A Hundred Gourds 3:1 December 2013
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Evening in the Plaza – Jeffrey Woodward

reviewed by Matthew Paul

book cover
Evening in the Plaza
haibun and haiku by Jeffrey Woodward
Tournesol Books, PO Box 441152, Detroit MI, 48244-1152, USA
p.b., 94 pp., US$12.95 / UK£8.50 / 10 Euros
ISBN-13: 978-0615834757

For a long time, Jeffrey Woodward has, as writer, essayist and editor, been at the leading edge of the campaign to establish haibun as a genre to be taken seriously by writers outside Japan, where the form appears to have fallen out of favour over the years. Whilst haiku’s popularity – if not its acceptance within mainstream literary life – in the Anglophone world is assured, that campaign has been perhaps peripheral in comparison. The number of regular, committed and proficient haibun writers (haibuneers?) can’t be much more than 100. So when we talk about haibun, we must, as we should about any genre, discuss the quality and not the quantity. From the perspective of being an occasional haibuneer myself, my view of haibun is naturally coloured by practice; but even if it weren’t, I would still be clear that haibun has made big strides in the last few years and has a bright future. Put simply, space should be found in all the haikai journals for the best haibun writing today and the haikai community will miss out if that doesn’t happen.

Woodward, like the best haibuneers, appears to be at pains to strike a careful balance in his prose between limpid simplicity and rich description, since too much of either would, respectively, be excessive or just plain dull. The book opens with ‘Adrift’, which could be described as a ‘nature haibun’, but, like ‘nature poetry’ or nature haiku’, that term somehow isn’t apposite, as the description is crystal-clear and insightful, as this excerpt shows:

There’s the white grain of a torn branch, pellets of hail melting at its side. Green willow leaves strewn about among magnolia and redbud petals at the river’s edge. Blades of grass quivering, here and there, with the light afterthought of a May breeze.

The haibun builds to a sense of equilibrium symbolized by “an arc of a rainbow inscribed and nearly perfected” and underscored by the haiku:

a yellow skiff
adrift from the dock
and rocking idly

But whereas that haiku is in keeping with the spirit of the prose and contains a shift created by the word ‘adrift’, it looks and feels too much like a piece of prose chopped into three lines to make a genuine haiku. Does it matter? Well, yes and no: yes because a haiku containing a kireji would arguably round the haibun off more pleasingly; and no because the image within Woodward’s quasi-haiku here echoes the tension and menace of the “unexpected storm that just passed” before the period covered within the haibun. And a deeper reading of the haibun could be that the skiff’s loosening from its mooring and its idle rocking reflect the writer-protagonist’s own state of mind. In all, it’s a short but fine piece that serves well as an opener for the rest of the book.

‘Time with the Heron’ is a meditation upon fishing, both human and of a heron. Its prose makes effective use of a koan-like refrain, “Time will allow” which prefixes detailed observation of both the heron at his work, as he “stalks his prey—stepping lightly upon stilts now—with a deliberation given only to one for whom time has no meaning”, and the fisherman: “Time will allow one to repeat the lyrical names of hand-tied flies—Blue Quill, Royal Coachman, Pale Evening Dun, Yellow Sally, Gray Hackle—until the syllables become a meaningless babble, having only their own inherent musical properties, like the voice of the brook before the first man came”. This is superb writing, which draws parallels between man and bird for both of whom absorption in the task at hand makes time stand still and renders them subject to the “maze of light everywhere at play with the water”. Again, though, the chopped-worm haiku that ends the piece won’t be to everyone’s taste, but for me the Zen-like concentration described by the prose needs and gets an ending that goes an extra mile into deep, immersive reflection:

when the water clears ,
the mind, also, of
a great blue heron

In ‘Dust upon Dust’, Woodward’s well-crafted prose leads to a haiku that involves a different technique: that of offering the reader a surprise. Occasionally in his haibun, in ‘A Small Funeral’ for example, Woodward intersperses haiku at even spaces throughout the prose as well as at its end, and these haibun are often more successful because there is less reliance on one end-haiku providing a fitting finish to, and spark away from, the prose. At its most minimal, in ‘Due North’ and ‘The Light at Savannah’, that format consists of haiku / three lines of prose / haiku. On other occasions, he starts with a haiku then runs with the prose, without having an end-haiku.

Whatever the format, though, there is much to enjoy here, not just those haibun which encompass the geography and natural history of North America, but across a broad range of subject-matter, encompassing, inter alia, the role of flowers in belief-systems, Sir Philip Sidney, Chinese calligraphers, family history, an artist’s model, a medieval map, and short tales of small-town life, such as ‘The Widow’s Place’ and ‘Shorty’. The long, single-sentence prose and single haiku that make up the latter are a tour-de-force: the sharply-honed prose is reminiscent of Faulkner, of Kerouac’s spontaneous bop prosody and James M Cain and Dashiel Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novels of the ’20s and ’30s.

The book is divided into five sections, and the first four each end with a sprinkling of 12 haiku. Although one searches in vain for a unifying theme within any of the four selections, each contains all the seasons in order from spring onwards. One reads them as if they are entertainment during the intervals between the haibun, and may query why the haibun needed the haiku to be shoved in among them. That said, the haiku are mostly enjoyable and often very good indeed, with some which are outstanding:

a raw potato
for the plain flavor of it—
the first of March

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

an ancient waterwheel
with another wooden turn—
autumn colors

51 cards
in the deck
summer rain

Each of this quartet is quietly brilliant and resonant, and demonstrates Woodward’s admirable perceptiveness and ability to get to the heart of the matter – even the minimalist ’51 cards’ beyond its surface humour contains different possibilities: there could be just one card-player, keen to play Patience to crack the boredom of solitude, or several players ready to use the game as a means to socialise; either way, the missing card proves to be a stumbling-block.

This collection of a decade’s-worth of work provides ample evidence of Jeffrey Woodward’s beautifully polished prose style and highly intelligent thought and is essential reading for aficionados of haibun or those who want to get to grips with it as relative newcomers.

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