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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 9, Number 4, December 2015

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Ferris Gilli
Marietta, Georgia, USA


On Ray Rasmussen's Landmarks

Landmarks: A Haibun Collection by Ray Rasmussen. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Haibun Bookshelf Publishing, 2015. Paperback, 112 pages, $8.50 paperback, $4.50 e-book. ISBN: 978-0994813800. Available as Rasmussen, Landmarks on Amazon.Com.

Landmarks offers fans of haibun (and haiku) hours of evocative and informative reading. Readers seeking exemplar haibun and easily accessible guidance in the genre can contentedly immerse themselves within these pages. Bonuses at the end of the book include an article by Ray Rasmussen listing ten characteristics of contemporary haibun that set it apart from prose poetry, short stories, and flash fiction. There is also an in-depth interview with Rasmussen by Jeffrey Woodward, Founder and General Editor of Haibun Today, and a brief essay from Rasmussen about inuksuit, the landmarks built of stones by Inuit peoples, which inspired the book’s title.

The sixty-four collected haibun in Landmarks welcome us into the intriguing worlds of Ray Rasmussen, where we are privy to his personal merestones, his dreams both fulfilled and lost, his explorations into nature’s wilderness and into the man himself. Often writing as if in conversation with friends, Rasmussen gives us unexpected glimpses into his psyche, which in turn prompts the reader to look into his or her own ego. The collection doesn’t adhere to any deliberate arrangement of subject-related sections. “Instead,” according to the author, “the sequence is mixed, akin to the random order in which I remembered or lived each experience.” His themes are as varied as their order is random. Family life, divorce, aging, retirement, machismo, romance, sex, euthanasia—all are fair game for Rasmussen’s pen. Averaging about 250 words each, these colorful vignettes are rooted in reality, even the few that are for the most part imagination and whimsy.

Refreshingly so, the haiku in this collection sometimes surprise me. Occasionally they may appear to come from a place not related to the prose, but their connection to the author’s line of thought quickly becomes clear. They, as do all the haiku, invariably complement the prose by adding a new dimension to the story line or enhancing a mood. Rasmussen is fond of dialogue, and he uses it easily and effectively, which heightens the immediacy of his work. Although the haibun are mainly narrative, using few poetic devices, his prose is at times laced with descriptions whose effect brings to mind the phrase “sheer poetry.” They are lovely to read. From “Desert Walks”:

Late afternoon. Sun's glare diminishes, winds whisper and skin opens as to a lover’s caress. Frogs sing their lust, bees hum in the fragrant yellow barberry.

And from “The Whole Works”:

It’s one of many small places where an occasional rush of water shapes sandstone walls into delicate curves, where desert plants offer unexpected splashes of color, where pot holes contain brine shrimp and tadpoles, where stunted junipers twist and twirl in the dance of life and where there will likely be no footprints besides my own.

Rasmussen expertly appeals to the senses, bringing readers right into his experience with scent, taste, touch, sight, sound. In the first haibun, “Warmth,” his nostalgia for the past is evident. Missing his daughters when they were young, he remembers special moments:

Reading The Hobbit in winter, snuggled in close, bodies and fire keeping us warm, rewarded with their pleas: Just one more page, please dad! Please!

This evokes memories of his own childhood, as a sense of nostalgia fills his reminiscence of camphor rubs, winter snuggling, and song:

I don’t remember being read to, but when I was sick, my mother sang lullabies while tucking me deep under the covers, only my nose and ears sticking out.

The haiku at the end returns us to the present and perhaps reflects the moment that sent the author into the past:

old friends—
I place more wood
on the campfire

While Rasmussen consistently holds my interest with serious writing about serious topics, I find it appealing that he seems determined not to take himself too seriously. The solid underpinnings of day-to-day life enhance the credibility of his frequently humorous depictions and those rich with irony. “Age of Enlightenment” describes his amusing experience with a 15-speed bicycle that he had expected would allow him to travel very fast. He learns that the inclines in his city are prohibitive:

On today’s ride, two kids zip past on an uphill yelling, ‘Almost there, Geezer!’

Still, he allows a glimpse of his weariness, even between the layers of humor in the haiku that follows:

hitchhiking mosquito—
it’s a transfusion I need,
not a withdrawal

The vivid images in “Last Walk” bring me more into the author’s experience than I am prepared to be, catching me unawares, pulling the rug right out from under me. His prose depicts the heartbreak that inevitably comes to animal lovers whose beloved companions outlive their enjoyment of life. Without words of emotion, he evokes devastating memories of the decline of individual animals I have loved, with the ending haiku further eliciting a sense of deep grief:

Yesterday, I watched as she hobbled towards her food bowl, her back legs going out from under her. She was stuck half sitting, staring blankly.

mail delivery—
the sound of a dog
not barking

With the thirteenth haibun, “To Be a Man,” the author describes a situation in which a group of men relate their brushes with death. One man has scars from being mauled by a wolf; another man used to be a bull rider; others tell stories of a grizzly encounter, a moose attack, danger on a cliff’s edge. Rasmussen is not inclined to share his personal tales with these tough, hard men. Inwardly, he attempts to understand his reluctance. The ending haiku seems somehow to expose the author’s vulnerability, but not without a bit of endearing self-humor:

I have stories too but don’t tell them. What makes for this reluctance, this distance I feel from these men’s men? Is it because I’m usually on foot and not riding a horse? That I’m not a hunter? Never rodeoed? Never worked the land with hands and back?

burn of straight whiskey—
my only scar
surgical

Ray Rasmussen has become known as a brilliant writer, an inspiring editor, and a sought-after teacher. As I read his works in Landmarks, it is obvious that he practices what he teaches, with his lucid style resulting in the finest kind of haibun. The author’s strong, unique voice resonates from page to page and long after the book is closed. For most of these haibun, one reading is simply not enough. Rasmussen’s voice can be addictive.

I find it fitting that the final haibun, “Lost Canyon,” seems not only an account of the author’s experience, but a metaphor for a common theme in human lives, a recognition of the needs and fears of a person whose nest is empty of spouse and children. Though obligations in one area have dwindled, they have bloomed anew in another. Decisions must be made, feelings must be examined and weighed. Rasmussen sits with his female companion, legs dangling over the edge of a canyon, slipping toward a relationship, yet fearful of its inevitable complexities.

. . . lusting, bonding, loving, declaring—afraid of those everythings we carry with us.

almost sunset—
our shadows mingle
on ancient stone

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