboo Bends")

against this
wide and sorrowful sky we are
all ashes and smoke

(in "All Ashes")

earthquake light
how does the tree survive
this spring

(in "Earthquake Light")

This weakness reminds me of Woodward's insightful advice in his above-mentioned article: “This form, while well-adapted for the abbreviated anecdote or descriptive sketch, may find its efficacy called into question with the introduction of greater expository or narrative complications. One concluding haiku will rarely balance well with a story that employs multiple characters and requires hundreds of words for the telling.”5

However, the poet pays little attention to the functional roles played by a poem’s title. The titles of these 19 haibun, except that of the opener, are taken directly from their prose or haiku. All of them are not fully utilized. For example, in the following three short haibun, I don’t see any thing beneficial by using titles that are the lines taken from their poem texts.

Savage Spring

In California, the poppies are brilliant this year. I have been so lost in grief, then suddenly this wild swath of life. I see them as if for the first time, golden faces turned to the heavens.

savage spring
a single mud-stained photograph
of her three-year-old

How the Bamboo Bends

April 11, 2011. 02:46 p.m. Throughout Japan, sirens. Then silence. How to endure this endless grief.

this precarious spring
see how the bamboo bends
bows

Golden Week

It’s the start of Golden Week in Japan, and all the trains are crowded. My husband waits in line for over an hour to get a ticket on the Shinkansen. Everyone is going home.

last day of April
returning to Fukushima
for the funeral

In the poems above, every line could have been fully utilized to increase the impact of a poem. Below are two fine examples by Charles Simic and Joseph Stroud respectively that can help make my point:

Slaughterhouse Flies

Evenings, they ran their bloody feet
Over the pages of my schoolbooks.
With eyes closed, I can still hear
The trees on our street
Saying a moody farewell to summer,

And someone, under our window, recalling
The silly old cows hesitating,
Growing suddenly suspicious
Just as the blade drops down on them.

Without the first word in the title, this image-dense poem could be easily misunderstood as a flight of poetic fantasy. Simic’s title helps the reader to figure out the context and setting, making the opening image visually and psychologically more appealing.

And I raised my hand in return

Every morning for two weeks on my walk into the village
I would see the young goat on the grassy slope above the stream.
It belonged to the Gypsies who lived in the plaza below the castle.
One day on my walk back to the mill house I saw the little goat
hanging from a tree by its hind legs, and a Gypsy was pulling
the skin off with a pair of pliers which he waved to me in greeting.

Stroud's skillful use of the title as the speaker's response to the events portrayed in the poem is emotionally effective, and his title can be read as the conclusion of the poem, and is therefore part of the poem itself.

In this collection of 19 haibun there are five titles repeating the words or phrases in the opening sentence, such as "Waiting for Gas," from "I sit in a queue two-cars deep, waiting for gas"; "Shudders’" from "My mother shudders at the first whisper of wind"; "Shigata Ga Nai," from "Shigata ga nai"; "Asleep’" from "Every night now I fall asleep with the television on"; "Golden Week," from "It’s the start of Golden Week in Japan, and all the trains are crowded." This shows that the poet doesn’t recognize the corresponding relationship of the title to its haibun. Take “Shigata Ga Nai,” for example. The use of a run-on title can increase the thematic and emotive impact of this repeated phase at the end of the prose.

Most importantly, paying little attention to the functional roles that can be played by a poem’s title is not an individual, but a communal problem. It’s not uncommon in prominent haiku/tanka-related journals to read a haiku/tanka sequence (of nine to 25 lines) or a short haibun whose title is taken directly from a line of its poem text. Now, I think it is time for the haiku/tanka community to think about the creative use6 of the title in a poem in order to increase its thematic and emotive impact.

Finally, there are a few words I would like to say about Beverly Acuff Momoi’s Lifting the Towhee’s Song. It is a material-rich, theme-heavy, artistically-unbalanced collection of haibun with least-utilized titles. If Momoi can take more time enhancing her haiku, rethinking about the corresponding relationships of prose to haiku, and effectively utilizing the titles in the book, I think Lifting the Towhee’s Song will be a good book to read and reflect upon.


Notes

1. Momoi, Beverly Acuff, Lifting the Towhee's Song, Haibun eChapbook, accessed at http://goo.gl/gIkxf

2. In a “content link,” the added verse is joined to the previous verse by cause and effect, narrative development, scenic extension, temporal progression, or any other logic connection based on “content” (kokoro). See Shirane, Haruo, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho (Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 87.

3. Haibun Today 4:4, December 2010, accessed at http://goo.gl/yzBZM

4. For further discussion on the issue related to cutting effects, see my “To the Lighthouse” posts, “Cutting through Time and Space” and “Re-examining the Concept and Practice of Cutting,” which can be accessed at http://goo.gl/gh2sM and http://goo.gl/yikEE respectively.

5. Woodward, ibid.

6. One of the most skillfully utilized titles I've known of is Ginsberg's "Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams." The form of this brilliantly-crafted poem, line breaks, and sentiments are his response to and elaboration of Williams's "The Locust Tree in Flower." In his allusive title, Ginsberg acknowledges dual authorship and presents his poem as a tribute to his friend and mentor, W. C. Williams (Herbert Kohl, A Grain of Poetry, pp. 54-7). For further discussion on this neglected issue and more examples, please see my “To the Lighthouse” post, entitled “The Title of a Poem Should Never Be Ignored,” which can be accessed at http://goo.gl/8Vuhx

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