Friday, September 27, 2013

Jeffrey Woodward: Evening in the Plaza - Small Press Friday

Haibun and I have had a rocky relationship over the years. I expect a certain something from the form and, it would seem, I'm very particular about that certain something. 

Let's go right to the heart of the matter: if the haiku doesn't work on its own, I'm out of there. 

Is this fair? Am I upholding my end of the relationship, am I demanding too much of a form that isn't simply haiku but haibun, the alchemical amalgam of prose and verse?

I suppose I'm not being fair but I've set a standard and I'm sticking with it. 

I'm happy to report that so is the poet Jeffrey Woodward, in his fine new collection, Evening in the Plaza: Haibun & Haiku, published by Tournesol Books of Detroit, MI. 

Evening is comprised of 40 titled haibun an 48 haiku, the later divided into 4 separate sections. Some of the haibun are outstanding, most notably "A Small Funeral," "Questions for the Flowers," "Family Album," "The Sweet Wild Grass," "Imago," and "Finis Terrae." There are many more that grabbed me, but these are the ones that had that special mix of great execution and personal (to me) appeal.

I'm sure there are others that will grab other readers.

A Small Funeral
Enough:   a    condolence   that  affords no
comfort, a eulogy too feeble to enliven the
perfect composure of its subject, a sermon
that  promises peace where peace will  not
serve ...

Against fair hopes  and  expectations,  to settle
now, as one must, for the recognized rites and
to commit this being,  so precious, to a lasting
rest, the homily and liturgy an obligation:

a book of wisdom
is set before the world
and autumn deepens

The  23rd  Psalm  recited  as,  also,  the  "Our
Father," the congregation files out and forms
a corridor as  if  to wait  not  upon this  final 
parting  but upon  the  arrival  of  a  dignitary.

a tiny coffin
ventures out like a whisper
into the bright day
Not far behind, there on the steps before the
great door of the church:

late autumn-
about the parish priest
the wind is black

The emotion, the power of this piece is almost beyond words. Where there is "a condolence / that affords not comfort" and a promised "peace where peace will not / serve ...," what might be said?

And then the poet says it.

Here, in words that follow the lamentation of neither comfort nor peace, comes just what is missing: a true eulogy, a sermon on loss, on pain and on sorrow. As the poem unfolds, "this being, so precious" begins to realize a final rest; the book of wisdom open, but it is autumn that keens, it is autumn that deepens. 

Now the being, the lost one, is a dignitary in the emotion of the attendees, played out in a ritual service after the formal one. The 23rd Psalm and Our Father echo, but it is the coffin itself that actually speaks, whispering out into the bright day the true message.

All ends with a perfect haiku - the wind, normally invisible, is manifest, and it is, yes, black.

What might be thought of as a companion haibun follows:


The Sweet Wild Grass

    That's    where    we   stood,     that's    where
    beforehand we  knew we'd end  up, a  gang of
    boys, on a hot midsummer day, loitering about
    a low retainer wall that marked an entrance to
    a   village   cemeterysomeone    scuffling   his
    tennis  shoes in the  gravel, someone   chewing
    on a blade  of sweet  wild grass  plucked  from 
    the  broad  field  across   the  road,   someone
    retelling  an  exaggerated  tale that   an   uncle 
    had told

     Then the funeral party came, everybody in 
    black, everybody wrinkled and dry like pale 
    dust,   everybody  shuffling  along  in  dead
    silence  except  for the muffled sobbing  of 
    somebody somewhere 

    A rote recitation
    of the 23rd Psalm 
    and cicadas 

    Then a man in black suit and tie, a lean man
    with  a shock of white  hair, approached us 
    from that party, approached with a slow but
    deliberate gait, and  he drew  near and drew 
    with him the hush of his black flock 

    But  before he  reached  that  wall, before he
    might come  so close as  to  brush us with his
    breath or tell us whatever it was he would tell, 
    our gang  jumped  up  and   scurried  over  the 
    road,  each  boy   then  looking  back  over  a
    going quietly
    into the deep
    grass of summer

This poem at once seems almost a companion piece to the earlier poem, yet, really, there is no telling the chronology and even if they are related. Still, I had a Rashomon feeling while reading it, as if I was seeing the same event from a different perspective. 

If possible, this piece is even more powerful than the previous. Here there is a lost innocence, not simply of the deceased, if something like this might ever be described as simple, but of the young observers.

Perhaps this was their companion - after the first death, as Dylan Thomas wrote - in any case, the power of the event is palpable. In its specificity, the poem almost crosses over into the domain of short story.

But the same might be said of many a haiku, which is the beauty of condensation. 

Speaking of haiku, there are a number of very fine one's here:

with every blackbird,
the sun, too, settles deeper
into the cold trees

There are many superior qualities to this poem, not the least of which is its literalness: the settling of the sun, in the form of the birds (or reflected on those forms), into the trees as it sets on the horizon.

In addition to literalness, there is the poem's allusiveness - one can't help but think of Basho's famed poem of autumn, tree, and crow: 

on a bare branch
a crow has settled
autumn dusk

Woodward's poem is no mere pastiche or homage: it inhabits the same universe, the same world, both again literally and also figuratively. 

a nest -
nothing more,
nothing less

Here is an object for contemplation, akin in some ways to the famed half a glass of water. The reader at first seems to have little to work with, but this is not so.

Not at all. 

the cobblestone
of the city's old quarter
and red leaves

This is a poem of layer upon layer upon layer. It is a poem of civilization, a poem of nature and, for man, above all, a poem of time. 

Ultimately, for me, it is a poem of stunning beauty, stumbled upon in an ancient square, in a forgotten city ... in an exciting new book.

A book I recommend for lovers of haibun, haiku, and poetry itself. 


Photo by Denis Collette

at a funeral...
the autumn wind
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Theresa Williams said...

Wonderful review!

Mary Frederick Ahearn said...

This surely sets the highest standard for haibun - I've read and re-read this post several times to enjoy the beauty and art. Your review is spot on - enlightening and full of respect for this artist.
Thank you Don for bringing this book to our attention. Looks like a treasure.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Theresa ... it is a wonderful book.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Mary, I appreciate the kind words, as I am sure Jeffrey does. This is an amazing collection.

tom said...

Fine review - and what I read I like. Added to my wish list.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Glad you like what you read and the review, too. Jeffrey's book is worth the hard earned dough.

Mary Frederick Ahearn said...

Just ordered this book - it will be such a joy to have. Thanks again for your review- always happy to learn of new haiku world books out there!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Enjoy it, Mary. I'm sure you will find many other poems of interest.