Monday, February 09, 2015


 Harriot West, Into the Light. Mountain and Rivers Press, PO Box 5389, Eugene, OR 97405. $15 + $2 shipping.

The haibun might seem a precious form in the wrong hands, as the haiku itself is precious without a true poet behind it. The content of the haibun may vary; the form remains steady. The poet may write prose about his or her travels, as Basho did, or about nature or personal experience, or anything, really. The haiku which follows likewise may be about anything the poet feels is fit subject for the form; this varies from culture to culture and poet to poet, I suppose, but it must always have that haiku moment of recognition or revelation. In terms of form, the prose may be short or long, but if it is good writing it is always physical, intense, tight, and always you can see wind move over the water. Something lifts. As in the haiku, the frog must jump.

All this is by way of introduction. I want to speak of Harriot West's Into the Light. I do not know Harriot West, yet reading Into the Light I know so much of the world she inhabits, or perhaps I mean the world which inhabits her. These are haibun not so much about travel as about motion, more of family than of nature, more about empty spaces and abundant blessings. The prose is a model of fine, tight, electric writing, full with snap, crackle, pop. Always, something moves, sometimes close to the surface, sometimes deep, far down at the edge of our vision.

Then the haiku. The haiku in these haibun, and the haiku which stand alone in the middle section, depend on nothing else. They are poetry. They can sing by themselves if needs be. The frog in them jumps. Those that are paired with a prose passage are independent, yes, but they are also like lenses through which we might consider what came before.

What I especially like is that, while the prose and the haiku in a particular haibun are not related in content, something leaps between them. There are three movements: the leap within the prose passage; the leap in the haiku; and the leap between the prose and the haiku. With some lesser haibun, my reaction to the gap between the prose and the haiku is "So?" In West's work, it is more "Uff!," as with a punch to the gut.

Well, it should be obvious I've come to praise this body of work which I find powerful and moving. I am offering that as one poet's assessment, informed by his experience and reading and by his personal preferences. I start out liking this kind of work. Yet I think if one comes to it uninformed about the world of haibun and haiku, one will also be moved by Into the Light. I'd even venture to say that if you come to the book biased against haibun in particular or haiku in general, you may be won over - this is a lesson from the best of them.

But let me not just tell you: let me show you. This is "Empty Spaces:"

We're drinking orange juice. Not fresh squeezed but from a can. It's slightly bitter with a metallic taste. But father doesn't mind. He's having his Kentucky style - with a splash of bourbon and a sigh from mother. As a treat for me, he is making scrapple, cornmeal mush with greasy sausage. I love it but what I love most is father cooking. For me. And I love watching mother push the scrapple around on her plate. She barely eats a bite.

cabin in winter
the floorboards too
have pulled away.

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