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Haiku of Subversion – the Vision of Paul Pfleuger, Jr.

Jack Galmitz

Very few haiku poets would consider naming their first book Ratprints, but then, again, there are very few haiku poets like Paul Pfleuger, Jr. His choice of title serves as a rubric for all the haiku contained in the volume and it does so in a most provocative way. From the first word, we are forewarned that what follows will not be beautiful, picturesque, sonorous, or exploitative of our emotions. It will have its own singular beauty, just as rat prints have their own beauty, a beauty born of movement close to or under cover, in some places evenly spaced like splayed stars, in others almost parallel, and all barely noticeable.

It will require effort on the part of the reader to find this beauty, and that is the way Mr. Pfleuger believes it should be: nothing should be easy, interpretation should never be final, and though everything is flux, and form may be emptiness, emptiness is form, hard, solid, sharp-edged, even steel-edged.

The opening verse of Ratprints, like the title, prefigures the passages through which the reader will wander, sometimes lost, sometimes with wanderlust, and this is the mark of a truly talented writer: to design an opening that embodies the whole with subtlety and whose artistry is only recognized upon completion of the entirety of the book.

I was born here
with those cold angels
and their trumpets

As in any bildungsroman, the book begins with a birth, which, in itself, suggests a traditional approach to narration and continuity, and this raises in the reader expectations of conventionality.

This is precisely what the author intends, because he also intends to subvert expectations. While the author initiates his journey with his birth, he carefully places it _ through use of the word "here" - in an unspecified time and place. So, as we begin to unravel the poem, we are provided with a marker of place, yet simultaneously deprived of it: where is "here"?

This paradox of locating and dislocating at one and the same time is a hallmark of Mr. Pfleuger's haiku; "here" is this place, this world, this life, the present, yet where is it?

Before moving on to the second and third qualifying lines of the poem, it should be mentioned that the author gives us just the sort of beauty that adheres to Ratprints throughout: the bloody, painful, screaming labor of birth; the blindingly bright lights of the operating room, the antiseptic white of doctors, nurses uniforms and steel instruments, the agony of birth, the sweat of birth, the cutting of the cord separating one life from another, the uncontrollable, inconsolable tears of separation, the joy, the rapturous joy.

Then, in juxtaposition to the first line, introduced by the preposition "with," which can mean accompanying or in some particular relation to, we are tethered again, rejoined after separation, to "here" but where is it?

We learn some of its qualities in "those cold angels," but the specificity of the adjective "those," just as the tangibility of "cold angels," does not comfortably situate the reader.

What we do experience is the sharp contrast between the warmth of blood-birth and the untouchable coldness of angels. Here are two worlds joined but in a disjunctive manner.

What should be comforting - the presence of angels at the birth of a baby - is deliberately subverted by Mr. Pfeuger.

These "cold angels" are not messengers of a God, they are not "cold" because they are ethereal, they are "cold" because they offer no protection, no guidance and no eternal gentleness.

So, we are closer to where "here" actually is: the cold, enclosed solidity of the world, the isolation of each of us within it, and the angels, rather than being spiritual protectors and messengers carrying out their Gods task to humankind, are parts rather of the institution of religion.

"Here" there are not two interconnected worlds, one fallen, the other lifting. The angels are cold because they are made of bronze and stand atop the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, New York, in whose hospital, it turns out, Mr. Pfleuger was born.

The contrast between Mr. Pfeuger's haiku and its vision of the city and basilica hospital of his birth and that of the church's view is best exemplified in the following quote:

"Among the churches of America, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Victory is, for many reasons, to be counted as one of the greatest. This sanctuary is truly a masterpiece, in the nobility of its lines, in the splendor of its marbles, in its massive solidarity, and in its artistic finish…"
                                                                       ~ Apostolic Decree of Pope Pius XI, July 20, 1926

For the poet as opposed to the divine, the steel-town of Lackawanna and its hardships and meager lives far out-weighed the symbolic majesty of the basilica.

Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, N.Y., was named after the Lackawanna steel company and nearly the entire population worked in its plant. Towards the end of the 20th Century the plant closed and it left in its brownfields chemicals alleged to cause cancer.

The question lastly poses itself as to what to make of the cold angels' "trumpets" in the final line of the haiku. Are they merely an extension of the angels themselves - verdigris bronze, sounding no triumph of the spirit - or do they portend the ultimate victory and conquest of the author's past, a somber but clarion call of conquest of the what's vanished?

Is it reminiscent of the Japanese haiku poet Keiji Minato's "an angel of stone/has wings of stone/such solitude", or is it the poet celebrating the fact that he is here, alive, a survivor, a man who died many times but remains with us, a vital force, one of the new, young group of eminent modernist haiku poets?

Judging from the manuscript of Ratprints, which I've had the pleasure and privilege of reading in its entirety, I would surmise the latter.

galmitzJack Galmitz was born in N.Y.C in 1951. He attended the public schools and received a Ph.D in English from the University of Buffalo. He is the author of two books of short stores–At the Fu Yen Tong & Other Stories and In Borrowed Clothes. He is also the author of two books of free-verse-Of All the Things and My Wife Practices Calligraphy. He primarily writes haiku and was the recipient of the Ginyu Prize in 2006 for the best book(s) of haiku–A New Hand and Driftwood–as adjudged by the World Haiku Association; he won the 2010 Kusamakura Grand Prize in foreign language category; and in 2011, he won the runner-up to the Grand Prize in the Vladmir Devide Haiku Contest. His other books of haiku include For a Sparrow, Balanced is the Rose, and The Coincidence of Stars. He is married and lives with his wife in N.Y.C .


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