A Hundred Gourds 3:3 June 2014

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A Piece of Shrapnel – Peter Butler

reviewed by Matthew Paul

A Piece of Shrapnel,
a haibun collection by Peter Butler
Hub Editions: Longholm, East Bank, Wingland,
Sutton Bridge, Spalding, Lincolnshire, PE12 9YS, England.
ISBN: 978-1-903746-96-7
Pages: 37
Price: £5.75 sterling, plus p&p

Featuring Colin Blundell’s typically low-key handmade Hub Editions style, this is a slim volume of 30 haibun, all but one of which is less than a page long; many stretching not even to half a page. From the publication credits, some appear to be renderings into the haibun form of poems published in UK poetry journals, if that is what is meant by “traditional form”, though there is a sprinkling of pieces which have previously been published as haibun in, inter alia, Blithe Spirit, Contemporary Haibun Online and Presence. In an introduction which itself is a haibun of sorts, albeit one that eschews any attempt to make the prose ‘poetic’, Butler outlines his route to haiku:

After a long career as journalist, author, editor, responsible for several million words and, doubtless, much paper recycling, I looked for alternative forms of expression. Quantity turned initially to 17 syllables, when I discovered the haiku in its traditional form, and then its variations, finding what could be explained in an article could be expressed sometimes in a sentence or less. Years of a practice as a headline writer, schooled in brevity, possibly helped.

He goes on to say that, “haibun was a subsequent discovery” and that he believes this collection contains “light and darkness [ ],…joy and menace, a mix of past experience and home truths with flights of the imagination”. Quite properly, he hopes that “[n]ot everything…may be instantly revealed” and that “the reader may find, beyond the page, shades in-between of light and feeling which tell their own story”. But with no real aspirations to grandeur, Butler’s aims are perhaps too modest, and outlining that in the introduction serves little but to dampen the reader’s expectations. It might have been better to say nothing and simply let the creative writing speak for itself, as it is the haibun themselves on which the book’s quality should be judged.

The collection opens with ‘Wilde Night’, a pleasant mise-en-scène of an outdoor amateur dramatic production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which the English weather brings to an abrupt and appropriately farcical end. It’s a gently amusing and undemanding piece, making effective use of a well-worn device of having a “Local Celebrity, a vaguely familiar TV face” as the director – John Osborne used the “as seen on TV” line in his 1957 play The Entertainer and it’s been used many times since, not least in light-hearted televisual depictions of rural English life such as Midsomer Murders. It seems a trifle obvious, though, that the haibun’s only haiku is a ‘desk’ haiku, since it all too neatly contains what the earlier prose described as Lady Bracknell’s “legendary response”: ‘left behind / in the wind / a handbag’.

The next piece, ‘The Rose’, starts with an intriguing first sentence and carries on a in a lively way, with nicely understated humour:
The rose is hyperventilating in a jam-jar. My grand daughter beams, awaiting approval. Perhaps it’s thirsty, I say. She gives it lemonade to help it grow, squeezed from her plastic bottle, skips off to play with her Barbie.

‘Men in Green Wellies’ is an apparent attack on Government department bureaucrats who “work on measurements and samples”. It consists of one long sentence of prose and a poor, would-be haiku (‘the computer at HQ absorbs / ruminates / later sleeps’). There is no apparent benefit of letting the prose run on in this instance, as it is insufficiently musical and describes only a series of actions. Butler tries to end the sentence with an epiphany – “everywhere dandelions grow puffballs, that blow skywards in a soft refreshing breeze” – but its effect is minimised by the flatness of the preceding clauses.

‘Friday in the Boadroom’ continues Butler’s Grumpy-Old-Man act by lampooning 21st century business manager-speak. It’s an easy target, like the malapropisms of George W. Bush, and Butler just about hits it: “We need to conversate, says my boss, whose language is hardly Shakespearean.” How better, and bitter, the satire would be if Butler finished that line after “boss”, rather than telling the reader what to think.

