Mays Landing, New Jersey, USA
On Glenn G. Coats’ Snow on the Lake: Haibun & Haiku
Snow on the Lake: Haibun and Haiku by Glenn G. Coats. Prospect, VA: Pineola Publishing, 2013. Paperback, 90 pp. $12 USD, £7.71, €9.43. ISBN 978-0615799117.
In the postcard Glenn Coats sent me with his book, he says he hopes I will find New Jersey memories that have meaning for me in his work. He mentions having lived in Rahway, a town adjacent to Clark Township where I grew up. He also lived in South Plainfield where I found my first teaching job. And he mentions several other towns that I knew and still know well.
Since I, too, spent much of my childhood in rural and suburban New Jersey, I eagerly anticipated reading these haibun and haiku, and I was not disappointed. Coats’ clear and true descriptions of times and places gone by, his wonderful evocations of childhood memories of people he knew, neighborhoods that echo ones I remember, summers by the Atlantic Ocean—from the very first piece, these transported me back in time.
Each section of haibun in this collection closes with several pages of haiku that distill and relate to the themes in that section. Throughout the book, Coats continually does what his opening haiku affirms:
snow on the lake
memories I pull
from the deep.
In the first section, “Baptisms,” he poignantly reflects on his having moved from one New Jersey town to another:
one shirt holds the scent
of another home
too many hometowns
to claim one
He remembers the house at Ocean Gate, long summer days at the shore, children all sleeping on cots on the porch, or in sleeping bags; the whole family at the beach, playing pinball machines on the boardwalk. And his skilled use of similes and metaphors throughout invites us wholly into his recollected experiences—while at the same time creating resonant poetry.
But all was not entirely rosy in those long ago days. In the haibun “Water Marks,” he evokes an experience no longer common in suburban neighborhoods, with his haiku:
our breath in the spray
of mosquito trucks
I doubt that I thought of the dangers of inhaling mosquito spray in those days. Like inhaling second-hand smoke, I took such things for granted then, had no worries.
In the second section of haibun, “Night Brings Peace,” Coats takes us back and forth from the shore to rural, inland New Jersey: fishing in the river pre-dawn before school; secretly smoking with a friend while hiding in the tall grass of a field—until caught by their priest, Father Henry; sneaking with friends into a local dance bar; and driving drunk into a tree after drinking cream de cacoa cooled in the local creek. He was unconscious for some time after that accident, and afterward had dreams of “pieces of glass . . . breaking like waves again and again.”
Here and there we meet family, friends, and even an enemy. His great-grandfather is “the gentle man who paints songbirds on velvet.” And George Muglia, the quintessential class bully taunts and repeatedly pummels his shoulder in 7th grade. Who among us has not been bullied, especially in junior high? And though the memory had stayed with him, Coats uses it well:
At the end of that school year my family moved to another town and I never saw George Muglia again. His old man beat him and his clothes smelled like dirty laundry. These things I remember. He taught me a lesson. It isn’t that meanness carries from generation to generation; it’s that nothing is gained by keeping silent.
my shoulder predicts
The haibun “Harbor Lights,” describing a fishing trip with both Coats’ father and son, includes the haiku
I lift my eyes to see
where I am
which echoes what we must often do on our lifelong journey. And this haibun closes with a haiku that resonates with the riddle of our being here at all:
in buckets of air
Also, in the “Night Brings Peace” section, we become aware of Coat’s aging, people passing. Among that section’s closing haiku:
crunch of gravel—
in one of his last breaths
word of her passing
the few lines of a song
In the third section “Believers”, we move into Autumn: his bow and arrow hunting of doves; squirrel hunting with a neighbor’s shotgun (no guns allowed in his house); and the mystery surrounding the “Hugga Hugga Boy,” a strange boy down the street who never talks, but “jumps from puddle to puddle on his lawn.” Yet when Coats gets up close, he
[sees] his wet face and he is smiling from ear to ear,
we call the ice cream man
by his first name.
In the haibun “Music Circus,” the guitar playing singer’s “voice is the hum of loneliness.” And again we meet Coats’ father who squirms and fidgets throughout Mass, but compliments the Father on a fine sermon. In the haibun “The Pull of Current,” Coats captures the frustration of trying to find a simple and plain-spoken birthday card for his 84-year-old father (who thinks he is 85)—wishing he could find one that calls his father’s memory back to the memory of,
The night he left a boy alone in a tent and went off to find a hotel where his back would find a softer place to rest. That is when it happened. I am running out of chances to lay it to rest, a chance to give him back the peace I have hoarded all these years.
a taste of snow
in the river
Here, too, Coats evokes the loneliness of high school dances, being turned down by the girl he asks, then going alone and seeing her with another all evening (ah, the memories!).
And the haiku that close that section span the seasons, from,
the league of ones
that didn’t make it
In the final haibun section of this stunning collection, “Remains of Myself,” Coats focuses more and more on his grandsons and experiences with them: rescuing an abused dog from the animal shelter; sending a grandson off to primary school,
of rubber boots
and closing with a wonderful haibun, “The Snap of a Line,” which notes that his great-grandfather, father, grandsons, and he all love to fish, and that,
“Our fishing is all movement and we are like hammers that cannot stop ringing.” What a wonderful simile for the reverberations through four generations.
“The Snap of a Line” (and I can’t help thinking of a “family line) ends with:
The boys are beside the dock then on the dock, sitting, standing, leaning, always moving. It is inside them like dark hair, dark eyes—a need to move on, a restlessness, and they will never be anchored in one spot.
of wet wings
all of the autumns—
places where thoughts
come to rest
This haibun’s closing haiku echoes the one that opens the book. There are layers upon layers of memory in us all, and Coats beautifully invites us into his own with clear haibun and haiku that carry us back—and forward—into a life being well and thoroughly lived.