Brisbane, New South Wales, Australia
On Finding Hope
Travelling home on the bus, I overheard a young man in his late teens talking to a girl of similar age. “I want to get a block of land and build a house on it with solar cells on the roof and I'll have water tanks with filters, and I'll build a shelter, you know what I mean, a shelter with walls of steel twenty inches thick. . .”
I eavesdropped and scribbled notes, and realised that he, in a backhanded way, was talking about hope. At least, I read it that way, and having read it that way a contrariness in the nature of hope announced itself. Unlike the 60s mopiness of Paul Simon, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me; I am shielded in my armour, hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no touches me,” this young man expressed a need to protect himself with very physical rather than literary fortifications.
What he truly was expounding was his fragility, his vulnerability. What he had not spelt out was the need to have someone with him inside that high fence with the razor wire. How did his plea sound to the young lady? How did she unpack what he said?
I let my thoughts travel with his words for luggage, and they journeyed back forty years to Paavo Haavikko's poem “Winter Palace.” The poem talks through the many voices of self, a poem weighing up, with that feather weight the heart, the terrors of all sizes casually told around us. One of Haavikko's voices, a woman, might have been replying to this young man.
Scene Four, she said:
How do I know what is a dream
And where does the shoulder end, the breast begin?
Make me this poem, make it warm enough for winter,
Make it cheap to live in, with closets for things
And a room for the soul,
And I will inhabit this line for a long time,
In a poem that does not shed its leaves,
That is a voice I can live in, a house.
They both wanted to live in a house called HOPE. But for the young man, in a world sixty years after Haavikko's writing, hope looked more difficult to secure.
And I want to build a fence around it. Not an ordinary fence. A high fence with words spiraled around the top. Words sharp as razor wire.
At this point another voice entered into dialogue with me, words ascribed to Martin Luther came to comment on the poem. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.” What did this mean in terms of the haibun/tanka prose piece I was constructing?
The scene from outside the young man's fenced in domain was a haunted reply, an intimation that hopes need to be reframed. The crow, that chorister of the gibbet, herald of death, calls for our attention to a ruination in progress.
at the bulldozed edge
crows in ragged gyres
herald a new day
My reading of the echoing possibilities intimates the necessity of certain literal and non-literal courses of action, “I would still plant an apple tree today.” Though this piece of tanka prose might not be a full first aid kit, hopefully it is a case against the argument that poetry changes nothing. Quite simply, like all literature, poetry has us think thoughts we would not otherwise have had, and that allows us to act in new ways.
At the very least, I hope this throws light on a less linear, a less literal way of constructing haibun or tanka prose, and more hopefully it will be a domino rattling out further interesting sequences of notions and actions.
Author’s Note: "Winter Palace"
from Paavo Haavikko, Selected Poems—Edited and translated from the Finnish by Anselm Hollo (Cape Goliard, 1968).