Yucaipa, California, USA
A Close Reading of "Journeys," a haibun by Paresh Tiwari
Mr. Tiwari is an often-published poet, writer and illustrator currently residing in Hyderabad, Telangana, India. In 2012, he began a serious study of Japanese poetic forms, and today his haiku, haibun, tanka, and haiga appear frequently in noteworthy journals and anthologies across the world. An Inch of Sky, Tiwari's collected haiku and haibun, has been published by 20 Notebooks Press. The book is now available through dog ears etc. Interested readers may also reach him on his mail at paresh111 "at" gmail "dot" com.
"Journeys," a haibun:
The subject of this discussion, a haibun entitled "Journeys," was published in Haibun Today, Volume 8, Number 4 (December 2015).
Summary of the haibun:
On a beautiful spring day, the speaker of "Journeys" passes a few hours among the booksellers' stalls in the marketplace in Martyrs' Square, situated near the Flora Fountain at the southern terminus of "The Mile Long Road" (Dadabhai Naoroji Road) in Mumbai, India. As he pages through some of the countless used books "stacked in teetering rows," he tries to imagine with every volume the many other hands who might have held it, the many other minds who might have weighed its message. Ultimately, through this connection with others through their used books, his meditation turns to a consideration of the mystery of life, death, dissolution, and ultimate release of all things into the universe. The piece closes with the haiku's stark image of the prostitute's red lips.
On the aesthetic framework of the haibun:
The prose section of the haibun is short, simple, and offered in plain, unequivocal language. It is a first person linear narrative composed of 159 words arranged in six declarative sentences. Sentences 1 and 2 set the scene using concrete imagery and essential details of time, place, and character. Sentences 3, 4, 5, and 6 recount the actions and complex impressions of the poem's speaker. A single haiku closes the work.
The prosimetric proportions of this haibun (approximately 150 words/1 haiku) are generally recognized as one of several conventional formats for haibun in English according to guidelines published by the Haiku Society of America in its "Official Definition of Haiku and Related Terms."
This haibun's effect depends on a successful manipulation of situational irony achieved through first person characterization. The elements of this irony are organized in Tiwari's haibun along "vertical" and "horizontal axes," a pattern of arrangement described by Haruo Shirane.
On the diction of the haibun:
Tiwari fashions a first-person prose narrative using low diction in a social register—unadorned, very ordinary, even pedestrian language. The prose contains no words of more than three syllables. All are frequently-occurring English words, except for "siesta," which retains in this context its exotic qualities from Spanish. The noun/verb ratio in the monologue is 2.2:1, a level that insures concreteness and comprehensibility and contributes to the strongly individuated voice of the speaker.
The average sentence length is 26.5 words. Sentence 3 is the shortest sentence with 11 words and sentence 5 is the longest with 48. Through these variations in sentence length Tiwari allows his prose to mimic the rhythms of natural speech and to invest the strong voice of the speaker with some emotional intensity; however, he does not allow a conversational tone to form. Tiwari permits his character to speak only in complete sentences: there are no fragments such as a reader might expect to find in a colloquial monologue. Tiwari composes in this way an ideal tone for this haibun, one that is slightly stilted and academic, qualities especially noticeable in the long and syntactically complicated sentence 5 with its correlative conjunctions and adjective clauses.
Tiwari's unornamented language creates a prose section that presents, in Ken Jones' words, "direct, concrete, economical imagery, infused with life and energy." (Ken Jones, A Review of Jim Kacian & Bruce Ross (Eds.), American Haibun and Haiga Vol. 1) In spite of the abstract verbs Tiwari uses in his main clauses, the prose section also "eschew[s] abstraction and intellection."
