Haibun Today

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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 3, September 2010


Dru Philippou
Taos, New Mexico, USA

Review of Hortensia Anderson’s The Plenitude of Emptiness

The Plenitude of Emptiness by Hortensia Anderson. South Africa and Ireland: Darlington Richards Press, 2010. 5.8” x 8.3,” perfect bound, 143 pp., ISBN: 978-0-9869763-0-8. Available $10.73 USD from Lulu.com website.

Hortensia Anderson’s newest collection contains a generous 115 autobiographical haibun. Individual motifs often recur throughout the book. In the absence of chronological order, the reader is invited to piece together the author’s life. Although the haibun stand strongly as individual works of art, when read within the context of the whole, the meaning of each is enlarged.

Either through the author’s or editors’ intention, the haibun are loosely linked by association as exemplified in the following three examples. In “Songs in the Key of Love” (18), Anderson comes to terms with her aunt’s death:

it had been over three years since i had been to our country house in New England. my aunt Leslie had been with us, before we knew about the lung cancer that would spread to her brain. as i drove along the winding road to pine lane, i could hear again her voice filled with anguish, “hortensia please, please tell me about death” and my refusal unlike the others, to lie. “i don’t know. i only know that i have you in my heart always.” “thank you” she said and lapsed into a coma that night, dying the next day. turning into our driveway, i caught the sun glinting off the two sets of windchimes we had both bought mother. they were still hanging on the apple tree. although we hadn’t known that the other was bringing them, we both chose windchimes with the same notes.

sunlight through tears—
small breezes carry songs
through green leaves

The most poignant moment of the prose, gracefully handled by the poet, is in the verbal exchange. The aunt delegates to the author God-like powers, and asks: “ ‘hortensia please, please tell me about death.’ ” Impossible to know about death, Anderson can only respond with what she knows for certain: “ ‘i don’t know. i only know that i have you in my heart always.’ ” Grateful for the truth, the aunt is able to move on.

The haiku gently moves the narrative forward to another phase of the poet’s life. The “green leaves” illustrate new beginnings. Anderson is able to reconnect to the love that she feels for her aunt (symbolized by the wind chimes) through the grief.

“Sweetgrass” (19) introduces a more uplifting theme. It is linked to the previous haibun by the refrain of “green” and “leaves,” and the repetition of the subject of sadness by “rivulets of rain” and “darkness woven / through the tangled leaves.”

She shows me how to weave blonde baskets with a light hand. As we braid the oval reeds with sweetgrass, their delicate but rich green runs through the wicker like rivulets after rain.

darkness woven
through the tangled leaves—
summer evening

The haibun has tactile allure; we can almost feel the basket in our hands. This ancient craft that is passed on embodies the knowledge of those who have gone before. The fact that the author does not define “she” strengthens the haibun, allowing the reader to insert his own interpretation.

Although the haiku echoes the prose closely, it nevertheless is effective in moving the theme forward and showing a passage of time. It also directs the reader away from a close-up to a wide-angle landscape, but the haiku is impaired by the distraction of the obscure phrase “tangled leaves.”

After a moment’s pause in “Sweetgrass,” we return to the subject of death. In “Ferncliff” (20), the author contemplates her own death, introduces the deaths of other family members, and also links us back to the aunt’s death in “Songs in the Key of Love.” The effect is one of amplification.

As I stroll along the winding path that leads to the mausoleum, I feel a strange tranquility—I haven’t been to visit in years. It takes me awhile to find them—I keep getting lost in the labyrinth. Next to my aunt, around the corner from my father and grandfather, a smooth slice of marble waits for an engraver. I had begged for this niche until my bewildered mother finally relented. How strange, knowing the name and the date—except for the last two digits.

columbarium . . .
mourning doves
a shade grayer

The phrase “strange tranquility” is intriguing and captures the imagination. In contrast to the noise of cities, the quietness of the mausoleum might indeed seem strange or overwhelming. In the mausoleum, we experience a portal into the past and the presence of those that have passed away. Anderson, dealing with her own terminal illness (the book’s opening haibun), reminds us that the time of death is uncertain but inevitable. This is reiterated anew by the haiku’s metaphor where, with each passing day, we are a step closer to death.

