Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 4, December 2010

Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

Review of Stanley Pelter's Vermeer and a Stony Beach

Vermeer and a Stony Beach by Stanley Pelter.  Easton, Winchester, Hampshire, U.K.: George Mann Publications,  2010.  6” x 9”, perfect bound, 170 pp.  ISBN 9780956087492. Enquiries: Stanley Pelter, 5 School Lane, Claypole, Newark NG23 5BQ, U.K. Email: spelter23@aol.com.  For members of the British Haiku Society, please enclose a cheque for 1.50 pounds; or $3, or 2 Euros for the cost of a padded envelope and postage.  For the public, the price is 8 pounds + 1.50 pounds p&p.

Vermeer and A Stony Beach is Stanley Pelter’s fifth collection of haibun and he has surely and convincingly moved the haibun into new and innovative areas.  These poems are mostly set in the themes Pelter knows so well:  family history, art, science, literature and nature.

Pelter has assembled a diverse, stimulating, often wise selection of haibun.  He’s given them space to go wide and deep.  As one of haibun’s most astute social commentators, he offers his own critique of the current zeitgeist of democracy and social order, as we see in the haibun “butterfly wings”(27):

through grapevine hear breathing of an estranged family after they disappear inside a grand dissolution

through grapevine a guillotine swish of sliced air

through grapevine screams spread through threads of wind sweeping inside a Golden Age on which scorn is poured

Pelter has a keen sense of humour and many of the haibun express the angst of contemporary man within a context of analyzing language, trying to see clearly and identifying with nature and humanity’s place in it.  Yet there is also a need to try and anchor himself, to delve into his memories.

We’re talking here about a poet who rolls language in the palm of his hand, who turns words on their heads, who plays with images and manages that almost unmanageable feat of taking the reader along with him.  This is a complexity that works and excites, a complexity that refreshes and revitalizes language. His discursive, uncontrolled syntax runs throughout the haibun.  The tone is uneven, sometimes weary.  The loose, looping verses repeat and rework motifs of childhood, the blitz, youth, being a conscientious objector—all the autobiographical features of which Pelter’s readers will be familiar.

Here is a poet who does not shy away from the truth and this is perhaps what is so striking about his haibun.  They are neither sentimental nor do they veer into predictable territory.  The content marries the form—and it’s a difficult task to achieve, the kind of difficulty that bears interesting poems.  Talking of an attempt to define what happens at the moment of conception, he writes in the poem “conception is?” (37):

what is it like, i mean really like, that moment when they meet, speeding into darkness, in a desired collision of equal unequals, a journey undertaken by millions who penetrate an eternal wasteland.  what is it like to be part of an event with a sensibility for a known yet unknown future?  what is it like, i mean, really like when they meet?

In this play with language, Pelter is not interested in painting us pretty pictures.  He’s more interested in reminding us of the hidden power of language.  In the lengthy haibun “death by a thousand accretions” (51), which is divided into the months August to January, he suggests “the angers sad of old.”  The haibun ends with these two sections, which focus on the vulnerability of ageing:

january 22
Back to London.  Pre-Birthday birthday dinner.

january 23
birthday. waited all these years. there were moments when . . . good times slipslide through less efficient arteries. astrology ambiguously hint this will be a year to savour. already, already, it begins.

new growth sways
wispy tree with deep roots
is vulnerable

In these haibun the poet simultaneously locates and dislocates himself.  In this collection of haibun the language and the composition do not conform and are not static.  He has plenty to say.  Listen to this in the haibun “Freedom Option”(62):

You go to Singapore for two weeks.  To visit our son.  Too hot too humid too far for me.  Two weeks of indulgence.  Her in her way.  Me in mine.  Can start smoking again.  But do not.

A masterpiece I’d say because it allows the reader time and space to take it all in.  The poem breathes and moves, embracing us with its colour and content.

A number of haibun recall Pelter’s family history, and sometimes touch on the universal while doing so.  For example, in the haibun “granddadma” (64) we meet Pelter’s grandfather:

It is Friday evening.  Forget fence repairs.  Someone helps granddad’s arm down.  He is aimed at an open door.  One look back at a rotating scimitar shape before night is left outside.  Granddad, escapee in exile, sprays; he says he is trying to retrieve a smell of burning wax, blessed spices, atmosphere of his shtetl.

Several haibun look at the society of his youth: a time of tough standards and gentle hypocrisy, as “it is a day like many others” (84) outlines:

2 air raid warnings.  Asleep in an earth-covered shelter.  Midday.  Third wailing siren into a finished sun.  Weeds rampage.  Fill pavement cracks.  All summer spaces.  Lush leaves with earth-encased roots boil.  “Noowtrishus” she says.

