Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand
On Steven Carter’s Interiors and The Distances
Interiors by Steven Carter. Alba Publishing, Uxbridge. UK. www.albapublishing.com (2012) Pb. 120 pp. ISBN 978-0-9572592-5-6. Price: US$16.00/UK£12.00/ €15.00.
The Distances by Steven Carter. Alba Publishing, Uxbridge, UK. www.albapublishing.com (2013) Pb. 96 pp. ISBN 978-0-9572592-7-0. US$16.00 / UK £12.00 /€15.
These two collections remind us of the diversity in the writing of haibun. The poems vary in perspective, technique, assumed knowledge, and raise the question of what it means to be a haibun writer.
Steven Carter is a lyrical and thoughtful writer. His long career as teacher, traveler and poet spans a reading life which encompasses the notion of the literary canon from the standpoint of the dead white male and his haibun have a name-check of Virgil, Donne, Descartes, Kafka, Baudelaire, among many more. One has the notion that Carter’s collections have been a while in the making, that they are both a cultural retrospective and a reverie about familiar places and the experiences of a younger life.
As the title suggests and the cover emphasizes, Steven Carter’s collection of haibun, Interiors, comprises variations on the theme of his lakeside home beside Swan Lake. In the hundred and twenty pages, divided into three books—“Nettles,” “Invisible Rivers” and “Interiors”—we discover a real variation and pace. There is much pleasure in Carter’s evocation of the here-and-now, the inconsequential and personal observations rubbing up against the issues and ethics of contemporary life, as we see in the first haibun, “May 31,” with its reference to “the President’s Memorial Day address”:
Numbness . . . From the TV upstairs, faint words of the President’s Memorial Day address: “. . . Sacrifice . . . Sacrifice . . .”
In Book I, “Nettles,” Carter favours an open format for many of his haibun: a passage of prose followed by a staggered haiku. “Mission Ridge—Dusting of Snow” is a fine example, close enough to Carter’s usual style to assume that it’s familiar to his readers. The last paragraph and haiku are as follows:
Thinking for the zillionth time of my father’s death at 38, an uninspired yet cheerful notion: Yes, yes, you can’t step twice in the same river; you can’t drown twice in it either.
in my glass of Merlot
drunken day moon
“Reprise 1” is a lengthier haibun ending with two haiku in which Carter writes about the beauty of Swan Lake and its surrounding mountains, a recurring subject which naturally offers variability:
For the first time in many days the dawn sky is bereft of fog and clouds, even light mist. Bereft! Such a highfalutin word . . . . So terrible in connotation yet beautiful-sounding, why does it ring chimes in my sensibility?
In Book II, “Invisible Rivers,” there are some scenes a writer might not seek to re-enter. For instance, in “October 1” the poet’s wife asks her elderly father whether he would prefer cremation or burial. Dreams occupy many of Carter’s haibun and in “Two Dreams” Carter slips into the shadowy territory of recalling one’s dreams. The first poem tells of “beautiful Chinese girls naked from the waist up” and the second haibun focusses on “Giant insects crawling up the perpendicular faces of skyscrapers.” The subjects triggered by the unconscious hint at risk or danger perhaps related to traumatic events experienced in childhood. “Lake Wind Advisory” is presented in a slightly different form as it includes a poem by Baudelaire. Carter deals delicately, intelligently with his material ostensibly about fish but also relating to solitude, poetry and the difference between masculine and feminine thought:
Sturgeon and trout hitch rides up the current of Swan Lake’s invisible river which dumps tons of cold water into much-larger Flathead.
As Melville’s ghost would be the first to tell you, fish are the masculine thoughts of the lake; osprey, eagles, herons, and Canadian geese the feminine thoughts of the air.
What gender is human solitude? Excuse me? Baudelaire had the answer of that one . . .
Book III, “Interiors,” opens with the short haibun “Lublin, Poland”. Here Carter returns to time he spent in Poland as a Fulbright scholar. In the poem he writes about his thoughts of a “beautiful dark-haired Eastern European girl” who asks him “’Why are you so rare?’” In “Claustrophobia” we glimpse the “purple echoes of love poems bouncing off stalagmites—you know: the ones that point upwards, to heaven.” “L-shaped Room” takes the reader back to a memory of Poland, where Carter dreams of the Greek islands. The brilliant surroundings of Greece are registered in bursts of sensuality registered on the page in short paragraphs followed by a haiku. This is the last paragraph and haiku of the haibun:
If there’s an afterlife, will it too be haunted by memories of words,
loves—grey dawns east of Delos? It’s pretty clear that my brain, as Baudelaire would’ve said, has become, at least for now, a witch’s mirror.
candles and shadows
All Soul’s Eve
The open and informal shape of the poems is like a puzzle where pieces of information are processed and placed in that staccato way in which things occur in recall, especially recollection at a distance of many years. In “True West” the poet writes:
“Are you happy?”—the least meaningful of all questions: an insult, in fact, to those who aren’t happy. At best the questioner will get a kind of sullen satisfaction, no matter what the response—envy and resentment at “Yes,” superiority, even smugness, at “No.”
How far Carter succeeds in fulfilling the promise of his haibun is for each reader to decide. We need to bear in mind that the role of the reader can be a critical part in the reading of haibun and for the way in which each poem affects us. Many of the haibun in this collection give one food for thought. They are action-packed vignettes that bring life to existence and its adventures. It is the right sized collection to browse through or to read at one sitting, entertaining in its episodic pageants, rich in colour, evocative of place, time and character. I would recommend the book for its attention to detail, kaleidoscopic imagery, animation and lightness.
Similar in size and format to Interiors, many of the haibun in The Distances also focus on the poet’s memories, the beauty of Swan Lake and the riddle of life’s experiences. This collection is likewise divided into three sections: “The Purple Hour,” “All Lost Things” and “The Distances.”