There are three strong and evocative images of the author’s father surfcasting off a boulder. “Returning” (24) is one of them:

My father was a fisherman. Before dawn, he surfcast off the coast of Montauk from a favourite boulder he liked to stand on. Ten years after his death, I return during a storm and come upon the boulder awash in waves. For some reason, I expected it to have gone with him.

dusk in winter —
a roiling sea
churns the sand

The power of the poet’s often-understated prose is evident in the above piece. She writes what she sees and remembers without embellishment and allows her readers to sense the phenomenal in the clarity and simplicity of her language. In all three pieces, the author identifies the father with the boulder and as such expects the boulder to have disappeared with him.

In the haiku, where the “sea/churns the sand,” the reader comes to know that new patterns are being continually formed and that life is impermanent.

In “Andalusian Gazpacho” (32), Anderson paints a colorful picture:

The tomatoes—seemingly ripened and reddened by the summer day—are cored and quartered. The holiest of trinities—fresh garlic ground by my mortar and pestle into paste, moistened stale breadcrusts and sherry vinegar from Sevilla have been stirred into the a glass bowl—their flavours have seeped into brilliant colour. As night spreads her tablecloth, I smooth the soup, anointing it with olive oil from Cordoba.

almost autumn—
a Flamenco tune
on a guitar

A few haibun in the book are anomalies that contribute to the book’s shortcomings. “Andulasian Gazpacho” stands out the most. Initially, one is seduced by the high-flown phrase “holiest of trinities” (also a culinary term) and by the expectation that something more meaningful lies beneath the surface but the reader who anticipates more is quickly disappointed. The elevated diction continues into the haiku and is overpowering.

The first pair of em dashes draws attention to itself and is confusing when followed with a second pair. In the first instance, the em dashes break up the sentence too abruptly, interrupt the flow of the prose, and dilute what follows (comma use is less obtrusive). In the second instance, the em dashes are used effectively as they add more weight where needed.

Although a variety of haibun forms are available, the author’s overall mode is prose plus one concluding haiku. In "Maybe You Can Come Home" (56), Anderson departs from this genre offering a hybrid that includes both tanka and haiku. The collection contains one tanka prose, "Like Gulls Fly" (113).

Of the author’s plethora of haibun, only one opens with a haiku. “Zen in Bloom” (131) follows the adage “less is more” and shows the relationship between structure and context:

stone waterfall—
a rock mountain rises
from a sea of sand

Beyond the window, a monk rakes.

In this miniature Zen garden, there is a sense of the carefully laid stones of the dry waterfall. Around the waterfall, a monk rakes sand into perfect ripples to calm and clear the mind. The haibun’s tranquility and harmony capture the reader’s attention.

Anderson’s childhood descriptions are memorable. Here is “The Way Back” (112):

As I drift in the lush grass, a monarch butterfly alights by my side. Suppose, as my aunt had told me, the dark map of lines on orange wings really is the way back to my childhood?

swingset—
I try to flip
over the sky

The pastoral setting of butterfly and lush grass reminds the author of a childhood scene. The word “suppose” invites the reader to share her imagination. The migratory butterfly finds the way back by using the sun or the earth’s magnetic field. Anderson uses the “dark map lines” of the butterfly back to childhood.

The haiku holds the emotion of the prose. The poet soars through the air, reliving an exuberant moment. This, in turn, evokes our own memories of childhood, for almost every child knows the magic of swinging into the sky.

The Plenitude of Emptiness is an impressive book collection. Anderson's ability to portray rich and universal themes using basic haibun techniques makes this work approachable for all.

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