Telford, Shropshire, England
On Steven Carter’s Letters to My Parents
Letters to My Parents by Steven Carter. Uxbridge, England: Alba Publishing, 2014. Paperback, 112 pp., $15 US, £10 UK. ISBN: 978-191085056.
As I read Letters to My Parents I was reminded of a quotation from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
In this, his most recent work, Steven Carter, in a sequence of letters to his deceased parents (twenty-four to his father and twenty-nine to his mother), allows the reader to experience various aspects of his traumatic childhood and his complex relationship with his parents. The haibun sequence as it develops forms a disjointed narrative: in some parts easy to follow, in other parts enigmatic. In the foreword Patricia Prime writes, ‘. . . the haibun unravel and extend like a nostalgic autobiography. These letters are imbued with poignancy and a sharp awareness of life.’
From the letters to his father we learn the central event in Carter’s childhood occurred when he was living with his father and younger brother and, one morning when he was seven, he went into his father’s room and found that his father had died. The effect this had on Cater and his brother is a theme which occurs through many of the letters. We are also told how his father spent time in prison for assaulting a chemist who wouldn’t give him the life-saving drugs his mother needed, how his father worked in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War; and how he learnt that his father had had an affair and that somewhere Carter might have a half-sister or half-brother.
From the letters to his mother it is revealed that Carter and his brother lived in a succession of foster homes after the death of their father where they were verbally and physically abused; his mother was unable to cope with her two boys because she suffered from depression; they lived in a state of relative poverty for most of the time they were with her; and that he witnessed her die from a massive coronary attack.
As the narrative unfolds we share letter by letter, Carter’s attempt to rationalise the events of his youth and to come to terms with what he describes as his PTSD. Patricia Prime describes this process as follows, ‘These letters are pieces of an intricately linked world, in which the poet must learn to live.’
I found myself moving speedily from one letter to the next and it wasn’t until I was near the end of the book I realised I had paid scant regard to the haiku at the end of each piece of prose. This being the case it seemed to me that, at one level, the book works without the haiku and so we might ask the question, ‘Are these really haibun?’
However, I was reminded of something I wrote in Blithe Spirit 24 for people who submit haibun to Blithe Spirit: ‘. . . the haiku in a haibun might, for example: provide a key to a passage of enigmatic prose; deepen the experience outlined in the prose; link with the prose and shift the reader to another place, experience or emotion; provide a fresh viewpoint from that which is taken in the prose. In other words the haiku should not be incidental with regard to the prose; but rather the haiku and the prose should be interactive.’
I read through the haibun again and found the ‘prose and haiku links’ were mostly of the type which involve link and shift or provide a fresh perspective; although sometimes the links are so subtle I have yet to identify them.
Whatever the case might be this is a worthwhile read which enlightens us as to how one particular family was ‘unhappy in its own way’ and how the events of childhood can linger on into old age and into succeeding generations.