Editors Choice Haibun – Recollections

VOLUME 2: ISSUE 3
NOVEMBER 2002

 Editor’s Choice “recollections” haibun

move with the wind
A selection of one poem other than a haiku
Debi Bender, Editor

Although there are poems of excellence in the shortverses selections, the poetic work that I feel is one of the very finest among submissions sent to me for various features and columns is not from the shortverses category, but rather, is one the “recollections” I’d received from several participants of the September events of the Basho Journey/ WHF2002/or Kamakura/Kyoto Options. The report is titled, “Through the Cloud Gate to Moon Mountain: A Journey in Oku”. Written in the style of haibun, its author is Tim Hornyak, a Canadian who lives and works in Japan. Tim is a runner-up of the 2002 R. H. Blyth Award for his haiku:

Cryptomerias
receding in the mountain mist
I forget the shrine

His work as a reporter and free-lance writer of special-interest articles has surely given Tim his own direct, observational and objective writing style which adapts perfectly to haibun, the genre of those Japanese poets who have recorded their travels in diaries of poetic prose embedded with haiku.

In September I was fortunate and blessed through the kindness of others, to travel to Japan for WHC’s “Oku-no-hosomichi / WHF2000 / Kamakura-Kyoto Options”. As our little band of international poets followed Basho’s straw-sandaled footsteps, the tires of our luxury coach rolled through omnipresent patchworked fields of golden rice and lacy, white soba, past chronicled river and immortalized sea — all uphill — from Tokyo to Yuwa town in search of what Basho sought. Tim had flown alone to Akita from Tokyo, joining us and about 1,000 other participants for the intensive three days of conference events, departing afterward for a personal trip to Gassan. We met and spoke briefly, from time-to-time that short while in Akita. Two months later, reading his report at home in the U.S., I feel that Tim, especially, has surely found the spirit of Basho along his way, as reflected in the writing-style of his own descriptive account (and suggested in his “cryptomeria” haiku).

I first read “Beyond the Cloud Gate to Moon Mountain with a sense of surprise and pleasure and, to be honest, it seemed almost as if I was reading a portion of Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of Basho’s “Oku-no-hosomichi” in The Narrow Road To The Deep North and Other Travel Diaries (Penguin Books, 1966). Tim’s words flow surely, gracefully, poetically, unforced. The prose, woven tightly in conversational, well-crafted English (and in past tense), has a vital, fresh immediacy. His report was written and finished well after the journey as a remembrance.

Like Basho, as he describes scenery and experiences at various locations, our Canadian poet recounts legend, proverb and local history, interspersing the narrative with his recollections, musings and associations, enriching the reader while bringing him vividly into the picture. While I had experienced most of the same events and sights as Tim, I saw them anew and refreshed, some under different circumstances and all with new light, coming from his pen. Native, resident, sojourner, tourist, or armchair-traveler of Japan would be able to understand and relish Tim’s narrative. For example, after lodging at Mida-ga-Hara, overtaken by a windy storm the previous day, he records:

The alpine gentians were closed, and purple thistles provided the only spots of color in the shadowless grey-green void. I thought of Basho passing here before me, “through the cloud gate into the courses of the sun and moon.”

Cold moor pool
grasses beneath the surface
move with the wind

The mist, confusing the visible and invisible, causing the mountainside to appear and disappear, hovered over the ponds like a spirit. I thought it was playing tricks on me when I saw two white, ghostly figures in the distance. As I approached, I could see they were sitting in the lotus posture and looking off into the moor, motionless in the rain. Were these phantoms of smiths who had tempered their swords in holy water, or shades of Yudono ascetics who fasted to death to become mummies?…

By employing strong, concrete imagery, a hallmark of classic haibun and haiku, Tim evokes the mystery and emotion he feels — there is a sensation of the mountain’s historic past and its spirits seeping through to us from cloud-obscured, eternal timelessness. Yet, nothing between writer and subject, his direct approach steers clear of the kind of ambiguity that would confuse the reader.

