Herndon, Virginia, USA
On Harriot West's Into the Light
Into the Light by Harriot West. Eugene, Oregon: Mountains & Rivers Press, 2014. Paperback, 48 pp., $15.00 USD. ISBN: 978-0989602129.
This finely wrought collection is characterized by confident narrative momentum and clarity of expression. Harriot West's debut volume of haibun, Into the Light, is accessible in the best sense of the word; the poems share with the reader universal concerns of love, loss and the emergence of individual identity, in language that is plain, but never dull.
The haibun are divided into two sections. "Sepia Shadows" deals with the author's childhood and "The Pinwheel's Colors" with adult life. "Foreshadowing," an interlude of ten haiku, provides the transition between them. By turns playful and romantic, they stand in contrast to the somewhat darker material of the preceding haibun.
West writes with the necessary detachment about a childhood where insufficient affection and tension between her parents appear to have been the dominant notes. In "Stories I Might Tell," she suggests, however, that her childhood wasn't as traumatic as those exposed in celebrity memoirs. Despite a chilly house and strictly enforced rules of behavior, she experienced pleasant moments, such as that feel of "the first day of school in my thick woolen socks and sturdy brown oxfords." The closing haiku is an example of her sureness of touch:
one slat missing
from the picket fence
The haiku is open to several interpretations. Is she re-visiting a childhood retreat and now finding it diminished? Or was it imperfect even then? Who might be peering in through that broken fence? The juxtaposition of the down-to-earth descriptive prose and the open-ended mystery of the haiku forms a satisfying whole. West is able to replicate this effect in many of her poems.
In a loosely chronological order, she takes us through her father's birth (in "Genesis," which manages to be at once both funny and not), childhood friendship, religious observance, siblings, family holidays, and finally, the inevitable disintegration of the family. The last few poems confront the issues of the mother's mental decline and the father's distance, calling up memories that are painful but nevertheless do not become overwhelming to the point where they sink the poetic ship. West remains in control; even at the worst moments, she knows what to say and when to let silence say the rest. As in "Sometimes I Have To Look Away," a glimpse of her mother in a nursing home:
. . . all I can think of is how humiliating it must be for my mother, suspended in midair, her dimpled flesh exposed to anyone who walks in the room. My mother who dressed for dinner
in a smart wool dress and a strand of pearls.
the sky so red
West's empathy is apparent in this haibun, as it is throughout the book.
Ending on a poignant note are the two memorial poems: "Eulogy for My Mother" and "Eulogy for My Father." The former, one line of prose followed by a haiku, succeeds in summarizing the story of a lifetime:
all those years
she hiked behind us
In a different style, the couplets about her father combine into a bleak nursery rhyme:
. . . I really liked him
said the waiter
said a child . . .
It ends with a tender suggestion of renewal:
and by the cabin door
where he shook out his boots
Moving away from the familial themes, the haiku of the "Foreshadowing" section serve as a sensuous and romantic transition. The opportunity for love appears, within the context of closely observed details of the natural world:
his hands, his voice
as he gentles the mare
West's buoyancy and optimism are also on display here, as in
all of the above
Courtship and love are the concerns of the third section. West uses humor to good effect as she describes the give-and-take of relationships in various stages. The prose is concise, the haiku delicate. Between them is a space that resonates with possibilities. For example, in "Getting Acquainted,"
. . . but what interests me most is what he eats for breakfast: steel-cut oats mixed with raisins and skim milk.
cloudy with a chance of rain
he answers a question
I didn't ask
These are thoughtful, focused haibun, exemplary in style and content. They live up to their title, carrying us along on a poetic journey from the shadows into the light.
Into the Light can be ordered through Mountain and Rivers Press.