Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 2, June 2011

Lynne Rees
Antibes, Alpes Maritimes, France


On Charles Hansmann's The Loneliness Jacket

The Loneliness Jacket by Charles Hansmann. Baltimore, MD: Apprentice House, 2011. 5 ½" x 8 ½," perfect bound, 40 pp. ISBN 978-1-934074-61-9. Available for $12 USD directly from the author: Charles Hansmann, 53 Ninth Avenue, Sea Cliff, NY 11579-1117. Address inquiries to HansmannChas@msn.com

The Loneliness Jacket is a collection of 30 free verse poems, 12 of which conclude with a haiku or a haiku-like verse. As I'm reviewing the book for Haibun Today I assume that those 12 poems are intended to be haibun. As a haibun editor and writer who has rarely been convinced by poetry/poetry combos I have to remind myself to keep an open mind. I'd like to come to a considered opinion of what these poems achieve rather than be persuaded by a personal bias at the outset.

However a number of these 12 poems present a further challenge—I've already seen and read them laid out as prose with a closing haiku, or prose interspersed with haiku.

"In Step," the final poem in the book, had a previous incarnation in Dover Beach and My Back Yard, The BHS Haibun Anthology 2007 and apart from some minor tweaks to language the main body of the poem is the same, as is the haiku. "At Sea" also appeared in the same anthology but in The Loneliness Jacket it has been stripped of its two accompanying haiku.

Similarly, "En Pointe" was previously published in Frogpond in prose/haiku format as opposed to:

En Pointe

Someone's daughter
loves to dance.

Any unheard
music seems to do,

and any partner.
The table's shimmed leg

attends her lifted heel.
She gains a peek

beyond the windowsill.

ballet slippers
beside the bed

I'm a strong believer in the reciprocation of form and content, regardless of form and genre, and here the short lines, and some discordant enjambment within couplets ("attends her lifted heel/ She gains a peek"??) have a fracturing effect: they cut the breath, introduce abruptness, attack fluidity, and halt the rhythm. And, for me, all that works against what the piece of writing is about: a child dancing, the unconscious expression of joy. Make up your own mind:

En Pointe

Our daughter loves to dance. Any unheard music seems to do. And any partner. The table's shimmed leg attends her heel. She gains a peek beyond the windowsill.

ballet slippers
beside the bed

You might also notice the change from "Our daughter" in the original haibun to the anonymous "Someone's . . ." in the current version. The shift from the personal to the impersonal has a negative effect on the intimacy of that closing haiku and on the haibun form. Starting with "Our" enables us to read along with a parent and grants us that intimate glimpse into the daughter's room; we could even be watching her sleep. It's as if the two parts of the original haibun close around the child like a protection. In the poem version I find myself looking in on "Someone's daughter" and the anonymity and voyeurism make me uncomfortable.

All writers revise, rewrite and republish and my observations aren't meant to criticise those processes. But what we write and how we write it are inextricably linked and I'm having difficulty in understanding the poet's reasons for these changes.

I've already declared a bias for haibun that combine prose and poetry (haiku or judiciously chosen tanka) but this isn't because of any strict adherence to tradition. It's to do with the capabilities and limitations of each form, what they're individually able to achieve, and the tension that can be created when they're brought together. If both, or all, parts of a haibun are constructed in the same way, and if the type of attention each part asks of us does not differ, then that tension is diluted, or even removed.

One of the haibun poems in The Loneliness Jacket does get closer to achieving that tension. "Homeland" is one of the longest poems in the collection and follows the narrative of a dream and the imagined experience of an MRI examination scheduled for the following day. It is perhaps this expanded narrative in the body of the poem that allows the haiku to have an effect and take me back into what I've already read. The narrator's anxiety about "the tight chamber," the details of the dream recounted by his partner ("You dream I am dead and you visit me in heaven"), and the idea the poem carries about the fragility of life, how quickly it can change, are all intensified by the closing haiku:

we hear it again
at work on the roof patch
trying to get in

In "Incipit," another haibun poem, the narrator imagines the time of his conception, pictures his parents in their youth ("my father blue-penciling theses"), and closes the poem with the seductive:

Then some pretty picnic
dress tossed on on impulse, hair undone
in whispers to me impossibly unknown.

It's an effectively constructed poem with considered line breaks, well chosen concrete imagery and a strong poetic closure. The imagery anchors me to the recreated scene but is open enough in the last line for me to wonder about what remains "unknown," possibly in the lives of my own parents. But then the poem concludes with a haiku that abruptly removes me from that scene and the reflective space and propels me into a choice of two very different worlds:

sandals by the swing
in sun in shade in sun in shade
bare feet pumping

The phrase "bare feet pumping," perhaps because of the subject matter and previous sensuality, unfortunately conjures up in my mind the idea of an energetic "quickie" in the open air before I "see" the image of a child on a swing which is probably what I'm supposed to see! But neither reaction improves the poem for me or makes the poem a haibun. The haiku remains independent rather than deepening my response to what I've already read.

I haven't searched out the origins of all 12 of the haibun poems in the book, or the other 18, although the names of the journals on the Acknowledgements page suggest that quite a number of them previously existed as prose. That fact aside, I did enjoy many of them as poems.

"Missing Me One Place" closes beautifully, and haiku-ishly, with:

Stray footprint in mulch,
a crocus poking up through the arch—
some lines I know by heart as soon as I read them.

I really like the longing in that final line, a longing that's reinforced by its length stretching into the white of the page.

"Apprentice" delicately captures the memory of a sister's "conjured snowflakes" in "summer heat" that she has spent weeks snipping from her notebook.

And there are fresh observations too as in this from "Catch and Release":

Then South Dakota, the grass so little nurtured
it seems we wear paths just by pointing at
the places we would walk to.

And one of my favourite poems (which is haiku-less), "Likeness," exquisitely marries form and content, the line breaks creating ambiguities and temporarily blurring the sense as the narrator recounts the blurred identities of two people:

. . . Here comes the woman looking
out through my reflection.

But these are my appreciations of free verse poetry not haibun.

Someone writing a review of The Loneliness Jacket solely as a collection of poetry, someone who has no insights or expectations of the haibun as a form, would be far less critical than I have been, I am sure. Although, as a published free-verse poet myself, I also think that detaching the haiku, and having the confidence to let some of them stand alone as short poems in their own right, would, for the most part, have made for a stronger collection.







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