The first section, “The Purple Hour,” consists of 28 pieces. Some, like “Mission Ridge” (“Slate-gray, the lake seems painted like Coleridge’s ocean”) and “Empty Sky” (“So an alternate Swan Lake with its green-pebbled east shore”), are short, dense poems, concentrations of flavor and meaning waiting to be released by the reader. There is here an acceptance that time is fleeting and that the poet needs to record as much as possible while he still has time. Take the haibun, “Falling Barometer”, for instance, which reminds us that we are all bound for decay and oblivion, as the poet watches as the ashes of the previous owner of his home are consigned to the lake.
Without a tear being shed, she sprinkles Dick’s ashes to mingle with the trout and northern pike, lost dark glasses, flip-flops, green pebbles, and an old water heater someone—was it Dick himself?—dumped in the lake years ago.
But life has its epiphanies before it turns to dust, as many of the haibun attest. Some of the poems are lyrical pieces about Carter’s lakeside home, such as “May 7: 6.35 a.m.”:
Swan’s beauty strikes me as preternaturally bland: the Artist getting bored with the same trees, hills, clouds (and clouds gone AWOL), osprey pasted to the sky as though the world had stopped breathing.
One can only imagine the poet’s tongue in cheek as he composes this idyllic scene.
Memory is strong in many of these poems. In “7/11/2012,” for example, the poet, while giving a eulogy at his father-in-law’s funeral, recalls
. . . memories of Berkeley where I went to college, 1961-1966. The last two years I was frozen inside due to witnessing my mother’s death in ’65, which I couldn’t write about until fairly recently.
Then a memory-flash of my father-in-law. Once I asked him, “So, Bob, what’s your idea of heaven?” “this isn’t it,” was his prompt reply.
Carter continues with reminiscences about dreams, of an eight year old girl in Saratoga, of pretty girls in Poland, and much more. There are other remembered occasions too, such as the gently elegiac “Two Hundred Strokes”:
A few hours after this rebirth, Ann was dead. Her encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”—as opposed to the myriad imposters she’d paraded in front of roommates and friends—had created a different woman.
rain on creosote brush
Elsewhere, we find vibrant, restless haibun in which the poet is unafraid of life, death or strong personal feelings. These haibun inhabit subjectivities other than that of the poet; they are micro-fictions tersely fashioned to suggest meaning beyond their margins.
The second section, “All Lost Things,” is more particular and perhaps more problematic. These are poems that refer to retirement, a foster home, Poland, the Majdanek concentration camp, the desert, and more. Carter crisply and powerfully captures the places, the events, the frame of mind and the words of people with whom he comes in contact. Carter’s poems about the concentration camps are particularly heart-rending. Here, the first paragraph from “Zamek Castle”:
From a nearby hill, the Majdanek concentration camp, where 200,000 died, is masked by trees, but 70 years ago, I’d have seen the camp buildings, fences and dark smoke from the chimneys. The castle itself was briefly used as a prison by the Germans, who shot as many inmates as they could when news of the Allies’ advance arrived.
But all is not so serious in this section. “North of Sonora” presents a delightful picture of the desert:
If the desert night were a poem, it would be a haiku—larger than the sum of its fragrances, sounds, flicks of a rattlesnake’s tongue, moon-shadows.
As well as being strikingly original, the poem captures the intimacy of the scene.
“Ships” is an evocation of young women Carter has been attracted to over the years. Perhaps my favourite haibun in this section is “Above Mill Valley,” a story that focuses on the 8 year-old Carter getting lost on a day’s hike to Mt. Tamalpais. It may not be profound, but there are few poets who are his equal at drawing humour and poignancy from a childhood situation.
The final section, “The Distances,” consists of eight haibun. The longest, “A.S.P.”, describes the inmates of the prison where Carter taught for some time. It is a study in contrasting personalities and connections. Perhaps it looms too large in a volume of shorter haibun and raises questions about the economy of other pieces and overshadows the splendid composition, divided into five sections—“Fever-Dreams: 1-4 a.m.” I quote from the opening paragraph of section 1:
Like Ingmar Bergman’s medieval knight, I’m sitting at a table on a rocky seashore playing chess with Death. Not such a great idea since I don’t know how to play chess.
These haibun are, like those in the first collection, intricate, curious and captivating. Both these collections are about the different sensibilities we bring to experiences, dreams and perceptions. About different ways of seeing and describing what is seen:
no one visits
A striking image. The books are about the clarity, or otherwise, of observation, as we see in this quote from “Discovery in the Sky”:
Let astronomers have their fun, he knows what this is: a message, writ in hieroglyphics of light, sent from 21,ooo,000 light-years away in deep space, just to whisper something to us.
night-bird in the tree
As such there is a variety of subject matter and tone, ranging from the exotic to the vernacular, which Carter handles with ease. The haibun embrace such themes as travel, history, nature, family, love, among others; there is incident and anecdote, conversation and the ordinary ritual of life, so that we are invited to see the familiar in a new light, as in the haibun “Time Out”:
“This is the supreme folly: now is its hour!”
Thus: Thomas Beckett, spoken to the middle distance in his darkening cathedral, just above the heads of Henry II’s barons about to slice and dice him.
Carter sometimes uses nature as a vehicle to enter the more emotional, inner view of the world. There are recurring images of water, grass, wind, the sky; yet beneath the surface is a deeper intimacy that implies the reader as witness. There is much to admire in Carter’s haibun; they are poems that are confident, varied, and well-constructed, his controlled use of language and tone make these books lovely collections to read and return to. They give a fresh and moving perspective to familiar worlds, and leave a lasting impression.