Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 1, March 2011

Glenn G. Coats
Prospect, Virginia, USA

On Cor van den Heuvel's A Boy's Seasons: haibun memoirs

A Boy's Seasons: haibun memoirs by Cor van den Heuval. Portsmouth, N.H.: Single Island Press, 2010. 6 ½" x 7 ½," perfect bound, 208 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9740895-8-4. $24.95 USD.

Cor van den Heuvel is well known in the haiku community as an innovator in the development of North American haiku. He is a lifelong student of haiku and its related forms. His three editions of The Haiku Anthology have inspired many writers to pursue haiku. He has worked both as editor, translator, and served as president of the Haiku Society of America. Cor van den Heuvel has published a number of haiku books and garnered awards for his writing. His home now is in New York City.

A Boy's Seasons is an elegant look back at a boy's life in the 1930's and 1940's. It is both nostalgic and historic as it describes a world (New England) that is quite different than the one we find today. Sports like baseball, football, and basketball gave purpose to the boy's year with other interests and holidays providing definition and character to each season. The preface was written by Carl Patrick. In the introduction, van den Heuvel writes, "More than just a memoir in the form of personal essays, this book is in a new form in English that has become very popular on websites and literary magazines devoted to haiku and its related genres: it's called haibun, a mixed form of prose and haiku" (XV).

The form of van den Heuvel's haibun varies throughout the book. All of the prose is written in the past tense and mainly in the first person. The pattern changes somewhat in the last section titled "A Boy's Holidays" where the author writes on behalf of all the boys and uses plural pronouns like we or the second person singular or plural you. "Marbles and Bubble Gum" (14-18) begins with two paragraphs, one haiku, three paragraphs, one haiku, two paragraphs, one haiku, two paragraphs, one haiku. The chapter titled "The Paper Route" is a haiku sequence containing twenty-seven poems. "Marbles and Bubble Gum Cards" is a memorable chapter where I learned of the cigar box game where you dropped a marble from waist high and tried to sink it in a small hole in a cigar box. The owner of the box had to give up several marbles if the bull's eye was hit. Other playground games are described in rich detail. The prose is clean: "In the soft cloth bag, there was a nice contrast between the hardness of each marble, signaled by the clicks, and the liquid flow of all the marbles when you changed the bag's shape by handling it" (15). The haiku are simple, direct, and often about one subject:

     the toy sailboat
     sails across the puddle
     with a cargo of two marbles (14)

     a spinning top
     moves along the sidewalk
     towards the girl's jacks (16)

The haiku are consistently straightforward and matter-of-fact in tone. The prose consistently outshines the haiku. "Winter" (67) begins with a paragraph followed by seven haiku. The prose is poetic: "It's the cold yellow-grey sun so distant and slanting as it flickers at evening over the pines and across the snow-covered fields." The poem that follows the paragraph:

     winter wind
     the dog comes in with snow
     stuck to his coat

There is nothing wrong with the poem except that it doesn't surprise or take me down an unexpected road. It doesn't show me something that I have never seen before.

The chapter titled "The Circus" (46-51) contains some fine haibun. It begins with a haiku, followed by a paragraph, then a haiku. The following page begins with a paragraph, then a single line haiku, a paragraph, then two haiku. The haiku about the circus coming to town are the strongest in the book and they are rich in imagery:

     a canvas sign
     billows in the wind
     "The Fat Lady" (47)

     rising over
     the freak-show tent
     a gibbous moon (47)

     on the elephants back
     summer breeze (48)

"A Boy's Fights" (91-113) is a chronicle of van den Heuvel's fights that begin in first grade and end with a prolonged battle in the eighth grade. The last fight begins with a few carelessly chosen words (van den Heuvel) about his friend Arthur's girlfriend. Since both boys have paper routes to complete, the fight travels through town where it is witnessed by cheering soldiers on a train, as the boys fight their way to the newspaper office.

     the evening paper
     on the darkening lawn
     first star (113)

The last section centers on holidays. "For me as a boy there were seven holidays that were important for reasons above and beyond being days off from school: Valentine's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas" (117). At this point, van den Heuvel writes as if he is not just speaking for himself but for all the boys who were a part of that time and place. The writing would have been more pointed and sharp, if van den Heuvel had spoken only of what he saw and felt. "Easter was exciting when we were little kids not because Christ was risen and going to save our souls, but because the Easter Bunny was going to come 'hopping down the bunny trail' with a basket full of goodies" (133).

In "Memorial Day" the author returns to a more personal account as he describes what he was doing when he learned that World War II had ended. "My body was deep into it with my mind miles away when I was startled from my concentration by the noise of car horns blowing and honking from the nearby highway. Then I heard repeated blasts from the distant town's noon whistle" (142). It is when the narrative returns to the personal that the work is again touching.

The immediacy of the present tense in the poems is effective in evoking the winter world a paper boy travels through alone. I am left to wonder how the prose might have benefitted from a present tense approach as if he (van den Heuvel) were seeing the world through a boy's eyes in the here and now. Still, A Boy's Seasons is a fine memoir. It is a view into a pastoral, idyllic world, where life flows from one season to the next carrying with it the promise of what matters in a boy's life. Radio shows spring to life in a child's imagination and late at night a father builds a bookcase so his son has a place to keep his most precious possessions.


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