A Hundred Gourds 3:4 September 2014

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Beyond the Muted Trees – Glenn G. Coats

reviewed by Matthew Paul

book cover

Beyond the Muted Trees
By Glenn G. Coats
Pineola Publishing, 467 North Hardtimes Drive,
Prospect, Virginia 23960, USA
Paperback, 98 pp. US$8 / £4.80 sterling,
ISBN: 978-0615949864

As one of the two haibun editors at Haibun Today , Glenn G. Coats has a prominent role in promoting haibun as a fully-fledged English-language genre and proves with this second collection of his haibun that he has all the credentials to fulfil that role. The book contains 63 haibun, divided into four broadly thematic sections dealing, in the main, with: (presumably slightly fictionalised or disguised) incidents from his career as a teacher, especially of literacy programmes for children and adults; scenes from time he has spent in areas close to, and either side of, the USA/Canada border; other personal or character-based recollections; and, finally, sketches of friends and family. That division gives the book a neat structure, like four quartets of roughly the same length, which enables the reader to discern a sense of historical narrative across the individual pieces.

Coats’s writing style is unadorned, though not to the point of terseness, and is deceptively simple. His great strength, as will be evident to any reader of this book, is his ability to depict characters and incidents with just the right amount of detail to give the reader enough information to complete the picture and fill in the gaps. His subject matter is often people living in poverty in isolated communities well off the beaten track, sometimes in almost total isolation; the sort of folks whose lives are rarely recorded and are frequently denigrated:

Light is dim inside. A pot of something cooking in the hearth. Smells I can’t recognize. “Chester can’t get to school no more—too many seizures. Way behind the others.”

I take out my pens and pencils, open up a notebook, the boy sits frozen behind me on a straight back chair. “Let’s read a story,” I say.

lantern light
I bend closer
to the words

(from ‘The All of One Room’)

The brevity of the staccato-like sentences somehow echoes the parent’s illiterate language use. What is left unsaid, though, are Coats’s thoughts on and emotional reaction to those issues; and so the reader is left to ponder the implicit sadness of the scene and the possibility that the family are in a generational cycle of low aspirations that no amount of well-meaning intervention and support is likely to break. The haiku is interesting, because of the phrase ‘I bend closer / to the words’, which clearly refers both to the words on the page and to those being read out loud by Chester; but it’s almost too clever and I wonder whether that telling phrase could have simply been incorporated into the prose and the haiku one that instead shifted slightly away from the prose.

Rather than consider most or all of the individual haibun within the book, I will now focus on just one piece, which exemplifies the many qualities of Coats’s haibun:

Fields to Plow

He had just started school when it shut down over worn-out books, unsafe buses, and little heat in winter. Teachers and students wanted the same books as the whites-only school, same shiny buses, and same pay for their teachers so they all walked out in hope of something better. Both schools stayed shut tight when Prince Edward County refused to integrate and Charles lost all the important years of his education.

migrating geese
the sound of wood
splitting in two

Charles learned other things while the schools were closed like loading potatoes in a truck. He learned how to feed chickens and call cows in from the field, learned how to replace a broken board on the gate and work like a man when he should have been playing like a child.

winter sun
a few lines of words

Years passed by and when the schools did open up again, it was too late for Charles. He was too far behind and none of the teachers knew how to catch him up. Charles left soon as he could and did what he knew how to do—work.

Today Charles is nearly sixty, one grown daughter and one still in school. His wife and youngest child are outside now waiting in the truck, waiting for Charles to finish his reading lesson. They will do what it takes to support him. He is going to read and they will wait for him.

winter evening
thick fingers cover
most of a page

I am showing Charles ’s. “The apostrophe is like a little backward c,” I tell him, “shows that something belongs to someone, like your brother the preacher, he’s good with words, people like to hear John’s words.” I write down Johns words and Charles picks up a pencil and carefully marks his first apostrophe. “I am learning something all the time,” he says and I can hardly get any words out of my mouth.

frozen fields
the words he carries
into the night

The title cleverly nods not just to the agricultural work that Charles has undertaken since before his adulthood but also, metaphorically, at the new pastures that could be opened to him through literacy.

The opening paragraph economically conveys so much information that it needs to be re-read several times. It very quickly addresses, though without explicitly passing judgement on, the desperate unfairness that underpinned racial Segregation; and how the battle for civil rights impacted upon individuals caught up in the struggle.

The first haiku neatly links and shifts: the link to the preceding prose is provided by the ‘splitting in two’ of the wood which mirrors the racial divide of Segregation; and the shift is to the manual labour in the next paragraph.

The repeated use of ‘learned’ in the second paragraph subtly emphasises the injustice of Charles having to learn those skills whilst he should have been receiving a formal school education. Coats closes the paragraph with a rare piece of comment, that Charles was learning to “work like a man when he should have been playing like a child”: in this instance, it is absolutely appropriate for Coats to ‘tell’ the reader and reinforce the point. It also prefigures the closing line of the haibun’s prose, where the reality that Charles, through no fault of his own, was denied the fundamental right to education as a child, brings Coats’s sadness (and implicit anger) to the surface.

The second haiku also links and shifts: the link is provided by ‘winter sun’, over the fields where Charles has worked (winter being, of course, the most sombre and least optimistic of seasons), and by the ‘few lines of words / forgotten’ from the truncated time he spent at school; and the shift is to the opportunity that the adult literacy programme is giving him to recall how to read and write those words and to make the progress that he should have made almost half a century ago.

The third paragraph efficiently speeds up the narrative towards the present day, and highlights the direness of the fact that when Charles did manage to have a brief second spell at school, he couldn’t make up for the lost years, because “none of the teachers knew how to catch him up”. Coats makes plain the irony of that situation – that even the teachers couldn’t cope with it – but without hammering the point home.

The fourth paragraph is arguably as much the emotional core of the haibun as the last line of the haibun’s prose: that Charles’s family is so loving and supportive and proud of his attempts to gain the education that he was deprived of in his childhood, but which his own children have, fortunately, been able to receive due to being born after the successful battle to end legally-enforced racial segregation. Coats again uses a repeated verb (this time ‘waiting’ / ‘wait’) powerfully to convey that mixture of deep emotions, rather than more obtrusively through adjectives – that Coats has the skill to do that indicates how fine a writer he is.

The third haiku links back to the second one by starting with ‘winter’ and by showing Charles’s fingers thickened, we presume, by years of manual toil. It also points towards the positive conclusion of the haibun, of Charles at last learning how to read and write.

The fifth and final paragraph is simply astonishing and beautiful writing – the stated near-silence of Coats in the face of Charles’s determination to make up for all his lost years is poignant in the extreme. That poignancy is evident too in the final, tender haiku.

In all, this haibun sweeps through 50 years in just over 300 words, but does so in a manner that feels completely natural, and in it Coats isn’t frightened to address big themes which, by implication, still haven’t been fully resolved, such as the low levels of literacy for particular racial / ethnic groups and the apparent racial division of communities in many areas of the USA.

In summarising the book as a whole, I would go so far as to say that Coats’s prose is reminiscent of that of great North American writers like Alice Munro, Sherwood Anderson and the now unjustly scorned John O’Hara. Coats’s haiku, too, are a cut above those of most haibun writers: he knows how to write well-crafted haiku which contain intriguing juxtapositions, act as links and shifts, and which, by and large, aren’t just lines that would be better contained within the prose. I have read no finer collection of haibun than this and I thoroughly recommend it.


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