Ethiopian Timeby Bob Lucky. St. Paul, Minnesota: Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014. Single signature, hand sewn binding, author hand-numbered edition of 100. 5.5" x 7," 52 pp. $12 USD, including shipping to USA & Canada, $20 USD International.
The blurb on the publisher's website says of this haibun and tanka prose collection: Bob takes the foreign and makes it familiar. Then he takes the familiar and the ordinary and turns it completely foreign.
That's a pretty good summary of my immediate response to the work. The opening haibun, "New Home," talks about exploring a new neighbourhood, the affluent area, teething problems with the house's electrical system. It also shows us the road from the house slick with mud; there are watchmen carry[ing] AK47s; and recounts the plumber's advice to wear flip-flops in the shower to prevent us from getting shocked. I don't know about you but I generally, extreme weather conditions excepted, take the hard surface of my roads for granted. There are no automatic weapons carried openly on the streets around my home. I do not worry about being electrocuted before stepping into the shower.
The haibun's concluding haiku reinforces the idea that violence and threat are the narrator's new neighbours:
along the wall the gleam
of razor wire
There are always literary risks involved in portraying a new life in a new country. I came up against it myself when I moved to France: the risk of idealising the novel and unfamiliar aspects because they excited and pleased me, alongside the risk of dramatizing the same because they challenged and threatened me. Although the challenges and threats in France, in contrast to Ethiopia, tended to be more bureaucratic than terror-based.
Bob Lucky avoids both the "rose tinted glasses" and the "bloody battle" effects by maintaining a measured and understated voice throughout the collection. He also balances his perceptions of a foreign and unfamiliar world—he spent four years in Ethiopia—with glimpses into the private (yet universal) and natural worlds, into the vagaries of the quotidian, ageing, health and climate.
I was particularly struck by the quality of the accompanying haiku in the collection. For the most part they're sparkling stand alones: something I aspire to and often fail to achieve in my own haibun. Here are the opening and closing haiku to "Keeping Track":
drool on my pillow
the thread of a dream
the warmth of ironed
The brief paragraph of prose they sandwich does what we all want a haibun to do: expand the meaning of the two parts.
My wife reminds me it's my birthday. At a certain age, no one allows you to forget anything. Later, everyone's amazed when you remember anything.
We shift, with the first haiku, from a suggestion of ageing and the ethereal, to the pragmatism and irony of the prose, and finally to the juxtaposition of the natural and human worlds, of dry/damp, of discomfort/satisfaction, in the closing haiku. And we end up with more than just a prose sandwich; here's a vignette that captures our tenuous human grasp on life, the temporary footprint we make, the simple things that can make that life enjoyable, worth living.
There are a clutch of prose poems included in the collection: that is, paragraphs of prose without any haiku. (Please relocate for any discussion of whether haiku-less—or poem-less—haibun can exist: for me they don't.) And they sit comfortably within the body of work; surrounded as they are with the haiku offspring of other adjacent passages. I'm less sure of the tanka prose pieces because the tanka often feel more like extended haiku:
"Some Notes on Paradise" concludes with:
in the garden
my wife and I
so many things
yet to be named
The two principal components, taking inventory in the garden and the concluding statement, produce, for me, a 5 line haiku. And that's fine. I'm only being picky because of the publisher's explicit mention of tanka prose.
My other picky point about the collection is the page orientation. The landscape format creates short, but wide, pages so, here and there, there's a "widow and orphan" effect of a few lines of concluding prose being shunted to the top of an otherwise blank page, or a final tanka drifting on its own in white space, and this oddness interrupts the flow of reading.
But I can tolerate these kinks within a framework of linguistic and tonal sleekness. These are deceptively simple haibun: no impression of textual leisure, of invitation and ease, are ever arrived at without the hard work of craft and editing. And Bob Lucky wears his knowledge gently too: references to Robert Frost. Ezra Pound, Slavoj Žižek, Bruegel, as well as Ethiopian culture and traditions, are seamlessly woven into the narratives without any whiff of didacticism.
The quiet subtleties of the writing are commendably illustrated in the following haibun:
Dead from lack of love or food or simply a boot in the ribs, the cat outside my gate meows no more. I'd pay a beggar to take it away, but not one is willing to lose his turf for a few birr and a dead cat. It's a nice afternoon—cool in the shade, warm in the sun—but not a good day to be a dead cat. Or someone who has to remove a dead cat.
the warp in the sprinkler's
There's a delicate balance between irony and emotion. There's no hint of the maudlin (a congratulatory achievement when writing about cats) and the closing haiku links (the outside environments in both prose and haiku) and shifts to the idea of imperfection that exists even in beauty. We don't leave the haibun mouthing a syrupy "Awww . . ."; we leave it with the epiphany of "Ahhh . . . ."
