Haibun Today


A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 2, June 2010

Owen Bullock
Waihi, New Zealand


Review of Giselle Maya’s Poem Tales

Poem Tales: Uta Monogatari, edited by Giselle Maya, with contributions by Jim Kacian, Ingrid Kunschke, Patricia Prime and Jeffrey Woodward; calligraphy by Isabelle Baticle. Saint Martin de Castillon, France: Koyama Press, 2010. 10” x 13,” hand-sewn saddlestich, 40 pp. Available 20 Euros, $27 USD from Giselle Maya, 84750 Saint Martin de Castillion, France.

This elegant book is designed and produced by Giselle Maya, with brushwork illustrations by Isabelle Bastiche. Haibun and tanka prose by five poets is printed on handmade A4 paper inside a generous and thick paper cover, torn edges intact, and bound with linen thread. When I received this collection I found myself handling it with a sense of reverence. The book stays open at any page and seems to grace the room in which it lies.

The opening selection by Jim Kacian is delightful for the way he manages to vary the tone of his prose. He begins with a sparse and simple offering; the second piece is more lyrical, and the third, ‘miles out to sea’ (2), makes use of a poetic diction that is strongly haiku-like. This piece recounts the sighting of a pilot whale in the Louisdale channel. I enjoy the concision of: “out into the dark—knew what i was doing, did it anyway . . .” and the subtle way in which we see that action, despite danger, holds sway. Kacian frequently omits prepositions to allow more flow in the writing: “wind has died but still a frail voice to it,” which means that one can enter the scene more rapidly. The haibun ends with a one-line haiku, but some of the phrases within the prose are particularly close to his one-line technique, such as “nearing i make out timbered jaggedness.”

The tone and phrasing of ‘Margaret of Scotland’ (3) differs again, being more rhetorical, but no less rewarding in terms of the pleasures of language; I loved: “Ophion himself, hermaphroditic progenitor of the Cosmic Egg and its defender.” Others of the short haibun sport excellent concluding haiku, such as ‘Tawhai Falls’ and ‘the interview’ (1):

on an interview tape
from far away
the song of birds

Ingrid Kunschke takes a more fairy tale approach in her tanka prose. It is as if she writes a legend retrospectively to explain some current reality. We meet a likeable fox who “coloured the pines’ stems a shiny red-copper” (4), but eventually leaves the major tasks to the sun. Her prose style makes for a nice contrast with the tanka. In general, it seems that one of the potential weaknesses of tanka prose and haibun lies in a lack of contrast between the prose and the poetry, the haiku and tanka often taking on too much of the character of the prose. I think of these forms as ‘self-renga’ and it seems that when the renga element is lacking they lose power; that is not the case here.

In that first piece, the tanka are written in the voice of the fox, and in the next assume the voices of pheasant, praying mantis and skylark. The writing begins to feel like an independent genre; it’s certainly fairy tale meets tanka poetry. The Arctic Owl and the wind are the protagonists in ‘Few and Far Between’ (9-11). Again, the story has the air of myth, in this case, to explain the composition of the arctic landscape. When the wind grieves the loss of the owl, and of a special friend, a surreal quality is introduced by this tanka:

White snow’s falling
covering all alike—
how else
could even boulders wear
the Owl’s softest feathers?

Similarly, Giselle Maya writes in the mode of a legend. She gives a note to ‘The Fox’s Wedding’ (14) to confirm: “In Japan a shower during sunshine is called ‘the fox’s bride is going to her husband’s house’”, and tells of a boy who witnessed this very story unfold. He goes on to become “one who told tales.”

There are some lovely phrases in Maya’s work (such as ‘peony snowflakes’), but occasionally the English is stilted, over-playing the fairy tale style with inversions which drag on the ear. At the same time, the tone can be jaunty: “On just such a day,” and “Once before a time,” though the repetition of the latter tended to yield some of its impact. In ‘Urashimataro’ and ‘Antelope’, I felt the story ended too quickly and would have benefitted from further development. But I loved the opening tanka of ‘Antelope’ (17) with its sense that the characters in the last two lines could be two people or one:

his being
starbound and light
leaving behind
the turbaned child and
a prince’s blue robe

On the whole, perhaps the contrast I mentioned between prose and poetry doesn’t work so well here. Maya’s writing is more childlike than Kunschke’s, with a quicker and slightly generalised progression in the story. But her selection ends with a nice variation, as ‘Dragon Scales’ (19) is book-ended by two single-line haiku.

Patricia Prime’s contribution begins by quoting a tanka of Otomo Yakamochi, from the Man’yōshū, but the prose which follows it, concerning ‘The White Wolf’ (20-21), lacks flow, with an obvious blunder in “while she was became enhanced in knowledge.” But it’s nice to see a piece of tanka prose ending with a trio of tanka, something which Prime does often. Though simple, these tanka neatly convey the relationship between the girl in the red cape and the fox. Prime’s next piece, ‘A Winter’s Night’ (22), opens with an intriguing tanka:

you have no heart
except for those
who stand
waiting for your laugh
beneath the summer moon

suggesting complex relationships. Unfortunately, in the prose, I was confused by the varying use of tenses.

‘Rapunzel’ (23) also begins with a tanka from the Man’yōshū. This time, Prime follows up with three more tanka of her own, which proves to be a rewarding strategy. I particularly enjoyed the softness of the second tanka:

find my window
above the pines
don’t hesitate
where a light shines
to throw a pebble

The character of the princess proves to be like a glass reflecting only the power of her own love, despite the disapproval of her father. The prose of ‘Dancing Feet’ is simlarly effective, the syntax rather clipped in comparison with Prime’s other work here.

Jeffrey Woodward’s first haibun, ‘Clearly Now’ (26), produces another change of style. He gets straight into the story in no uncertain fashion:

I, too, am a master of the Way. The wind is caught up in the silk sleeves of my garment and I, too, fly to Mount Penglai. There, the Eight Immortals pour my tea.

out of the great mill
of a billowing cloud,
white butterflies

The haiku suggests a magical scene, and the prose is elegant in its simplicity. The first haiku in ‘Unbridled’ (26) relates a lovely interaction:

she leans on his neck
patiently, but the stallion
confesses nothing

A second haiku closes the haibun after a paragraph of prose, and evokes translations of Bashō and Issa.

Woodward’s ‘A Record of Semiramu’ (27-28) delivers further variations of style. Much of the opening section, which, alternately, reads as truncated prose or prose poetry is, like Kacian’s, close to haiku: “Plucking four strings with a plectrum, he quiets an autumn gale.” But, next, the work is punctuated by several tanka (‘the back of the biwa’ is excellent) and paragraphs of more conventional prose. The work conjures an ancient scene with use of a certain delicate formality without seeming archaic.

A few of the pieces in this collection seem out of place with the general theme of creatures and story-telling—Prime’s ‘Reflections’ and Woodward’s ‘Glass Lake’ and ‘Out of Season’—and probably could have been left out; but this is a minor complaint. Overall, the writing goes a long way towards showing the possibilities of haibun and tanka prose as forms, with a lot of fun along the way. Isabelle Bastiche’s brushwork complements the poetry extremely well (I found her image of a turtle especially compelling) and adds significantly to the sense of this book as a work of art.


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