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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 3, September 2013

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Bob Lucky
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


On Ed Markowski’s Americana

Markowski, Ed. Americana. Aberdeen, Scotland: Gean Tree Press, 2013.

There is a trend in some haiku circles to withhold the name of the poet and let the work stand on its own. Roadrunner has done this. The new journal Bones is taking this approach. It makes sense to me, though I don’t really care for it because I find myself playing “guess who wrote this?” I’m a good guesser, but I’m not perfect. However, when it comes to haibun, it would be almost impossible not to spot an Ed Markowski haibun. There are haibun writers whose subjects and styles are identifiable in the first line or two. Steven Carter and Pat Prime mine their memories, as do many haibun writers. Chen-ou Liu and Nu Quang explore lives in translation and transition. Some, such as Stanley Pelter and Gary LeBel, have carved out niches and claimed them. I can spot Markowski’s work a smile away.

In the forward to Americana, Markowski’s recent collection of haibun, Don Wentworth makes some fantastical claims for Markowski’s work taking “both haiku and haibun to unexpected regions on the Map Lyrical,” (8) and the poet having to invent a new form to get there. In all fairness, Wentworth allows that Markowski may have reinvented an old form (8), but I would argue Markowski ran into Bashō on the road a long time ago and killed him. What in fact Markowski is doing is keeping the Beat, so to speak. Wentworth’s forward—an extended road-trip analogy—does everything in style and allusion to point this out except mention it. And this book is a road trip through a place and a time. It’s a mind trip in every sense of that phrase. Kerouac’s ghost is palpable. Brautigan, another carrier of the flame, casts a flickering shadow. I dare anyone (of a certain generation) to read “from detroit to kyoto” (47) and not immediately think of Brautigan’s June 30th, June 30th (which, oddly and erroneously enough, is described as a book in “the Japanese tradition of haibun, a collection of haiku gathered into a story line,” on BRAUTIGAN.net).

Wentworth’s forward brings up another issue by ignoring it. Outside of the Japanese-inspired world of short form poetry—haiku, tanka, and haibun—there are so-called mainstream poets writing haibun—in An Introduction to the Prose Poem, Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham categorize such poems as hybrid prose poems—and have been doing so for some time, though intermittently. Robert Hass, James Merrill, and John Ashbery come to mind, as do younger poets such as Eugene Gloria and Laura Kasischke. Occasionally, these poets will identify the form in the title, as Ashbery does with his “Haibun 6,” much as Ralph Waldo Emerson titled his poem “Woods, a Prose Sonnet,” so that readers will ‘get’ it. This is the crux of a small dilemma in the poetry world, at least in the corner that we haibun writers gather. Much of the prose plus ‘haiku’ being published outside of the haibun-knowledgeable world is not considered haibun, primarily because the ‘haiku’ are often not haiku or are linked to the prose in ways deemed unacceptable; and much of what is considered haibun doesn’t or can’t get published in mainstream poetry journals. There exists an aesthetic dissonance that seems impossible to resolve.

Markowski could be a bridge between the two (or more, possibly) ‘haibun’ aesthetics, between the two somewhat divergent English-language traditions—the hybrid prose poem and the Basho-beholden haibun that the readers of this and other Japanese short-form journals read and write. This is especially true of his work that combines verse (free and form) with haiku or tanka. Wentworth is carried away by Markowski’s “pedal-to-the-metal prose” (9) and makes no mention of the fact that many of Markowski’s haiku are hitching a ride on free verse poems and blues-y ballads. As a poet, Markowski is fond of anaphora, a rhetorical flourish that gives many of these haibun a turbo-propelled rhythm, the haibun picking up speed before finding release in the closing haiku or tanka. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see haibun such as “Connecting the Doubts” (39) and “Candy Man” (50) as modeled on the orgasm. Some of his pieces can be that breathless. The form poetry haibun in this collection tend toward rhyming quatrains and often are like narrative ballads, the long haibun “Virtue” (60-65) and “Fare Thee Well” (18) being good examples.

It’s not difficult to imagine Markowski driving around and singing some of these haibun over and over, improvising and tweaking, polishing his hurt and regret and longing until they shine, long before he stops to write anything down. Americana is a blues song, and one that cleverly reveals the heart of America as its underbelly. Sandwiched between the opening “Commencement Ceremony” (11) and the closing eulogy “Bothers and Sisters” (77) is a tour through the spiritual miasma of the USA, alcoholism, infidelity, the lingering trauma of the Vietnam War, diners and bars, economic recession and depression. Along the way, the poet/speaker is occasionally accompanied by his foil Laurie—sometime sidekick, lover, wife. But like the blues, there’s often a guilty pleasure to be found here, a pleasure in wallowing in one’s misery. And a sense of humor. Markowski has captured that peculiar American Panglossian nationalism: our broken dream is the best one possible.

There are many reasons to read this collection besides the fuel-injected prose and the hybrid prose poems that expand our understanding of haibun. Markowski writes some wonderful haiku and senryu, for example:

Meditation Hall
Every Monk Is
Nothing In Disguise (33)

Nude Beach
Every piece of driftwood
Worn Smooth (16)

State Of The Union
We Work Through A Bag
Of Stale Potato Chips (20)

SALVATION ARMY STORE
ON THE CLEARANCE TABLE
SOME OLD SOLDIER’S PURPLE HEART (67)

These examples bring up one quibble—the use of capitals. There are a couple of haibun that are completely in capitals. I’m sure it was done for some reason, but the logic is beyond my ken. But having said that, I still can’t recommend this book enough, and since, courtesy of the author and Colin Stewart Jones of Gean Tree Press, it’s free to download, there’s really no reason not to start reading now. These are haibun that are a joy to read, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, often both.


Works Cited

BRAUTIGAN.net. 22 May 2013.

Clements, Brian and Jamey Dunham, editors. An Introduction to the Prose Poem. Newtown, CT: Firewheel Editions, 2009. Print.

Markowski, Ed. Americana. Aberdeen, Scotland: Gean Tree Press, 2013.

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