haibun/ tanabata


Jim Dine Hearts in front of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The haibun is a satisfying form. It combines the fullness of story, the various forms of narrative, the objective descriptions of place, the histories and herstories of life, of the world with its wonders, and its sorrows.  But more than that, it edges in, with a haiku, yet another angle to what is happening in the prose.

one jim dine heart/ touches another/July heat

It lets the writer and the reader step outside the prose, do some sideways thinking. It means acknowledging that whatever story we think we know, there are worlds attached that we cannot know. The haiku is an attempt to understand the prose more deeply and to be even more involved in it.

alice puzzledalice steps through/ astonishes/ her self

When we write our own prose intending to create a haibun, it’s a game we play with ourselves. We write ourselves out, then leave what we wrote, sometimes abruptly, and go away for a while. It may be for just a few seconds, but we return with something that might have been floating through our minds, and only reminded of by sitting on cool grass, or when spooning brown sugar, or by an ornament on your mother’s mantel.

northern_cardinal_glamourfrom cardinal’s beak/ to hatchling/ a future

It’s an invitation to join in, to pick the next card, complete the Royal Flush. But is also a reminder that all things in the world are connected; it’s up to us to figure out how. Not that I know what I’m talking about in mentioning a poker term, not everyone knows how to play every game. In a haibun the next card is more a suggestion to consider how it fits, like a puzzle piece, into the larger picture.

A haiku may initiate the prose. It can be like that piece of cloud you pick up first, the one you have no hope of matching up, until something twigs, and Oh yes, that blossom scent reminds me of the lime Jello Aunt Bessie used to fill with pineapple and tiny marshmallows, and that time we went to Paris together... so the narrative begins, perhaps to end with another haiku.

eiffelcaught/ in metal struts/ bits of sky

The free flow between two different ways of thinking, the brain switching from prose mode to haiku mode, is what makes haibun intriguing.

The form can be perplexing. Why stick that last ‘bit’ on, those three lines that seem to have no reason for existing, that are confusing in themselves.  Bits of idea, image upon image. It has nothing to do with the story!  The story is about a temple…Why is the haiku about a dream? And it doesn’t even finish the story!

In haibun, the short poem parts shouldn’t immediately be apparent. A space intrudes between the parts, a space that says Take a moment before continuing this poem, the same function it has in lyric poems. In haibun it also prepares the reader: don’t expect this poem to continue in the same vein as before.

a turtle dove rests/ in an empty bird feeder/ evening light

hiroshige tanabataThe trick is to think about both parts and think about where they both could meet, whether is space, time, commonality, atmosphere, emotion, weather… as if one part has been longing for the other, and each only fulfilled, like the weaver girl and the cowherd, when they have found each other. (The image is the City Flourishing, Tanabata Festival, 1857 woodcut by by Hiroshige)

The Open Mind website quotes Nicolas Tesla: “When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole…” The paragraph is about Tesla describing a cellphone in 1926, but can be taken as another way to think about the haibun creating process: one section of a writer’s brain connecting with another part of itself that can only be accessed through an alternate route.  One part of mind reaching for another, conversing.

typos/ distraction to destruction/ bitter

This senryu from Strange Type, a poem by Malcolm Lowry.

More on taking risks in haibun

Jane Hirshfield writes that to read a haiku is to become its coauthor, to place yourself inside its words until they reveal one of the …shapes of your own life. If the listener/reader can do that, can settle with those few words of a haiku, listen to them, curl them around in her mind, live with them for longer than a few seconds, climb inside them, consider their flavours, then the poem may begin to affect a life the way a great piece of music does.

celesta's writing croppedHaibun offers the chance to do that, but also to understand how the prose is affected by the haiku, how the two parts reflect off each other, changing the meaning of each part, or enriching it, backwards and forwards.  When either part is unusual for one reason or another, we get to think about that, about why the writer put those two parts together, decide whether the pairings work, and why or why not.  When a respected poet does something outrageous, we accept that something completely new is in the making.

When in Drifting (2014, catkin press) Marco Fraticelli set out to create haibun from a ragged set of papers, bills and journals, written by an unknown woman in the early 1900s, he did exactly that. He got to know Celesta Taylor so well, first by reading every scrap she left in that abandoned cabin, and then by paring her words down to the few that best told her story.  It is as if he became Celesta, until her story began to merge with his own life, until she and he were ready to coauthor the haibun in Drifting.

One might be surprised that a man wanted to take this on, or feel that a man would miss the subtle parts of what she chose to record, not only her emotions, but the details like canning tomatoes, doing the mending, her thoughts about God. However, to read the excerpts he has chosen tells us he understood her well and thoroughly in 1905 and through the following 11 years, felt close enough to Celesta to feel what she did, see what she did, and act as she did. He becomes Celesta. There’s a feeling of conversation between the Celesta who was and the Celesta he has become. This is me, Marco, wanting to communicate with you, Celesta Taylor.  I feel I know you. It’s a conversation that begins:

Henry gave me this diary/ an old one of his/ so I like it better than new. (November 6, 1910), a haiku he has created from her own words.

