North Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA
On Glenn G. Coats’ Beyond the Muted Trees
Beyond the Muted Trees by Glenn G. Coats. Prospect, Virginia: Pineola Publishing, 2014. Paperback, 97 pp., $8.00 USD. ISBN: 978-o615949864.
Glenn G. Coats is one of our finer writers of haibun, and his new book, Beyond the Muted Trees, testifies to that. An editor of Haibun Today and the author of a previous volume of haibun and haiku (Snow on the Lake, 2013, Pineola Publishing), Coats has demonstrated that he has a talent for writing simply, well, and movingly, with just enough details. Those qualities are front and center in his new book.
As indicated by its introductory haiku—“summer dusk—/tucked between pages/pieces of a life"—Beyond the Muted Trees is filled with episodes from Coats’s own life: his past jobs, former selves, family and friends, and other people he’s encountered along the way. It is, essentially, a book of memories, and consequently there are a number of poems that reflect on the passage of time, as well as how hard that passage can sometimes be. While this gives the book a general air of poignancy—even when he’s recounting his adventures as a young man, I got a sense of wistfulness—that poignancy is tempered by the compassion Coats displays for those who struggle: children with learning difficulties, impoverished war vets, the lonely and the disadvantaged. The result is not just effective but affecting haibun full of empathy. As his Haibun Today co-editor Ray Rasmussen wrote in the forward, he “sings these stories in everyday language and in the vernacular so well that I found myself tearing up through many of the pieces.”
The 63 haibun in this collection are divided into four sections. The first, “Mercy,” offers episodes from Coats’s days as an elementary school and special ed teacher. “Crossing the Border” focuses on his and his family’s summer stays in Ontario, Canada. “Side Roads” primarily contains objective sketches of episodes in his life and the people he’s encountered. And the last section, “Traces of a River,” also offers life sketches, but these seem more personal, with the majority containing memories revolving around family members—his wife, his mother and father, his children and grandparents.
Although all of the sections contain many fine haibun, “Mercy” is the one that stood out the most for me: Its haibun cohere strongly, revolving around his days as a teacher. (Coats’s bio says he taught first through fifth grades for 34 years, and participated in a one-to-one early intervention program for first graders struggling with reading and writing.) Coats describes not only some frustrating encounters with bureaucracy, but also his attempts to engage with students whose difficult backgrounds don’t make learning easy. And while some of the details—Ditto machines, Harry Nilsson recordings—make it clear that these are stories from an earlier time, the experiences they convey are timeless. Take the title haibun of this section, which begins with a haiku:
soldiers in the hills
This haiku, with its intimations of a violent past and an isolated present, sets the stage for the story of a young girl, Sadia. (Actually, I’m assuming she is a young girl, based on Coats’s biography; in fact, she could just as easily be an adult trying to learn English as a second language.) She has emigrated from a war-torn country—perhaps India or Pakistan during their protracted conflict—where soldiers captured her brother and father long ago. Now she is a student of Coats, struggling to learn English while also coping with a medication (perhaps an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug) that makes her forget what she’s learned. After opening the prose with a sentence that immediately engages the reader—“Sadia confuses the sounds of long and short vowels”—Coats goes on to describe his attempts to correct the girl’s pronunciation, as well as his efforts at encouragement:
I remind Sadia of the Baliwood movies. “You retell whole stories, all the details. I don’t have to watch them.” Then I remind Sadia of the fairy tale she remembered from her childhood. “It was almost like Cinderella,” I say.
Sadia doesn’t know what happened to the book of stories. She doesn’t know where the soldiers took her brother and her father. I finish the lesson and Sadia leaves for work.
she misses the music
of her language
The prose, with just enough detail, depicts how a childhood fantasy world has given way to a more brutal adult reality, and the haiku adds a personal note that provides some insight into Sadia. The haibun could have ended there, and ended well, but Coats takes it a step further, and presents an encounter between himself and Sadia later that day:
I see her walking down the street. Sadia’s face is red from the wind and cold. I surprise her with hello. We talk for a moment about winter in the air but there is little to say without books spread before me. I unlock the car, look up, and she is gone.
