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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 9, Number 3, September 2015

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Peter Butler
Chiswick, London, England


Writing Haibun in the Freedoms of Suburbia—a Personal Path

At the end of a holiday, a grief stricken girl toes through seaweed "dry, mangled like a torn sparrow to the rhythm of scenery less serene, a crowded train, a busy street, trees no longer green," to the dead apple she left beside her keyboard.

In his garden, an eminent ornithologist, now severely disabled, creates for his granddaughter "The Lesser Spotted Grumbok," a rare bird he suggests she might have seen, which "sunbathes in the Arctic, sings across eight octaves and has a profound understanding of Dickens."

Thanks to global warming, the weather report for the year 2215 reveals "lightning has drilled a hole in London’s iconic Westminster Bridge, Beijing has disappeared under a blanket of smog, New Yorkers are being attacked by moths."

Further back in history, the celebrated Mona Lisa painting at the Louvre, Paris, might never have been completed due to the model’s bad temper, loss of a contact lens and endless visits to the toilet. "Another half hour? Right. I’ll pay double," agrees an exasperated Leonardo de Vinci.

There is a connection. The apple was left in the office by a secretary (I binned it). The bird watcher lived a few doors away in our street. In October 1987 trees in my area—one in my garden—were wrecked by a hurricane our leading forecaster said wouldn’t happen. I spotted Mona Lisa (with mustache), courtesy of French artist Marcel Duchamp, while searching the shelves in my neighborhood library.

There is a second connection. Ray Rasmussen, in a review of one of my poems, observed: "I enjoy pieces with rays of lightness, as a balance to the more sombre tones that dominate our genre. While some definitions of haibun mention humor, my sense is that there’s very little humor or wit to be found in the pages of our journals. How about we lighten up a bit!"

So, in my writing I have been introducing humor, fantasy, fiction and rhyme, which some critics declare is not appropriate to the haibun genre. My only comment is that all the ideas quoted in the introduction are the themes of completed haibun, which I am happy to say have been accepted for publication. So possibly I’m on the right lines, without meaning to push frontiers.

More relevant, perhaps, is that each was conceived and created (though not necessarily completed) in the area of the West London suburb in which I’ve lived for 40 years and in its surroundings—a compromise between City and Countryside—which I find endlessly inspiring.

Unlike Basho and his disciples, I am a lover of nature but not an astute observer. Four times a week I tread the same 3-mile footpath along the River Thames near my home, glancing at the water and its patterns, but rarely noticing its detail. If the mood is right, an idea for a poem of some description "arrives"—I do not question from where—to be jotted down before the shower and left to germinate (or occasionally die in the filing cabinet).

There is nothing novel about this form of creation except, perhaps, that more often than not my head is filled with the buildings, rather than the trees. I cannot pass an elderly cottage without checking its chimneys, glimpsing through its windows, questioning its history, past and present inhabitants, because to me it "breathes." In short, I find inspiration in the freedoms and variety of suburbia.

Back in 1898, architect and town planner Ebenezer Howard published in Britain Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, arguing that the solution to urban problems was that "town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization leading to the creation of garden suburbs, domestic architecture fusing modernity with tradition." It won a Nobel Prize nomination.

American writer Shirley Jackson believed that houses have an inner life and could impose their will on the people that lived there, even change the course of their lives. My daughter-in-law, Kate Russo, an artist and writer, sees houses as "vessels containing memories, injustices, fears, secrets, imperfections, doubts, dust. They are repositories for taste both good and bad. Nervous energy ebbs and flows in a house, especially among the busy patterns or carpets, walls and upholsteries that serve as a backdrop of daily life."

In his book, The Freedoms of Suburbia, British essayist and social commentator Paul Barker observed: "individuality and idiosyncrasy are the hallmarks of suburban style, so that no two bungalows or semi-detached houses—eminently adaptable—ever look the same. Sheds, conservatories and roof extensions abound, and a single street may contain every color of paintwork known to man."

Our Street is Getting Old

premature
but bright eyed
one spring morning

"About time we had a young face," says the man at the bar, eyeing a choice of cask ales. "Our street is getting old. I gather it’s a daughter. Bet she’ll be a dazzler one day if her mum’s anything to go by. Tell the truth, I hear her mum was a bit of a goer in her younger days. Wish I’d known her then. Real Penthouse stuff, I hear. Needed an active chap to sort out the hormones. And he didn’t waste any time, did he? Got her in the club the day they met, so I hear."

"No, I haven’t seen them lately. Busy with diaper duties and keeping clear of this ‘flu bug, I expect. You still on the gin mate? Stick with the beer. Better for you. No wonder you can’t get it up. Least ways that’s what your good lady tells me, ha-ha. Have a pint of the real stuff, go on. Put a spark in your engine, if you’ve still got one."

At the end of the road a black car, two men in dark suits. They walk up the path with a small rectangular box, clipping on masks of quiet dignity. You have to. It goes with the job.

above the bed
a pink cotton bonnet
never worn

To state the obvious, the average suburban street has two sides: there are those that cross, those that stay. But suburbia is never that obvious.

To take two extreme examples, those who cross are more likely to be the mixers, gossips, organizers of parties and local events, charity workers, carers, those who by choice or lifestyle are the active personalities of the neighborhood. The doers.

My feeling is that the loudmouth in the bar is a man of the world, but with experience of life’s tragedies, and the one most likely to help out when he discovers the sad sequence of events at the end of the street.

Those that stay on their own side—again in extremis—may be the shy, lonely, oppressed, abandoned or contentedly private and self-contained. I have known neighbors who have arrived, invested money in properties, sold at a profit and left without a word. And there are always others, at the end of a street, whose names you never get to know.

Or, if one is looking for poetic license, there may be a darker side to people’s apparent privacy, from drugs to other areas of crime.

So behind those doors, within those walls, there is endlessly fertile ground for poetic exploration.

Neighbors

new neighbors
no sign
on their truck

The letter writing lady claims our new neighbors bowdlerize her prose, leave the floorboards whispering at night, let their scorpions cavort among her roses and dandelions, quarrel with the bindweed by the pond.

We have no complaints. Our neighbors monitor our credit ratings, kindly check our locks and loans, handle all our joint brown envelopes, the wife providing other, more intimate, services at a fairly manageable fee.

Just recently, the letter writing lady writes no more, but serenades the mushrooms she’s found growing by our neighbors’ fence, seated sometimes in her front room window, grinning at her younger self.

She does not understand. Good neighbors are important in Suburbia. They take care of us. They see ahead. They are the future.

best-laid plans
disassembled
by the breeze


Critics condemn its monotony: rows of identical houses, dull fences, lookalike driveways. The upside is the constancy of suburbia, the presence (as long as they last) of post boxes, the local shops, the pub on the corner and, hopefully, a mix of amicable neighbors.

Suburbia has its light and dark side, like any conurbation. It depends how you observe it and what you want to make of it, in thoughts and words.


References

The Freedoms of Suburbia by Paul Barker (Francis Lincoln, UK, 2012).

More on Ebenezer Howard can be found online. The book was last reprinted in 1948 (Faber & Faber, UK).

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) is best known for her writings on the darker side of small-town America, in particular her short story, "The Lottery" (The New Yorker, June 26, 1948).

Ray Rasmussen’s observation appeared in Contemporary Haibun Online, July 2015.

Full versions of the poems in the opening paragraphs, and the two complete haibun, are from Peter Butler’s Collections: A Piece of Shrapnel (HUB Editions, 2013) and The Trouble with Mona Lisa (Alba Publishing, 2015).

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