It's a personal tic but with any collection of poetry/poetic prose I always like to examine the final piece in the light of its position. Why might the author have finished here? How does it work as a finale?
A prose poem concludes Ethiopian Time.
Gravity was strong today. My feet barely left the earth. The sky was bird-less. Pied crows, wattled ibises, kites, all the birds, gathered on the soccer pitch and pecked at the turf. Clouds crashed around me, sank underground, giving me the impression, in spite of the effort needed to drag my soul all the way to dusk, that this could be heaven on earth. So I began to pay attention.
I detect a slight shift in tone here. The playfulness ("My feet barely left the earth") is cloaked with seriousness (a synonym for the title). There's a more explicit reference to the narrator's mood, in comparison to the general implicitness, the "show not tell" approach, in the rest of the collection. As a reader I feel the "weight of the world" too as the narrator forces himself through the day. The realisation of "heaven on earth" placed on the final page reads like an acceptance of the "Time" spent in a country of other-worldness, of challenge. And "So I began to pay attention" could not be a better exhortation with which to move forward. To another home, another writing project, another day. Into the world. Writer and reader in companionship.
Lynne Rees started working with haiku forms in 2006, was haibun editor at Simply Haiku in 2008 and 2009, and co-editor, with Jo Pacsoo, of the British Haiku Society's Haibun Anthology, The Unseen Wind (2010). In 2011, she jointly edited, along with Nigel Jenkins and Ken Jones, another country, haiku poetry from Wales. Lynne has also published Learning How to Fall (poetry, 2005), The Oven House (novel, 2008), Messages (flash fiction collaboration with Sarah Salway, 2008), forgiving the rain (haibun, 2012) and Real Port Talbot (travel guide, local history & memoir, 2013).
JW: Let me ask first, with your permission, about your personal background. You come from Wales and I wonder what influence, if any, this circumstance had on your literary development and interests. The population of Wales is small when measured on the world's scale and Welsh history and culture are unique. Was a Welsh sensibility or identity formative for you or did you mature at a distance or with indifference to the same?
LR: I suppose on an international level Wales's most famous literary export is Dylan Thomas who was born a matter of miles away from the town where I was born and grew up. But I wasn't introduced to his work while I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s where the emphasis was on the traditional (English) literary canon of Shakespeare and a clutch of usual suspects like Dickens, Austen and Wordsworth. If he had been included on the syllabus it's possible I'd have been as indifferent to his work as I was to literature studies in general: probably a combination of uninspiring teaching and a personal dissatisfaction with school in general.
I didn't actually start to write until around 1988, 10 years after moving away from Wales, and at the time I was completely unaware of any Welsh literary influence on my work.
Between 1994 and 1996 I studied for a Master's degree at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales, working with the Welsh poet, Gillian Clarke, and this was the first time I became aware of "voice": what a poet writes about and how they express it. A lot of Gillian's work has its origins in Welsh landscape and life, but maybe that's to be expected from a writer who lives there. My own voice didn't seem anchored by my birthplace or my history and my early poems avoided, as far as I can remember, any explicit reference to Wales, or my family and personal history. Although "avoided" suggests a conscious rejection and that wasn't the case: I suppose I was more interested in the universal human emotional experience rather than one framed by geography or personal experience.
In more recent years I have written explicitly about Wales, about family and ancestors, about the history of the town where I grew up. In fact, that first began when I started to research and write haiku and haibun. Here were genres that encouraged me to be more plainly spoken and dilute the poetic fireworks that were in danger of becoming an unconscious habit in my poetry. I was overly fond of an extended metaphor! Moving to the South of France in 2007 led me to explore even further the events and ideas of my Welsh childhood in my hungry writer blog; perhaps a case of when I was a way from Wales I could write about Wales, to misquote Hemingway and his "Paris."
But apart from the rhythm of my language choices, that draw on the patterns of my everyday speech—the inflections and intonations, the musical peaks and dips that people tend to identify when they hear Welsh people speak—and these days, the often explicit Welsh subject matter I explore, as a writer I remain more interested in my audience's potential interest and appreciation than in preserving any personal national or cultural identity.