The reader no longer sees Sadia as a refugee or a student struggling with vowels, nor are Coats and Sadia now teacher and student; they are simply two human beings, and their inability to connect emphasizes just how cold and alone Sadia really is. Coats then caps the haibun with what, to my mind, is a beautiful haiku that not only echoes the lessons of earlier in the day, but also captures the gulf between Sadia and the rest of the world in a way no prose could:
snow at night
the student pronounces
This is a good example of Coats’s abilities to set scenes, sketch personalities, and deliver an emotional punch, skills demonstrated throughout the book. Some of the most powerful of his sketches are found in the “Side Road” section. Whether he’s crafting vignettes about a “fishing hero” who has little else going for him, a Korean war vet who inhabits the local Burger King, or a lonely widow whose social life is relegated to the supermarket aisles, Coats manages to capture the loneliness, the sadness, and the resilience of these people—in essence, their humanity—with a few lines and some well-chosen words. Take “Last House on the Left,” a haibun that has been reviewed before in Haibun Today but is so good it deserves to be looked at again as an example of just how well Coats can convey meaning and resonance in spare language. Here’s the opening prose section:
The telephone 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.”
The perfect use of one word, “sharp,” to set up the repetition of Mary’s calling; the addition of a simple “oh dear” to show Dorothy’s tenderness toward Mary; the way the prose doesn’t expound upon Mary’s confusion of a male voice with Dorothy’s, but allows it to stand on its own and subtly illustrate Mary’s state of mind—as writing goes, this paragraph is a model of economy. It comprises primarily nouns and verbs linked by prepositions, with no pileup of adjectives or adverbs that, more times than not, only slow down the narrative. And it draws in the reader; although it contains only a few sentences, those sentences say what’s needed to set up the tension, and makes the reader want to find out what happens next.
Here is another example of Coats’s spare and powerful prose style. It is from the end of the haibun “The Time Between Fires,” about periodic visits to the family cabin:
Years pass. My grandsons move farther and farther away. They never come back to the lake. My wife and I return only in late spring and stay through mid-summer. It is lonely at the cottage except for the busy robins, the turtles that lay eggs in patches of soft soil, and turkeys that strut past the windows. There is birdsong where once there was the chatter of children.
what I can no longer
I like how Coats, after a few declarative sentences of simple facts, ends the prose with strong images of the local wildlife, and gives the impression of a human outpost slowly being overcome by its surroundings. And that impression is made all the more potent by the haiku: with leaves falling around him like old memories, he is forced to acknowledge that life has changed, and that those memories have become stronger and more persistent than the present-day scenes around the cabin. (Every time I look at this poem, I keep reading the title as “The Time Between, Flies”—my subconscious putting its own spin on the meaning.)
As shown in this and the other examples, in addition to being a good writer with a spare style that suits the haibun form well, Coats is a very good haiku poet. However, if I could have one wish for this collection, it’s that the relationship between the prose and haiku were always as strong as in the examples noted. As I was reading through the book, I put an exclamation point next to a passage or poem that I felt was of particular merit, and a question mark next to what I felt were the weaker efforts. Upon finishing, I looked back and found the book riddled with !’s, with only a handful of question marks—but almost all of those marks were related to the haiku. Take the capping haiku for “The Color of Earth,” a haibun about Coats (assumedly) and his encounter with a roadside seller of sweet potatoes. Coats nicely presents the scene of the worn farmer, his equally worn blue truck, and a purchased sweet potato that, like an icon, takes on a blessed quality as it rides next to Coats on the front seat of his car, as he drives into the fading daylight. The haibun ends with:
sunset in a slice
To me, there’s definitely a haiku lurking in those lines, but what’s presented reads more like the notes for one—a haiku-in-the-making that wasn’t given the time necessary to reach fruition.
At other times, the connection between the prose and the haiku just wasn’t strong enough (at least for me). In “The Pretender,” for instance, Coats describes a young man dressed up as a $50 bill outside a Payday Loans store, roasting away but more in need of money than comfort. A sole haiku caps the prose:
clouds too thin
As I said, it could be me, but I tried to look at this from every way I could think of—drought of money, the obvious heat, the insignificance of a poor boy who can’t even raise a response from passing drivers in his get-up, so poor he may be down to skin and bones. But no matter how I looked at it, I kept coming back to the fact that, like the clouds, the haiku itself just didn’t matter to the rest of the haibun. If it had been cut, or rewritten as a line of prose, the piece would have had the same effect on me. (Looking at it again, In fact, I think it actually would have made a very good opening line of prose.)