Celesta’s diary begins in 1905 when she writes about her teenage sons away at school, about going to the doctor about her arm, and reporting that the mill caught fire. The mill belonged to the man and his daughter that she was housekeeping for. Each of these entries a month apart were marked with a mysterious ‘X’. Half the world’s population will get this right away.

The haiku following these three entries, written by Fraticelli, form links with her words, yet also with his own life, for this is something he himself has also done:

I sprinkle ashes/from the woodstove/onto the compost pile

After a difficult month, Celesta barely mentions Christmas, 1905:

December 18, 1905: Henry’s surgical operation.

December 20, 1905: Henry sat up a few minutes.

December 21, 1905: Grandpa died.

December 25, 1905: Christmas. Ploding about as usual.  (Her own spelling)

Marco responds with: boxing day/I light the fire/with wrapping paper

Using found material in any poetry can be risky. Yet in Drifting, Celesta Taylor becomes real, and her story mesmerizing, for these are her own words, her own experience, her own feelings, and her lover’s ultimate betrayal. Drifting is a collaboration happening across a century.

In his further investigations in using haibun, Fraticelli has put together a small chapbook of selections from Fragments, a work in progress.

fragments cover Also called Fragments, (2014, King’s road Press) in these chapbook poems he works backwards from Chiyo-ni’s haiku, creating the prose in Chiyo-ni’s voice. The imaginary premise is that letters written by Chiyo-ni have been found in a Buddhist temple. Marco ‘edits’ these invented letters, and follows the prose with one of Chiyo-ni’s haiku:

I can’t imagine that I will actually ever send these letters to you. It is more likely that they will be found under my pillow one morning when I do not return from my final dream of you.

 I also saw the moon/ and now, world/ “yours truly…”

Recreating a poet from made-up letters, now that is amazing, Mr. Fraticelli.

Terry Ann Carter of Victoria, B.C., is writing haibun from another unusual perspective. For a long time she has been in awe of the set of woodcut prints known as The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido, for which Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) painted the originals.


Widely recognised as one of the true greats of ukiyo-e art, Hiroshige was a prolific artist who specialised in painting landscapes and adopting Western techniques such as perspective.

Hiroshige was not a printmaker. He painted the pictures which were then used as guides to be pasted onto woodblocks by the woodblock carver and his apprentices. One block was needed for each colour, and sometimes as many as twenty or thirty blocks were needed. A carver would train for over twenty years before he was allowed to touch the finer parts of a block.

Then the blocks were off to the printers. Each finished print was the outcome of registering each of the many carved blocks over the previously printed colour so that the lines and colours fell in exactly the right place. It was a complicated system of keeping the papers damp, and having highly developed complex colour and printing skills, knowing about changes in pressure, in the brushing, variations in the proportion of pigment to paste, in the way the pigment pools subtlely at the edge of the printed shapes, in the types of brushes used. Hiroshige had the easy part, though he is the one who gets credit for the prints, just as Picasso did.

The Tokaido was one of several important roads constructed by the Shoguns to increase their control over the country. In 1832 Hiroshige made the trip to Kyoto as part of a delegation sent on behalf of the Shogun. Upon his arrival back in Edo he immediately began work on a series of prints that would become known as The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.

All that to explain the fascination of the prints from an artistic point of view.  Ms. Carter sees this side of the prints, and has envisioned Hiroshige as he walks the Tokaido, putting herself into the mind of the painter, but linking it to her own world. We shift from 1832 Japan to 2015 Canada in these poems.  Although Hiroshige was looking and sketching landscape, he could not escape his own concerns, such as how to survive as an artist and maintain his own political integrity.

In her haibu, she walks the path with the painter and suddenly realizes the world crashing in on her meditative or reflective state. In this haibun, she and Hiroshige arrive at Station 23:

Station 23: Shimada

How Best to Cross a River or a Stream

You always said try holding it together for a change. But I’m battling depression. My body a tripod with the help of a walking stick. A hiking manual deleting the part about shallow water. Your answer to everything…elliptical. A poet writes about being a kid. Seeing his neighbour drown a sack of kittens one cold November night. That river too wide to cross. Does anyone listen to Little Walter anymore? My eye surgeon cutting into the heart of me. All that I see. My father crossing North Africa. 1943. Rommel on the run. These trajectories at the lookout, north of Black Mountain College. On the North Carolina switchback they call Blue Ridge.

triptych/ painting of a chair/ a chair and sumi-e

I once was at a weekend workshop in Connecticut with Jane Hirshfield and Robert Bly. The simplicity and honesty in their approach to poetry was remarkable. My respect for what she writes tripled, and it was mighty to begin with.  She writes: To plunge one thing into the shape or nature of another is a fundamental gesture of creative insight, part of how we make for ourselves a world more expansive, deft, fertile, and startling in richness.

Here we have seen Terry ann Carter and Marco Fraticelli ‘plunging’ into the lives of others, creating, through ‘sympathetic magic’, opportunities for the rest of us to experience those lost rich worlds.