A Hundred Gourds 4:2 March 2015

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Ethiopian Time - Bob Lucky

reviewed by Ray Rasmussen

book cover
Ethiopian Time
by Bob Lucky
Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014
29 haibun, tanka prose and prose poems
5.5" x 7", 52 pages, single signature
Hand-sewn binding
Limited Editon of 100 copies
Orders through Red Bird Chapbooks
$12 – $20, depending on shipping.

Over the last two evenings, I’ve been happily reading Bob Lucky’s first chapbook, Ethiopian Time, a collection of haibun, tanka prose and prose poetry. Well known for his writing by anyone who regularly reads A Hundred Gourds, Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today and the haiku genre print journals, bottle rockets, Modern Haiku and Frogpond, where his work has appeared regularly for many years, it’s timely for him to have offered a collection. This one is focused on his four-year stint as a teacher while residing in Addis Ababa. As such, it’s a travel journal in the best sense of that word, a westerner’s poignant insights into a place we’ve all heard of, but which few of us have visited.

This review focuses on three haibun that appear in the collection. The first piece, “New Home,” is a sketch of Lucky’s and his wife’s initial days in Ethiopia, where he worked as a school teacher. It’s their first exploration of the neighborhood.

New Home

During a break in the rain, we go out and explore the neighborhood. The road down from our house to the hillside village is slick with mud, so we go the opposite way on a paved road winding along the ridge. This is an upscale area, home to politicians whose watchmen carry AK47s, not the green rubber baton our two watchmen share. Tucked into a wall is a tiny shop selling the plastic flip-flops we need, the temporary solution our electrician has come up with to prevent us from getting shocked in the shower.

along the wall the gleam
of razor wire

Consider the comparisons Lucky has shown us:

• The road down from Lucky’s house to the hillside village is slick with mud. The other road to the upscale area, home of the politicians, is paved.

• There, the watchmen carry AK47s. In Lucky’s area, the watchmen have to share a rubber baton.

• In Lucky’s rented home, flip-flops are needed to prevent a shock while showering. One can assume the upscale homes don’t share this problem.

The haiku offers more. Where normally we might expect a soothing image coupled with “sunset,” instead we have:

along the wall the gleam
of razor wire

This particular piece is noteworthy for its absence of editorializing. The image of razor wire, coupled with the descriptive comparisons in the prose, are much more effective in showing us the political and social issues in Ethiopia than telling us about them. Both prose and haiku suggest social unrest, perhaps due to the differences between the haves and have nots.

Another piece, “Keeping Track” provides elements of Lucky’s writing that I very much enjoy – humour and his ability to bring to life the little things that matter in our lives.

Keeping Track

drool on my pillow
the thread of a dream

My wife reminds me that it’s my birthday. At a certain age, no one allows you to forget anything. Later, everyone’s amazed when you remember anything.

rainy season
the warmth of ironed

One way to judge a work is the degree to which it brings readers insights into their own experiences. At my age, drool is an unfortunate possibility and birthdays have become reminders of aging, rather than celebrations. Whatever well-intended sentiment is expressed in them, birthday emails and cards merely inform me that I’m one step closer to an end I’ve not yet come to grips with.

Another way to judge is to consider the degree of surprise or unusualness in the work. In the second haiku, the lead phrase “rainy season” leads me to anticipate a typical following phrase, namely something gloomy. Instead, Lucky surprises by describing his underwear, which made me laugh. Who irons underwear, much less writes haiku about its warmth? No one, except in a place where there’s no other way it would ever get dry. The ironed warmth of his underwear may also help with what I assume is the dampness of his Ethiopian home – high humidity, yes? Taken in relation to the first haiku's 'drool,' we’re reminded that incontinence can happen in old age, a dampening of the spirit as well as the underwear. And Bob Lucky is not one to avoid alluding to such things. Overall, perhaps it’s the little things in life, like dry underwear, that matter most.

I also appreciate this piece because it allows us to reconsider one of the most common pronouncements about how to write haibun, namely that the prose should be rich with descriptive detail (showing) and hold back on philosophizing or generalizing (telling). Yet everything beyond the introductory sentence, more than half of the prose, is telling. For me, it works quite well in this piece and, thus, informs my own writing. I need not be quite so careful to keep telling to a minimum.

A third haibun, “Late Rain” provides the reader with another of Lucky’s skills in composition, his ability to indirectly present an element of wabi-sabi. In this case, he makes a poignant statement about aging from the viewpoint of his ukuleles. The middle passage is as follows:

A bridge has popped off one ukulele. Strings have popped on another and the charango. And now a slow warp of the fret boards is creeping down the necks of another two ukes.

This followed by a shift from objects (ukuleles) to persons (himself and possibly others):

It’s like watching the progression of a terminal disease. No matter what I do, the weather lays its claim on me and mine.

This switch from objects to a statement about mortality brings the feel of wabi-sabi to the piece. It’s not just a story about ukuleles being damaged by the dryness; it’s about transience, the briefness of our human journey.

The haiku cements the feeling of the piece:

passing cloud
the stillness of a skink
in its shadow

This haiku is rich in imagery and leaves room for the reader’s imagination. In my case, I suppose I shouldn’t have a negative feeling about skinks, but I do. In part it’s the harshness of the word “skink.” My mental image is of slimy lizards that dwell in damp places. I say this even though my partner and I were delighted to find a pair of them, quite beautiful with their red stripes, beneath a rotting log that I had kicked over on a walk last fall. Poor little skinks! They hurt no one and help keep flies, slugs and grasshoppers down – a good thing to have in one's garden. That the skink lurks in a shadow brings me to consider how unpleasant thoughts sometimes lurk in my mind, and I compulsively freeze up and dwell under their cloud. And, yet, like the cloud, they pass. On another take, perhaps the skink in this haiku is holding itself stone-still because it has no way of knowing if the cloud’s shadow isn’t that of a raptor that might swoop down on it. If the skink moved, death might come swiftly. Coupled with the prose’s allusion to the deterioration of his ukes, isn’t this the way we think about terminal diseases – always a shadow, no idea when it will strike, no medical move that will make a difference, or at least the very unpleasant side effects that come with medical interventions.

In writing commentaries, I sometimes feel as if I should find something to comment on that would lead to an improvement. Okay, here it is. I’d have suggested to Lucky that he drop the phrase “and the charango.” On the positive side I learned that a charango is a small Andean stringed instrument of the lute family and it wasn’t much of a chore to look it up. But that’s what most readers will have to do unless they’re willing to bypass what might be an important or key word. An unusual word from another language stops the flow of the prose, particularly when the reader can’t understand it though the context. Is the charango part of a ukulele or something else? And why is it important? Now that I understand what it is, I don’t see why it’s important. It strikes me as unnecessary to carry the theme of this very good piece.

I’ve only commented on three haibun, because haibun is the world in which I dwell. However, having read through the entire chapbook, I’ve equally enjoyed the tanka prose and prose poems. I can safely say Ethiopian Times is a good investment. Lucky’s accessible poetry is sure to bring pleasure to his readers. And a side benefit – if you want to know about life in Ethiopia as seen by an observant visitor, far better to read Lucky than the promotional travel section of your Sunday newspaper. The subjects and writing quality remind me of the better travel writers of our day.

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