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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 4, December 2013

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Bob Lucky
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


On Lynne Rees’s Forgiving the Rain

Forgiving the Rain by Lynne Rees. Ormskirk, UK: Snapshot Press, 2012. Paperback. 64 pp. £8.99. ISBN: 978-1-903543-35-1.

Lynne Rees is well known to many as a haiku poet and editor, and perhaps as the head cook and food writer at her website the hungry writer. However, her writing extends beyond that to include a novel, a work of collaborative prose, a collection of poetry, the recently released travel-guide/memoir Real Port Talbot, and this collection of haibun.

I once did a fair bit of food writing, but it wasn’t until I began to review this book that I made a connection between food writing and haibun. Food is often about memory and writing about food is often memoir (or at least memoir-like). Similarly, haibun is a form of writing that lends itself to memoir. One is capped with a recipe, the other with a haiku. Forgiving the Rain, a collection of haibun, takes this one step further and creates an autobiography in haibun. The first haibun begins with memories of the author’s early childhood and the final haibun takes us more or less to the present with an image of her mother bringing her a bowl of soup. There’s a lifetime in between.

This is one of the most thematically focused collections of poetry I’ve read in a while. If one didn’t know that many of these haibun and haiku were previously published, the assumption would be that the book was conceived and executed as a single work. This tells us something important about Rees: her haibun over the years have been systematic explorations of her life and what to make of it. All lives are intrinsically interesting, but not all writers can make their own lives interesting to readers. I read Forgiving the Rain in one sitting—twice on the same day.

The opening haibun, “Shoreline,” lays out the general theme. “I don’t remember . . . but I have a faint memory. . . . Am I inventing the memory . . . ? I yearn to recapture the moment” (9). What are memories? How do we create them? Are they triggered by specific events, repeated events? Why are they important to us? In the final haibun, “Lessons,” the author writes, “And here I am, forty years later, astonished again [my emphasis] by this bowl of soup” (63). It could just as well have been the chips she ate as a child in the back of the car. And to bring up again the cohesiveness of this collection, the importance of shorelines and the sea are echoed in the last haiku of the first haibun—“shoreline/the sea air saltier/in the waning light” (11)—and the final haiku of the book—“the sound of the sea/speaking to my mother/on her birthday” (63). Images of the sea and shore run like a motif through the haibun. In “from ‘Antibes Journal’,” Rees writes, “It has taken me thirty years to return to the sea” (25), but the sea never left her as is evident in many of the haiku.

As in most autobiographies, relationships and place are significant. The Wales of the author’s youth, the Wales she visits as an adult, Antibes in France, the apple orchard in Kent. And chronology has its own geography. We meet parents and siblings, grandparents, friends, partner, mother-in-law, and grandchild. The reader travels through Rees’s space and time and explores vicariously the meaning of memory and how memory is connected to relationships and place. The beginning haibun chronicle the author’s childhood, the things she remembers and tries to remember. Rees is adept at capturing the way a child reasons. In “Broken Cornets,” a haibun about an ice cream vendor with an unhealthy interest in children, Rees writes

We do not tell our mothers. Because it’s not that we fear him exactly. After all, he’s not a stranger we should refuse sweets from. But we know something is wrong. What we don’t know is how to explain it. Or whose fault it is. (18)

Many of the early haibun are written from a child’s perspective, in the present tense. There is a shift as the narrative of the book progresses: Rees starts to write about the past in the past tense. In “Little Brother,” a three-part haibun, she writes about her brother as a child in the present tense and then about her brother now in the present tense and finally about her little brother in the past tense. Later, haibun that make this shift from early memories to the present generally begin in the past tense, the adult author looking back. “Filling,” one of many poignant haibun about the author’s mother, alternates between the past and present tenses as it makes its way from an illness in the author’s childhood to a visit to the mother in the hospital.

After the haibun focused on childhood, there is a series of pieces that follow Rees’s movements as an adult—Antibes, Kent, Florida, and then a return, as a visitor to her past, to her childhood home of Wales. Approximately halfway through the book we encounter three haibun that touch on her relationship with her partner Tony. Two definitely seem to. (“Kissing Simon Cowell” may not, but if there’s a haibun equivalent to Wendy Cope’s “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis,” this is it.) Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, most of us, I presume, knows how easy it is to blame. Part of what makes this collection such a winning autobiographical narrative is how the author/narrator portrays herself as in awe or slightly puzzled, or rather, well, human. Travel is always stressful and in “Wherever We Go, There We Are,” Rees confesses her penchant for “things in their right place at the right time. This is what I try to do too often. Like pinning butterflies to boards” (41). In “Drift,” wondering what has kept her from drifting further from Tony, she notices, and Rees’s eye for detail is sharp, the paint smears on his shirt and the hair grown over his collar, “and the sunset on the crest of the hill is bright enough to tear [her] eyes” (44).

Toward the end of the book, memory takes on a new meaning or is experienced differently. As grandparents and parents die, objects they inhabited and owned—houses, a teapot, a sugar bowl, a bakestone—become conduits to memory. And then there is the author’s awareness, shown in a couple haibun about grandchildren, of the course our lives take. From the perspective of a child in the beginning to a grandparent’s view of a grandchild at the end, that’s the grand tour Forgiving the Rain takes us on.

I would be remiss not to mention the brilliance of the haiku. There’s not a dud in the bunch.

laughter lines—
the scar around my breast
faded now (56)

welcome hug
each time I come home
my mother is smaller (21)

market stall
buying the smell
of tomatoes (33)

However one may feel about haiku in haibun standing alone, and they all do here, there is no doubt that the haiku in these haibun expand the prose, create layers and dimensions. I reread the book once skipping all the haiku. It was well written, for there’s no question that Rees is a fine prose stylist, but the haiku more often than not function as epiphanies. The whole is completely dependent on the connection between the prose and the haiku. This means one thing to me: Rees is a consummate haibunist. In other words, she writes haibun and not prose with haiku tacked on. What else could one want in a collection of haibun?

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