Choice of subject and word, such as “closed gentians”, “thistles” and “shadowless grey-green void” create moody outer and inner landscapes, conjuring up our own uncertainties. We are faced with eternal questions and fears of the unknown as we make ready to pass through, with Tim and Basho, the at-once both physical and spiritual Shinto torii:

…what lies on the other side of this life’s passing through months of the moon, past the shrouded passage we call death?

Pausing in the midst of our wanderings at the very gate between “two” worlds, a profound and dynamic relationship of oneness is realized between the seen and unseen, “past and future”, life and “after life”, spiritual and physical — expressed in the prose-capping haiku. Here, for me, is discovered a hidden metaphor, whether this perception exists only in my own mind, or if Tim actually sensed such underlying associations between spiritual and physical realms in the cause-and-effect movement of water-grasses — untouched — yet swaying unawares in synchrony with, and moved by unseen wind above the cold moor pool’s surface. (In similar imagery from my own spiritual tradition, I am reminded of the Bible’s creation account of God’s Spirit, also called in some English translations, the “Holy Ghost” [original Hebrew, ruach, primarily meaning “breath,” “wind”, and secondarily, “the power expressed in, or process of expending breath”] brooding over the face of the waters; From YHWH, God, Whose name is also The Breath of Life, and this unseen movement, life was born out of earth’s deep emptiness. A Hebrew blessing goes, (Baruch attah Yah, eloheynu ruach, ha’olam — “Blessed are You, Breath of Life, Spirit of the Universe. . . .”.)

Technically, alliteration of long and short “o” sounds (“cold”, “moor”, “pool” and “move”) actually adds “ghostly” wind sound to the ghostly imagery, giving further sensual depth. The haiku is balanced rhythmically: the first line is composed of equally accented and phonetically drawn out one-syllable words. Because the second line has three two-syllable words, two issuing a sibilant “s” sound — halted in the middle by two “th” sounds — then resuming, the words almost seems to sway like water-grass while rolling more quickly from the tongue than the first line. The long “o” of “move”, and double “th” (“with, “the”), echo those sounds from the first and second lines in the third, again in one-syllable words, and with the same breath-length as the first, creating a poetically musical verse.

I especially appreciate that this particular lyrical haiku does not summarize the preceding prose, nor introduce the next paragraph by repetitive words and images, but rather, as in renku or renga, its interjection introduces and juxtaposes something new which links the two parts by subtle association, while adding or enhancing meaning.

In speaking of the linkage between the haibun’s prose and haiku, Bruce Ross has called the genre a “narrative of an epiphany”, expounding his understanding in “The State of Haibun Art“, his introduction to the WHC Haibun Workshop & Double Haibun Contest, which he led in March 2002:

Basho was a master of hokku yet considered himself a better renga writer than hokku master. He spoke about many ways to link verses through sensibility, citing “link by fragrance” as a presiding metaphor of such linking. Thus, we might say, the link between a haiku and the prose of its haibun is all-important because it presents the sensibility underlying that haibun. If in your haibun prose your emotions are let loose, your haiku focus your feeling and evoke your sensibility. Again, in your own “privileging the link” follow your heart in your haiku and “make it new.”

Speaking on “the overall impact of a haibun”, Ross continues:

I have called a haibun a “narrative of an epiphany.” … We are moved by a person, a place, a thing, or an experience. We are, in effect, changed by such an occurrence, from an insight into humanity to what is termed the “aesthetic sublime.” The haibun … becomes a telling of that experience. But, to emphasize, don’t just tell a story. Let your tone, figurative language, word choice, and phrasing help carry the emotion in your narrative. If haibun is a “narrative of an epiphany,” haiku, as I have said elsewhere, is an epiphany. So sensibility selects, focuses, and justifies your prose narrative and helps evoke the pinpointed breakthrough of your haiku. Under the guidance of this sensibility your haibun prose and haibun haiku are perfectly joined.

Tim’s sensibility has done just so.


 Read “Through the Cloud Gate to Moon Mountain: A Journey in Oku

 

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