Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
On Glenn G. Coats' "Last House on the Left"
One of the pieces that stood out for me in the 2013 September issue of Haibun Today was Glenn G. Coats' "Last House on the Left." In the first instance, I responded to the emotion of the piece and chose it so that I could explore why it proved so effective.
This is a concise haibun that in less than 150 words conveys a story that moves towards a poignant concluding haiku. Within the confines of this space, three characters interact, a husband and wife and their female neighbor, Mary, who rings them regularly, supposedly in error, at eight each evening. The somewhat discursive first paragraph sets the background for the stronger immediacy of the image-driven second paragraph.
We assume that the neighbor who apologizes each time for her mistake is elderly, possibly living alone. We do not know this for sure until the concluding haiku tosses a hint to the reader in the
Subtly, the hour of evening meals is conjured up, but in the loneliness of a solitary elderly woman's household, there is little call for tinkling silverware, only the descending dark that comes early in winter with the dusk. My reading of this stunning haiku is colored by my mother's experience who, widowed at seventy-nine, came to dread the long sad time of dusk for the next eleven years. Evening, especially a winter evening, is a long time spent in solitude.
This takes us back to the opening line of the haibun, reminding us that "the neighbor rings at eight o'clock sharp." There is a self-imposed discipline reflected in this regularity. She doesn't call at six or seven, when in a northern hemisphere February, it would certainly be already dark, but when her neighbors could possibly be eating their evening meal. She waits till eight. Sharp. Almost as though she has said, "I've waited half the night.
It's nearly time to sleep now." And the call, "Dorothy, is that you?" reveals that she does know whom she's called. Her "I don't know why I keep doing that" is a conspiracy all three characters maintain as she seeks reassurance in this brief exchange: her neighbors are there; she's reminded them that she is there too, with all her fears as she goes into another night . . .
Something disturbs me in this, and it is the poet's "I know who it is." I can't help wonder if he and his wife sometimes anticipate Mary's call and call her instead.
So the haibun moves forward with the regularity of Mary's repeated calls, echoed in the repetition of "Sometimes I let the phone ring and sometimes I walk to the kitchen and answer it." There is a pattern that Mary has set up in the neighbor's lives as well as in her own.
The "plot" of the haibun moves forward with the pattern of the seasons as February draws to a close and the signs of spring appear. In the second paragraph, the poet uses very concrete direct images that convey this strongly: "less snow on the pasture", "patches with pools of clear water that shine like eyes", "fields freeze by night and thaw in the day." But for Mary, the pattern is on another path. When she calls this late February night, the poet is "surprised by the silence."
The complexity of human emotions deftly retold in the prose contrast with the simplicity of the images in the concluding haiku. The haiku picks up on this reversal of patterns and with the hint of silver leaves us with an image of "winter dusk" and Mary's decline.
Last House on the Left
The neighbour rings at eight o'clock sharp and I know who it is. My wife looks up from her book and says, "Mary, oh dear Mary, she hit that wrong number again." Sometimes I let the phone ring and sometimes I walk to the kitchen and answer it. "Dorothy, is that you?" Mary asks. "Oh, I am so sorry to bother you again. I don't know why I keep doing that."
February is almost gone now. Each day there is less snow on the pasture mainly patches with pools of clear water that shine like eyes. The fields freeze by night and thaw in the day. Tonight, the phone rings again at the usual time. I tell my wife that I'll get the call. When I pick up the phone, there is no-one there. "Hello Mary, is that you?" I ask. Nothing. I am surprised by the silence.
First published in Haibun Today V7, N3, September 2013.