Few of the haibun in the collection are outstanding, but ‘The Hedge’ and ‘Father’s Day’ certainly are. The former details in three short paragraphs a pen-picture of an elderly woman who remains feisty and independent (“Neighbours know better than to offer help”). Again, though, the haiku, if one can call it that, lets the piece down and can only really be considered as a bit of prose that’s been roughly chopped up, but which should have been incorporated into the prose: “a fresh letter from Sheltered Housing / like the others / unopened”. Pleasingly placed on the opposite page from ‘The Hedge’, ‘Father’s Day’ is like a male companion piece and Butler’s prose is at its most elegant and economical:

With age you become invisible, he decides, pouring a drink with his better hand, staring at her picture. When she was around she’d remind the kids, jog memories. Remember next Sunday. No longer. His own memory isn’t brilliant but he tries reaching back to the last card, telephone call, e-mail. Still, their pictures at varying ages furnish the wall and top the piano he no longer plays.

Perhaps this would be improved without “With age you become invisible” since the sentences that follow imply that point very clearly, and it could therefore start with “He pours a drink with his better hand…”; but nonetheless the prose is crisp and proceeds, in a second paragraph, to a lovely surprise and, for once, a haiku which, whilst not being wonderful, has the virtue of being nicely tangential from the prose.

The next haibun is an ekphrastic one, which, in the manner of a segment in Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 portmanteau film Dreams, takes a wander through a painting by Vincent van Gogh, in this case ‘Garden with Flowers’. The painting itself is reproduced, in black and white, below the haibun, which ought to be helpful, but actually negates the power of the haibun itself to conjure in the reader’s mind how the scene unfolds, because the reader’s eye inevitably turns to the illustration.

Like Butler’s neat character sketches in The Hedge’ and ‘Father’s Day’, ‘The Quiet Couple’ provides colourful description which largely achieves the middle way between providing enough information but not so much that the reader has no work to do:

Nowadays they potter at home, emerge on rare occasions to make guest appearances opening the local fete if it isn’t too far. The postman says they’ve slowed right down and keep to themselves, possibly because they haven’t much to say.

Happily, Butler tries his hand at a variety of personae and periods. ‘The House’ is a brief piece written in the voice of an estate agent trying a hard sell of a property with a notorious history; and ‘Scrimping-on-Sea, 2050’ inventively and wittily delineates, in travel brochure-speak, a dystopian nightmare of what Britain might become in a few generations’ time: “Sample a bowl of our delicious home-roasted acorn soup and sediment-free locally bottled Beaujolais.” Another piece, ‘Absent without Leave’ may refer to an incident during a spell of national service in the army but the exactness or otherwise of the setting is immaterial to the fact that the prose is one long sentence that, unlike the one in ‘Men in Green Wellies’, is rhythmic and fluent, and which conveys a sense of joy until a denouement of sorts that continues in the downbeat haiku which rounds it off.

Other experimental attempts in the collection are less successful, though. ‘Talking the walk’ unfolds the revelation by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot of the solution to a murder mystery, but it lacks the poetry that haibun requires. ‘Your Vote’, a set of instructions on how to vote in an unnamed totalitarian state, is marginally better and ends with an apt and very good haiku. A series of haibun, grouped under the theme of ‘Digging the Past’ are set in miscellaneous times and settings, including: several set in and/or just after the second world war home front in London, such as the book’s title piece and the excellent ‘Troop Movements, 1944’ (“They speak in odd accents and give me chewing gum, staring at my Aunt’s legs. One says he’s from Hollywood and knows John Wayne.”); the end of Hitler’s artistic career; school life in the early 1950s; Leonardo addressing La Gioconda; and a visit to the Jewish Museum in Prague. In these haibun, Butler is at his best when he’s writing from what appears to be his own experience. It’s a pity that the wartime pieces aren’t laid out sequentially as they are, as its title indicates, the book’s real heart.

The book ends with Butler’s “personal interpretation” of ‘Bashō, the Man and Poet’, a curious adoption of the persona of one of Bashō’s followers, present at the birth of his famous furu ike ya haiku. It’s nice enough, but doesn’t end the collection especially well in comparison with some of the preceding pieces.

In all, then, A Piece of Shrapnel is a curate’s egg, with some fine haibun sprinkled among others that weaken the book’s overall quality. The best of them, though, are very enjoyable indeed.

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