On Tiwari's strategy of characterization:
In order for his speaker to fulfill his intended role in the work, Tiwari must organize the monologue to portray the speaker as socially passive and unrefined in spite of his obvious poetic sensibilities and an obsessive interest in books. Tiwari applies only the verbs "spend," "wonder," "imagine," and "think" to catalog the actions of his speaker—actions appropriate to a character more in tune with a life of the mind than with a life in the real world. Tiwari isolates him within an idealized realm, "a drop of sunny silence" lying outside the real world that "races past in a blur of heat and smoke." Tiwari successfully builds for his readers a character not much given to direct social involvement with others but who is satisfied instead by his vicarious interactions with them.
Also among the tactics of characterization used by Tiwari is the rhetorical trope of personification to develop metaphoric properties of the books who "await their next lover" or who "wake from their dusty siestas." Tiwari's approach disguises slightly the speaker's divorce from the real world by making his impulse to interact with imagined people through their books appear, at first glance, to be a genuine, rather than a proxy interaction. This tactic helps magnify the dislocations that come with the ironic reversals of the closing haiku.
Tiwari opens an additional distance between the speaker and the world by the unexpected choice of the Spanish word "siesta" as a term to describe the state of latency in which the speaker finds the books in the market. By putting the exotic word "siesta" in the speaker's mouth, Tiwari further affirms that the speaker is a bookish type, slightly pedantic, a quality that emphasizes the speaker's lack of worldliness, true sophistication and mature understanding. This mildly comic characterization fulfills the requirement of Jones' second criterion for "light-handed" and "playful" qualities of the prose "in the spirit of haiku." (Ken Jones, A Review of Jim Kacian & Bruce Ross (Eds.), American Haibun and Haiga Vol. 1) The lack of refinement in expression evidenced by the speaker also shapes the dramatic irony of the haibun, which will be exploited to excellent effect in the closing haiku.
On the meaning structure of the haibun:
Tiwari's haibun is a pastoral self-elegy. Its vertical axis blends Classical Roman mythology with Hindu sacred stories. Its horizontal axis is a minimalist elegy in the vein of Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." In this version, the speaker confronts his own mortality not at sunset among rows of rustic gravestones, but among rows of thousands of dusty books in the used book market and as the object of the red-lipped smile of a prostitute. "Window moon," the first line in the closing haiku, is the intersection of the two axes.
The book market next to Flora Fountain in Mumbai is a drop of sunny silence in this grim grey city.
The first sentence establishes the pastoral idiom by connecting the book market inseparably with Flora Fountain in "a drop of sunny silence." Flora is a goddess of flowers, fertility, and spring, and to announce her presence is to invoke her influence as muse. The proximity of the goddess and her dedicated space pacifies and softens the atmosphere of the "grim grey city" and establishes the reverent mood and atmosphere for the prose. Tiwari's brief sketch of idyllic perfection and his appropriation of her name produces a kigo, a season word for the "haiku-like" prose section. Flora's presence in the first sentence establishes her as the head of the poem's vertical axis.
While the world races past in a blur of heat and smoke, the yellowed pages of volumes stacked in teetering rows under a crinkly tarp, await their next lover.
The second sentence reinforces and magnifies with additional details the tensions between the idyllic "drop of sunny silence" and its sternly contrasting "grim grey city." A "world" that "races past in a blur of heat and smoke" is juxtaposed to a place of peace and quiet like that kind of respectful hush found in libraries or cemeteries or found in the breathless anxieties of those who "await their next lover." The chiastic arrangement of these elements also forces the focus to shift away from the urban milieu to the locus of the pastoral setting-- the book market "under a crinkly tarp." The timescale is also adjusted away from the hectic bustle of the city to the more unhurried pace appropriate to narrative. The scene is now set and the mood and atmosphere are in place for the speaker's meditation on life and death.
Today, I spend hours browsing through them with an unabashed hunger.
The third sentence announces the speaker's "unabashed hunger." This "hunger" is the speaker's desire for human contact, for participation in life with people. That hunger—its nature and fulfillment—is the subject of the remaining prose. It also foreshadows the haiku's closing image.
