Auckland, New Zealand
On Peter Butler’s The Trouble with Mona Lisa
The Trouble with Mona Lisa: A Haibun Collection by Peter Butler. UK. Alba Publishing. (2015) RRP: UK£10 / €13 / US$15. Pb. 60 pp. ISBN: 978-1-910185-17-9.
Peter Butler published two books of traditional poetry before venturing into haiku. This is his second collection of haibun following A Piece of Shrapnel. His haibun “Sunday at the Office" won the Haibun Section of the 2014 British Haiku Awards. The contents of The Trouble with Mona Lisa are divided into six sections and end with an Epilogue. For the purpose of this review, I’ve chosen several haibun (including the title piece) to comment on assuming that the other haibun will speak for themselves.
The central position from which the writer composes haibun probably varies from poet to poet. But here, Butler’s organising principle seems to be a combination of semi-autobiographical sketches as well as more imaginative haibun. As he says in his Preface: “I have on occasions let my imagination run freely and readers may encounter as much fiction as faction. I leave it to them to decide.” So here we are drawn into life and its mysteries. Butler often writes with humour and panache. These are the stances I have come to expect from having read his previous book of haibun A Piece of Shrapnel.
The opening title haibun of the first section, "In the Name of Art," is a humorous piece focussing on what Butler imagines the artist Leonardo da Vinci might be saying to the subject of his portrait. It begins:
Please do not scratch, Lisa. Then now, if you must. You’ve been to the toilet? Your mobile is switched off? Good. Do try to sit still, we’ll look for your contact lens later.
Over all, the effect generally is of a humorous sensitivity playing over the surface of things, finding slightly strange locutions to effect the atmosphere.
I was immediately drawn to Butler’s haibun “Dylan’s Table,” in which he writes: “The table is up for auction, the one on which Dylan Thomas wrote his obituary.” “The words have faded,” the poem tells us, but “The stain left by the whisky glass remains, defying years of cleaning.” I’ve had some interesting conversation via email with an American friend about Dylan Thomas. The location of the poem, which may be unfamiliar to many readers, is the Boat House, where Thomas wrote many of his poems. Having visited the Boat House many years ago when it was derelict and having seen its renovation into a tea-house. A reader who knows anything about Thomas will know his penchant for drink, his poverty and liaisons with women, and will immediately know why the table weeps on his anniversary.
From Mixing It in Suburbia I have chosen “Neighbours”, “No Way Back” and “Boot Sale in the Waste Land.” A specially striking image may be used, as in “Neighbours”—“our new neighbours bowdlerize her prose,” or “Good neighbours are important in Suburbia.” We are not aware at the start of the haibun “No Way Back” who the protagonist is, or why he is returning to a house, where “The swing has gone, but there’s a child’s bicycle.” But we see a neighbour who is “bearded now, liver-mottled, smelling of breakfast, scanning his face for recognition and a name.” The final sentence makes everything clear, and the poem ends with the haiku’s haunting image:
beside him the frame
without a photograph
The aptly titled “Boot Sale in the Waste Land” illustrates much of what is so exciting and invigorating in Butler’s lines:
Not your average car boot sale. James Bond’s lawnmower (‘as new’), Shaw’s razor, Mrs Warren’s ode to celibacy, Jane Austen’s coil, Virginia Woolf’s lifebelt, Marilyn Monroe’s stopwatch (the night she called time), Mrs Beeton’s sheep shears, Hitler’s missing manhood.
The multi-layered haibun sets the tone both in terms of the content and the fact that the poems in this collection act as a bridge between each other.
In the next section “Crossing Boundaries” there is a whirl of images and references—a piece of sky, TV channels, moon circles and more—that form the spokes of Butler’s radii, and are also the haibun’s spokes. Butler achieves this without the lines ever seeming forced as the haibun flow down the pages, their patterns altering the emphasis between prose and haiku. “Dating a Mermaid” begins with the haiku:
on the rocks
The unexpected “seashells” instead of the expected “mermaid” is a delight. I was charmed by Butler’s description of the mermaid dining on sea food:
She prefers fish, so I feed her dover sole, shrimps and langoustines which she finishes at speed, without cutlery or sauces, as we run through Elgar’s Sea Pictures, all of which she knows, some she sings.
“A Piece of Sky” begins with a haiku and then goes on in a gloriously funny way:
This morning, a piece of sky dropped in the high road, so I lassoed it (as one does), took it to Starbucks, sat us down, waited for the usual cliché: ‘I got the blues and fell out with the crowd.’
“. . . And now for the Weather Forecast, January 1st, 2204” is another humorous haibun, where “The government has ordered a Grade 3 rainstorm for Monday between 6.00 and 9.00 pm and my wife is furious. It’s her birthday and she’s got two dozen coming to the barbecue.”
In the following section “Native Trails,” the focus of the haibun shifts to love and loss, a journeyman travelling the lanes, the senses and nature. The first haibun in this section is “Beware the Moth” in which a male emperor moth speaks of his courtship of a female mother: “Love and loss is what happened to me. It was the briefest of courtships. I never knew her parents.” The final haibun is “Ode to the Lesser-Spotted Grumbok,” in which the opening sentence reads:
He says it exists, though none have seen it: the Lesser-Spotted Grumbok (grumboticus minispoticus), a bird seen only in profile. His granddaughter thinks she might have.
The protagonist, an ornithologist, is “noted for his research into the habits of the White Sandpiper, Red-backed Shrike and Greater Short-Toed Lark. Neighbours find his conversation limited, but he has his supporters. The haibun ends with the haiku:
pecking at his toes
In the section “On and off the Road,” there are a variety of powerful haibun about traffic jams, wartime restrictions, road rage, an office, life in the city and harvesting vines. In “Serenading the Motorway,” the writer is in a traffic jam, where the CD is playing “Moonlight Serenade” and there is tumult from the noise of a police car, a sports car, a driver beating on his steering wheel and a helicopter. In “City Type” the central character paints an idyllic picture of what he could be doing with his girlfriend, such as “making T-shirts of daisy chains, seeking glow worms in hedgerows, mining for pearls in sheep droppings, an empty field our private garden.” But what he really pines for is “bricks, bustle, noise, hustle.” The haibun ends with these words:
I could be with you now, but this isn’t you. You’re a country girl, I am a city person. Please understand: I need, I really need, my concrete fix.
in turn at the roundabout
scent of carbon
on the roses
The final section “Still in the Name of Art” says goodbye to Mona Lisa, as da Vinci watches his sitter leave. The haibun ends:
Taking a long look at the painting, he puts down the brush. And leaves it.
alone in the café
she drops her ring
in the sugar
The “Epilogue” contains the final haibun “The Adventures of a Wooden Boulder,” which is illustrated by a painting by David Nash: Wooden Boulder; it begins with these words:
In 1978, British sculptor David Ash fells a 250-old-oak in North Wales, after severe storm damage. The first piece is a spherical Boulder, over a metre in diameter and weighing 400 kg.
Each haibun is self-contained, and the book does not attempt to provide a progressive arc. For this reason, it can be dipped into, to provide momentary access to several themes. Strange, sensuous and bewitching, there is nothing else around quite like Butler’s haibun. Typically, The Trouble with Mona Lisa has its share of the author’s curiosities and eccentricities and he finds the most illuminating way of approaching them is through haibun. The book contains many themes, strategies and pleasures, but there isn’t sufficient space to discuss all the haibun here. It will have to be enough to recommend warmly this mature, sophisticated and touching volume.