Haibun Today


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

Dru Philippou
Taos, New Mexico, USA


Review of Bruce Ross’s endless small waves

endless small waves by Bruce Ross. London, Ontario: HMS Press, 2008. 7” x 8,” perfect bound, 102 pp. ISBN: 978-1-55253-070-2. Available $15 US & Canada, $17 overseas, from Bruce Ross, PMB 127, 499 Broadway, Bangor, ME 04401.

Bruce Ross’s latest book, endless small waves, is written in the spirit of a nikki or travelogue. His journey starts in Canada, detours to other parts of the world, and ends in Mexico. There is neither chronological order nor the convention of a diurnal entry but the individual haibun seem divorced from time. These sixty-eight haibun have a dream-like quality that range in theme from nature to myth.

In the opening haibun “Life Is a Dream” (6), the author reminisces about the "vivid dream states" he shared with a friend in the 60's and 70's. He asks: “ . . . were we living an illusory reality in our dreams and in our waking?”He then describes an outing, with his wife, to the Canadian Rockies. That morning, they planned on climbing the Wall of Stone Ridge, but overslept. Ross fell into a “dream state.” Due to the late start, they decided to hike Grotto Canyon instead. On the way to the canyon, he sensed the presence of a Stoney Indian guide as they passed through the reserve. In Grotto Canyon, the Indian paintings reminded him of “ghostlike beings painted in Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon.” Ross began to bridge other rock art images seen in different locations. Returning home, Black Elk’s tribe and their capacity for dream visions flashed through his mind. In the house, he opened a book and learned that

. . . shamans claim they alter their consciousness so that they might obtain knowledge that allows them to “ameliorate the condition” of their society. I had found my answer.

The concluding haiku is rich in layers of meaning:

late afternoon light . . .
shaman pictographs stand above
the frozen creek

There’s an opposing tension between the images. The pictographs represent the shaman’s flights between different realms. The frozen creek represents the stasis of life. Moreover, there’s an imminent transformation that can neither be forced nor hurried; the creek will soon melt into spring.

By the same token, Ross also went through a shamanistic process and realizes that all realities have value. He harnesses memories, dreams, and archetypal forces that allow him to reshape his immediate reality. “Life is a Dream” sets the tone and rhythm for the book.

In “Winter Moon” (12), the reader is lured by the spell of the author’s uncertain state:

I had a very late dinner of vegetable tempura at the Plum House. The sky was shiny black with bright stars which I wanted to look at before I went home. Then somehow I forgot what I wanted. I drove home rather than spending time looking at the stars. As I parked my car I noticed that the sky was completely covered with cloud masses and the glow of a huge moon low on the horizon was emerging. I looked at it trying to remember something.

late winter night—
out of gray rolling clouds
the shimmering moon

Three images, in this haibun, act as metaphors that reflect Ross’s inner state. The first image (“The sky was shiny black with bright stars . . .”) shows his intention to view the stars before returning home. The second image (“the sky was completely covered with cloud masses and the glow of a huge moon low on the horizon was emerging”) reveals that he has forgotten what he set out to do and that his mental distraction is slowly being replaced by awareness. The third image

late winter night—
out of gray rolling clouds
the shimmering moon

represents a return of the author’s memory; “the shimmering moon” emerges from the cloud mass. Overall, there’s an implicit empathy in Ross’s inability to focus. Furthermore, he is so intimately connected with nature that to read these images as metaphors may fall short.

The synergy of prose and haiku in “Memorial Day” (15) is an exemplar of the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts:

It seems just another calendar notation this year. But do I sense a special stillness this morning? A kind of hovering attention and quiet in the fields and woods surrounding this house I live in.

Memorial Day
all the dandelions
turned inward

There’s something in the author’s environment not yet in awareness and this is sensed as "hovering attention." He allows his intuition to guide him and something outside of himself begins to shape his growing awareness. This is expressed unanimously in the haiku where “all the dandelions / turn inward.” Inner and outer reality merge in an epiphany that encapsulates the narrator’s deep reverence for the dead.

“Old Stone Walls” (31) hones in on the efficacy of silence:

The long-abandoned monastery lies in the hills of western Portugal. We wind our way single file through the narrow, low passageways, entering the various living areas in turn, with bowed torsos. In a courtyard we are told that one of the monks’ vows was not to write or speak anything unless it was as beautiful as silence. I linger in one corridor and almost melt into the stillness.

monk’s quarters
light and shadows
on the stone walls

The journey through the monastery evokes a labyrinthine wandering and a path to one’s centre. In the corridor, the author becomes one with the stillness, and a portal opens into the sacred, in which he is able to subsume both “light and shadows / on the stone wall.”

Although the theme of war is sparingly woven throughout this collection, “Sketched” (28) stands out with its strong emotions and jolts the reader out of the steady rhythm of the book. Perhaps this is the author’s intent, but the haibun remains dissonant:

I was hesitant to visit this national Vietnam veterans museum devoted to art work of those veterans, afraid of the emotions memories of that troubling time might evoke, such as an abstract chiaroscuro gingerbread man-like outline of a gray figure co-joined to a similar black outline entering some doorway, a void really, entitled “Fear.” Row after row after row the feelings of those young spirits, feelings locked in that time and that place, appeared before me. I was looking for some shard of brightness in all that torment and rage and found it in a simple watercolor of a Vietnam landscape.

Vietnam vet art
The scene sketched with
C-ration coffee

Generally, Ross has a tendency to repeat titles, words, and themes from his prose in his haiku. Yet, this seems to be his style rather than a fault. Occasionally the prose is too commonplace but then he compensates for this with his strings of seamless sentences adding to the dreamy quality of his work.

In “Grand Manan” (100), Ross instills nature with mystery and wonder:

Deep fog and haze cover Grand Manan turning the high overlooks of Southwest Head into early Chinese landscapes with the rugged outcroppings emerging from the fog and below the hint of sea and intertidal rocks and sand. The damp coldness of it all in our faces. The fog drifts over the trail and on an old fallen spruce pale green lichen and old man’s beard. At Great Pond the birds are not disturbed by our presence, the visible warblers sing to each other above our heads. A blue-winged teal and her babies fade in and out. On a bleached dead tree the still kingfisher another piece of darkened old man’s beard. Overnight rain at the inn has turned orange the yellow lichen on an ornamental rock. The weather has cleared on the ferry back to the mainland.

endless small waves
at the end of each island
a fishing weir

The allusion to the Taoist-influenced Chinese landscape painting champions the transformative forces of nature. The emotive elements experienced in nature’s motion—fog, sea, rain, wind, and birds in flight—convey a mood of impermanence, of being carried along by a mysterious universal flow and almost pantheistic mysticism. Then there is a moment of balance as motion reverts to stillness: “On a bleached dead tree the still kingfisher . . .” Then back to motion again and a further transformation: “Overnight rain at the inn has turned orange the yellow lichen on an ornamental rock.” Gradually, the fog disperses and the islands become stepping-stones back to civilization, one adequately embodied by a fishing weir.

Ross’s ability to captivate the reader's attention stems from moments of intense personal awareness. There’s an underlying meditative and self-explorative thread that pervades this collection. His poetry resonates subliminally conveying a spiritual wisdom that cannot easily be put into words.


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