Each time I pick up a book and wake it from its dusty siesta, I wonder about the hands that caressed its spines, scribbled in its margins, or pressed a dry leaf between its pages.
In sentence four the speaker attempts vicariously to resurrect life after life as he imagines the former owners of these books. His phrase "caressed its spines" with its Freudian undertones, hints at one variety of the speaker's "hunger." The inability of the speaker to recognize that "hunger" foreshadows the concluding haiku and contributes to the building irony. The speaker is also unable to recognize that the titles, the marginalia, the stains from pressed flowers have become epitaphs for their former owners—each book a memorial, a funerary stele. Though each book in his hands is a touchstone, a representation of our common humanity and a shorthand symbol of each individual life that prized each volume, personal connection to these people is unavailable to him. Each book touched by his gaze is only a cenotaph that memorializes every anonymous mind that considered its contents. His meditations do not resurrect any of them but call up only vague abstractions of them. The irony accrues further here because he seems so absorbed in his reveries that he doesn't notice at first that he is not in communion with living souls.
I imagine stories, not of the characters who the writer introduces in long tortuous sentences, but of an old man, who peered at these words from behind thick glasses or the young girl who liked to hold the book close to her heart while drifting off to sleep.
In sentence five, Tiwari universalizes the kingdom of death. He establishes the book as an emblem of our common humanity and our attachment to and communion with life and death, each volume a monument and commemoration. His speaker wanders, abstracted and all unaware of his own mortality, in a vast necropolis filled with small memorials. From the wise "old man, who peered at these words from behind thick glasses" to the innocent, virginal "young girl who liked to hold the book close to her heart while drifting off to sleep," all people are here evoked but none are personally memorialized by any book. Thus Tiwari transforms the book market into a country churchyard, each book a tombstone, and his speaker into a rustic poet-philosopher, musing in conventional ways on the infinite.
I think of the lives, lost forever as the ink fades and the seams break apart.
Sentence six marks the dawning of awareness that comes to the speaker as he considers life and death and the ultimate dissolution of books. The speaker is the horizontal axis of the poem and his callow superficiality at the beginning and his epiphanic transformation in the moment he confronts the smiling prostitute are its two poles.
Very much like comic relief prepares an audience for the cathartic moment in tragedy, and very much like the gap between the two discrepant phrases of a haiku collects the energy to power that "aha" experience, the lacuna between the close of this plain-spoken prose and the presentation of the haiku's imagery allows time and psychological space for energy to build toward epiphany. That moment will be blunt and unsettling for the speaker.
On the aesthetic structure of the haiku:
The haiku is an orthodox one in the modern sense as described by Ray Rasmussen in his definitions. This example contains 11 syllables distributed as two phrases unconventionally parsed across 3 lines. The reference in the first phrase "window moon" is used often enough in the creation of haiku to be a conventional construction. Whether this is an image of the moon reflected by or filtered through the window is unspecified. The first line is separated from the second image by an ellipsis to guarantee its unconfused interpretation as a stand-alone phrase. This reference to the natural world window moon has been placed by Tiwari, by means of the volta-like disjunction often used in haiku, in an unexpected but plausible juxtaposition with the second phrase the deep red of // a hooker's lips.
On the meaning structure of the haiku:
As soon as Tiwari puts together the two phrases of the haiku, a relationship exists between the window, the moon, Flora, the prostitute, the imagined owners of the used books, and the speaker of the prose section. It is now the task of the surprised reader to assemble some kind of coherent meaning from these apparently divergent parts.