I compared this to another “cloud” haiku a couple of pages back, one that closes the haibun about the Korean War vet (“The Real King”). The vet is described as being “skinny as paper,” neat but sickly looking, and the war is described as being “a long time ago”—something that, like the vet, is diminishing. The haibun ends with
the thin ribs
The echo of the vet’s skinniness in “thin ribs,” the ephemerality of the clouds matching that of both the veteran and the war in which he fought, the sadness of winter light . . . . To me, this captures the mood and essence of the piece in a way that the “Pretender” haiku does not.
But as I said, there are only a handful of such occasions. Overall, the haibun maintain a high standard throughout the book. Perhaps a fitting way to conclude this review is by looking at the final haibun, “Boats in the Snow.” To my mind, it is not only one of the best pieces in the book, but also among the best haibun I’ve ever read, period. Ostensibly a tale of when a boy (again, presumably Coats) and his grandfather open up a seaside beach house one winter, it ultimately takes on a more spiritual aspect, and epitomizes what makes this collection so rewarding.
The haibun opens with a litany of images:
Everything is cold, a bar of soap, the handle of a broom, plates in the cupboard. I switch on the electricity while my grandfather lights the kerosene stove. Then we walk through the cottage and lift the sheets that cover the furniture like ghosts.
In a sense, much of the first half of the haibun is about such “ghosts." From the cold, sometimes broken relics in the cottage, Coats introduces the tangle of fishing rods, nets, and crab traps in the garage, then a beach strewn with flotsam—including an old, barnacled boat that is “worn like a face that has spent too much time in the sun and wind.” Like so many of the subjects in this book, all are things tossed off and forgotten, in need of redemption—whether that redemption consists of a simple straightening up or, in the case of the boat, an overhaul that allows grandfather and grandson to set off on a short fishing trip. They name the refurbished vessel “MOBY. . . after the whale in the famous story, the one with all the gouges and marks left by the harpoons.”
But before the trip, Coats provides a passage about the background of his grandfather, who has his own psychic gouges and marks. A World War I veteran, he saw combat and, on the battlefield, heard “the last words of the dying, all the prayers.” He also became a prisoner of war, and was held outside a Catholic church whose priest turned his back at the abuse he and the other prisoners received. The experience extinguished his belief in God—after that, for him, “God is the sea.” Two moon-based haiku which capture what it means to have lost faith and be unable to climb toward a higher calling cap the passage:
dust on the wings
of a frozen moth
the shatter of dreams
across the water
After refurbishing the boat, grandfather and grandson set off for a short fishing trip. The piece ends with the following paragraph and haiku:
I row just beyond the pier and drop the anchor. My grandfather stands at the end of the pier and watches me fish. I use a small sinker and lace a strip of bloodworm on my hook. The flounder are biting. I lift each one from the water where it flaps for a moment like a bird. My grandfather calls out with each new fish, “Oh my God, Oh my God.” Even with the wind in my face, I hear his every word.
dusk under the eaves
a prayer for the fish
out to sea
Here, Coats infuses the grandfather’s wartime experience into the fishing trip, and creates (once again) a touching episode. The way the grandfather calls out “Oh my God” as both exclamation and prayer (given his belief that God is the sea) ties in nicely with the two haiku. In the first, a prayer is said for the fish that, either because they are not big enough to keep or are being spared altogether, are delivered back into the deity of the ocean to continue the cycle of life. The other haiku could be read as being about a wrathful God who ignores all prayers, but in the context of the entire piece I would infer a more hopeful message—that the prayers are evidence of the endurance of faith in something larger than ourselves (when a manmade church fails, an ocean takes its place), and are delivered into the heart of the sea, of God. And both echo the prayers of the soldiers his grandfather heard—the lost and forgotten, that recurring theme—and which in that sense are finally heard.
But what really sticks with me is that last sentence in the prose—so poignant, alluding to the resilience of memory as well as the importance of that memory enduring. It’s a powerful line, and it captures the essence of what this book is all about. As promised in that introductory haiku, Coats has delivered pieces of his life through these pages, and we’re the richer for it. Beyond the Muted Trees is a fine book, and a welcome addition to the literature of haibun.