Herndon, Virginia, USA
On Marjorie Buettner’s Some Measure of Existence
Some Measure of Existence by Marjorie Buettner. Red Wing, MN: Red Dragonfly Press, 2014. Paperback, 94 pp., $15 USD. ISBN: 978-1937693527.
In her new collection of haibun and tanka prose, Marjorie Buettner takes us through the four seasons and into a fifth, with fifty-one thoughtful poems. Her poetry throughout is characterized by an appreciation and celebration of life in all its contradictory aspects. Careful observation of the cycles of the natural world and our human place in them, including inevitable change and loss, are deeply felt, and Buettner shares them with experienced artistry.
Her themes blend with images of nature. In spring, we find the anticipation of new beginnings. For example, in “Almost Spring,” the poet describes herself as “an inner island of calm amid the storm. A deeper silence has come to me like a long lost lover . . .”
a wind of change
blows through the flute that I am
And in “The Hidden Exchange,” an exercise in synesthesia, an invisible world almost breaks through to our senses: “. . . the music of mornings, mute, light-bound, bent to an inner strain, traced across the sky like the colored stain in a window’s glass, made to need the sun.”
the shape of birdsong
carried by wind
Other exuberant spring haibun are “Chuang Tsu’s Butterfly,” (“sleep washes over and the dreamer becomes the dream”) and “April of Mornings.” One of my favorites is “The Blossoming,” with its promise of external and internal renewal:
I wear my heart
on my sleeve
The Summer section also contains memorable poems, including “What the Morning Brings” and “These Hot Humid Nights,” which retain the lightness of tone and the objectivity found in the best haibun. Others deal with the serious subjects of death and loss, such as “Dust of Life” and “The Surface of Last Scattering,” mourning her father:
looking for your grave
prairie grass rippling
all the way down hill
The Fall and Winter haibun take on a dark cast, as Buettner writes about caregiving and bereavement. Images of sleep, dream, dust, circles, stars, rain and snow recur. The poet’s sure touch redeems them from sentimentality. For example, remembering the death of her aunt, in “Snowing Again,” which ends with:
my aunt’s hats cupped
within each other
There a sense of peace, combined with a hint of humor—and we see the person as a unique individual.
The Fifth Season continues to explore the worlds of the subconscious and its interconnections with the conscious mind. Memories and dreams persist into the present, sharpening our everyday perceptions as in:
a vine of morning glories
twining around itself
and the concluding tanka of “Making Beds,” with its falling echo:
after the snowfall
my children’s angel prints
as if they were never here
as if I were never here
As with any full-length collection, weaknesses as well as strengths become more apparent as one proceeds through the book. There are some pieces that I would consider less successful, primarily because, essay-like, they go on at length to make their point. The prose, in Buettner’s lyrical style, now and then tends toward richness that can cloud, rather than clarify, the poem’s intent.
Whereas the prose may at times seem overly romantic for some tastes, all of the haiku (and tanka) are pitch-perfect. As well as standing on their own, they add layers of significance, encouraging an immediate re-reading of the entire poem with fresh insight, for example:
missing the life
I have not lived
(“Burden of the Dream”)
and the evocative charm of
floating lily pads . . .
the oars of the boat
(“What the Morning Brings”)
Buettner, an editor of contemporary haibun online, has stated on the journal’s website that she regards haibun writing as “a voyage of discovery which combines an external and internal journey traveling to the depths of the unconscious self. It is a mysterious and transformative journey exploring the unknown realms of the heart.” Page after page, in Some Measure of Existence, she accomplishes exactly that.