Whether or not the first phrase "window moon" recalls a physical image of the moon reflected by or filtered through a physical window is immaterial. Whether that moon is waxing, waning, new, or full is immaterial. In the second phrase, the speaker's physical proximity to the prostitute—whether the speaker sees the moon in a window while physically confronting her inside or outside her room, whether he sees her looking out her window through a reflection of the moon, whether he imagines her among the personalities of owners he continues to try to exhume from their used books, or whether he encounters her as a literal image in a book—is immaterial. The degree to which the image of the prostitute's lips is sexualized by the speaker or the reader is immaterial. In the reader's experience of this haibun, only the fact that these 11 syllables provide the record of the speaker's epiphany, that this moment is the speaker's (and through the mechanism of literary 'identification,' the readers' own) personal realization of his own inescapable mortality—that a "window" is suddenly opened that reveals the nature of the "moon"—is significant.
Tiwari has made use of the moon's value as a religious and literary symbol commonly associated with a celebration of "the divine feminine," a principle represented as some variety of earth goddess in most cultures. Tiwari has impressed Flora here to recruit to his purpose associations with classical European traditions, where she was worshipped (and where her identity endures) in several of her aspects, but most often as a creatrix, a fertility goddess (birth, spring) like Gaea, and as a destroyer, a goddess of the harvest (death, autumn) like Persephone. In India where this haibun is set, as in Graeco-Roman tradition, there are several versions of the fertility goddess and the death goddess. In the Shakta traditions of Hinduism, the traditions relating to the Mother Goddess are similar to those found in European mythic cosmologies. Devi is regarded as the supreme deity and is celebrated in all her aspects, which include Kali, the goddess of destruction, time, and change. Kali is worshipped in both aspects of her dual nature—as benevolent nurturer and as ultimate reality, the destroyer of all. The hooker's prominent red lips recall the Graeco-Roman man-eating goddesses the Empousiai and Lamiai, who were sometimes identities of and sometimes attendants on the goddess as Hecate. In the same instant, these vampiric lips suggest Kali, who destroyed the demon Raktabija by sucking the blood from his body and devouring his army of duplicates.
With regard to the vertical axis of the haibun, the "window moon" is here a mirror, a link between Flora, the goddess in her benign form, and the "hooker," the goddess in her malignant phase. Once the presence of the hooker is revealed, her place as the anchor of the vertical axis of the poem is clear. The "window moon" links Flora with the hooker, both feminine, but each a discrete embodiment of the mythic feminine principle, each a mirror image of the other and each a bookend enclosing the haibun.
With regard to the haibun's horizontal axis, the "window moon" has become a lens through which the speaker must confront his own mortality without the buffer of a book. As he confronts the hooker, the avatar of the goddess of creation and destruction Flora/Kali, for the first time he recognizes his own association with the necropolis of books and with all "the lives, lost forever as the ink fades and the seams break apart" that he has commemorated in his elegiac narrative.
The crumbling book whose seams break apart in his hands prepares him to recognize the ultimate reality of his own death. In the moment when he confronts the prostitute, awareness strikes Tiwari's callow poet-philosopher like a poleaxe and all the poem's ironies bloom.
On the relationship of the haiku to the prose:
Tiwari has orchestrated a beautiful paradox—all the possibilities of the haibun converge and then explosively diverge in retrospect through the irony that matures in the last line of the haiku. For both the speaker and the reader, every detail in the haibun revises itself in the last instant of the work.
The haibun as it appeared in Haibun Today:
The book market next to Flora Fountain in Mumbai is a drop of sunny silence in this grim grey city. While the world races past in a blur of heat and smoke, the yellowed pages of volumes stacked in teetering rows under a crinkly tarp, await their next lover.
Today, I spend hours browsing through them with an unabashed hunger. Each time I pick up a book and wake it from its dusty siesta, I wonder about the hands that caressed its spines, scribbled in its margins, or pressed a dry leaf between its pages. I imagine stories, not of the characters who the writer introduces in long tortuous sentences, but of an old man, who peered at these words from behind thick glasses or the young girl who liked to hold the book close to her heart while drifting off to sleep.
I think of the lives, lost forever as the ink fades and the seams break apart.
window moon . . .
the deep red of
a hooker's lips