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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2014

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Ruth Holzer
Herndon, Virginia, USA


On Chen-ou Liu’s "A Room of His Own"

In two haiku and two short paragraphs, Chen-ou Liu tells of the life and death of one of his housemates, also a poet. He begins at the end, with a desolate haiku describing the poet’s empty room. In the following prose section, Chen-ou learns of the suicide and feels like he was “being stabbed in the back with a sharp knife.” With an introduction like this, the reader is hooked.

(I am using the writer’s name here, but because of the complex of identities in this haibun, I need to clarify that the “Chen-ou” I am referring to is an artifact, a poetic persona, and not the Chen-ou who wrote it.)

This haibun at first glance seems to be a straightforward narrative. Actually, it contains the classic story of the doppelgänger, the double, whose appearance often bodes ill for the primary character. Chen-ou says that he had a strong physical reaction when he learned of the poet’s suicide, then makes the disclaimer, “yet I barely knew him.” This is a master-stroke, at once distancing the speaker from his double, thus allowing him to continue the narrative objectively, and at the same time drawing him closer: he doesn’t have to know him because he shares some essential part of him, and mirrors him. In a way, Chen-ou may be considered an unreliable narrator, in that he doesn’t recognize or acknowledge his double.

The haibun contains eerie touches. The “scratching sounds” of writing that can be heard coming from the poet’s room are reminiscent of Poe. When another housemate complains about the poet’s “noisy silence” hanging over all of them “like a long, dark cloud,” Chen-ou does not respond, either to agree or disagree. Does he sense that perhaps something similar could be said of him?

In the second prose section, the speaker encounters his double. This time, the differences between them are emphasized. Chen-ou is in the “living room,” whereas the doomed poet is just passing through on the way back to that single room of his own, where his writing and his death occur. Chen-ou is connected to the realities of time and space; he’s hanging up a clock, perhaps one he has just bought or re-set to show the correct time. He is making a gesture of order. Even though he is precariously balanced on the “edge of the table,” Chen-ou is anchored in the world and will not fall.

The poet suddenly tells him: “I have this insatiable urge to commit pencil to paper. It soothes my soul.” (Note the dual meaning of the word “commit” in this context, hinting at the proximity of creation to death.) This artistic credo of sorts applies to both of them. Chen-ou, the survivor-poet is being given a legacy, though again, he appears to be unaware of it. The statement in a wider sense describes what all poets do, even those who do not reach the extreme where the “gathering darkness” can no longer be endured. The poet may have been mentally ill, or just obsessive about writing; it doesn’t matter. He still represents what Chen-ou admires (his dedication) and fears (his despair). Chen-ou provides just enough background for us to imagine the setting: the people in the house are young and struggling, they’re not particularly friendly toward each other, they’ve probably been thrown together by chance or economic necessity. The rooms are sparsely furnished. There’s no feeling of comfort or home; everyone is temporarily making do.

The prose style is notable for its lack of expressed emotion. Descriptions are limited to the basics. There is no interpretation, reflection or commentary. Any other treatment would have lessened this haibun’s effectiveness. Chen-ou is only reporting facts (or appearing to do so, for even choosing which facts to report is an art in itself); we must discern what to make of them.

The haiku tell another side of the story. They have more in common with each other than with the prose, and their relation to the prose is that of contrast. Both haiku show the reader the poet’s room, most likely after his death.

The first:

cold moonlight
books of poetry
stacked floor to ceiling

describes what the other occupants of the house might have seen when they eventually opened the door to find out why the poet hadn’t appeared for a while. There lie the once-cherished, now ownerless poetry books; in the indifference of the moonlight, they may as well be stones in a cemetery.

In the second:

drafts of old poems
on the water-stained wall
a starry sky

we see the art he left behind. Papers are scattered on a desk or writing table, testimony to the poet’s effort. The shabbiness of the room is then transformed by the presence of the “starry sky.” Are we meant to think of Van Gogh, another artist/suicide? In any case, the implicit question is whether art can redeem the sadness of an individual life.

Since nothing is ever absolutely black or white, both characters, Chen-ou (representing the positive aspect of art) and the other poet (representing the negative), contain their opposites. The former remains wounded (perhaps even diminished) by the poet’s act, while the poet who killed himself has found his way into the “starry sky.”

To end at the beginning: the title is taken from Virginia Woolf’s well-known essay “A Room of One’s Own” in which she stated the need for women writers to have psychological (and financial) independence in order to be as successful as their male counterparts. In the context of the haibun, however, the poet’s room turns into a place of isolation and missed opportunity. The irony of the title seeps into the rest of the poem.

The epigraph from Canadian feminist writer Phyllis Webb presents the reader with another duality: that of prose and poetry. In the mixture of these that comprises a haibun, Chen-ou reveals himself and the Other. “A Room of His Own” is an intricate construction, balancing light and darkness, achievement and failure, creation and destruction. The poem ends, but the dialogue it sets in motion has no conclusion.


A Room of His Own

In the poems we reveal ourselves. In prose others.

—Phyllis Webb, Notebook, 1969-1973

cold moonlight
books of poetry
stacked floor to ceiling

Hearing of my housemate’s suicide was like being stabbed in the back with a sharp knife, and yet I barely knew him. Only his work and the scratching sounds of pencil on paper that came from his room. “His noisy silence (in an emphatic tone) hangs over us like a long, dark cloud,” one of my other housemates once said to me.

drafts of old poems
on the water-stained wall
a starry sky

One week before his death, I was standing on the edge of the table hanging a clock, when he passed through the living-room. He suddenly turned to me, saying, “I have this insatiable urge to commit pencil to paper. It soothes my soul.” He went back to his room and continued to spin poems out of the gathering darkness.


First published in Haibun Today V8, N2, June 2014.

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