A few read like family stories written for the family to ponder over.  A couple of the haibun are dogmatic.  Far more are lucid and perceptive analyses of what shaped the writer and artist.  Relationships, suburbia, the war years, its aftermath, education are all grist to Pelter’s mill.  There are some absolutely terrific utterances, as we see in his poem about the war years, “mother’s milk a shade sour?”(94):

“Cook it yourselves.”  Aged 3, 7, 10, World War 2 hell is unleashed.  What are we supposed to do?  New problems.  They know what will happen to us if, if if . . . This gaseous game is a tunnel we claw through, eventually emerging a far side of black.  Yes, disfigured. Yes, but still alive to cook another day.

untamed wind howls
through bomb reshaped earth
chaos of roots

In this volume, Pelter is concerned with the formulation of an expanded prose style which incorporates an imagistic concentration on perception with a discursive conversational mode.  This style allows him to direct the reader’s attention to the self’s process of experience and also allows him to comment on such topics as art, music, literature, nature and the broader social context.

Pelter’s preoccupation with the congruency of the senses and the local, of the present mediated by representation and memory, can be seen as one result of his reflecting on how a child brought up during the Second World War and the affect of its aftermath on his family, education and social life, concerns his poetry.  In “Carmen for All” (28), Pelter notes his first experience of attending an opera with his mother:

Out of nothing.  How found?  How paid?  London Theatre on Saturday.  Underground station excitement walks into blaring sounds.  Eyes flitter into Theatreland.  Erratic lights blink On Off.  Ecstatic posters.  Large photographs of stars jostle for importance.  We short-step forward.  She wears her black, pavement length, only coat.  Carries her always-shopping bag.  Me as tidy as untidy conveys.  She holds my arm.  Already am a warmer sky shower of inexplicable vapours.

In the act of disentangling the strands of sensory experience, it becomes apparent that there is a genuine and mysterious encounter to be had in these haibun.  There is a religious sense of depth, a sense of reality beyond the idiosyncrasies of his prose.  There is a sense of reality beyond selfhood. 

In the poems I believe most significant—“death of a thousand accretions,” “diary of a truant,” “Home and Hospital 4 J I + journey into deathland”—I notice that Pelter focuses on a consideration of the subject entailing a range of typography which is conceptually expansive.  “I lived a golden Age” is an example of this, and is, I believe, a fine exemplar of Pelter’s style.

Behind all the images of childhood and youthful memories, traumatic events, love, family and other complications, there is not an abstract philosophy or a surrender to fate but an overwhelming desire to recall events from the poet’s extensive memory.  For example, in the poem, “I was there Was I there?” (80) the poet wonders,

was I there?
difficult to remember
if i was there

Bomb dropped on Russian Square.  Seem to remember that name.
‘Russian Square’.  Not now certain.  Remember remembering that name.

I was there.  Was I there?

Compare, “loss” (87):

age old key
lost in a lit attic
wrapped toys hide

Lose so much.  For as long as fading is memory I have lost things; objects, thoughts, senses, ideas, words.  Lose tickets, clothes, ability to dream.  Even changes are lost.  Soon after, names of anything lost sight of is gone.  Lose watch, time of day, train times, even bits of time itself.

Pelter draws on the ageing process of loss of memory to draw the conclusion: “Don’t let me lose you.  Don’t lose me.”

Haibun such as “model model,” “nights make a difference” and “Piano duet —what a device!” are finely written, imagistic reflections in which Pelter capitalizes on his talent for the visually interesting and syntactically sharp. In “Piano duet—what a device!” (102), he writes:

Every art school seems to have one.  Rehearse on Wednesday evenings.  Motley group of talkative listeners, enthusiastic dancers.  Saturday is gig night.

dress rehearsal
in games of musical chairs
thrush and woodlark compete

“Is that you?  I’m sick.  Can you do my turn, brain?”
“No problem.  Have a great time.”

Pelter’s quest via haibun to arrive at an integration with life, a deep-felt spirituality and a love for nature, and the arts, makes his haibun completely modern.  Art College is another of his subjects.  In “old fashioned—but what if?” (97), the poet sorts out image after image, frame after frame, to convey his experience, and summon up in a few words the College Principal and one of his fellow students and his girlfriend:

Even then it was old-fashioned.  Building inelegant.  Good light.  Garden littered with clay-modelled, plaster cast sculptures of life figures half hidden by large leaves.  College Principal plagiarises a great age of flower painting.  Follows well-trodden technical path.  Same route for Ezra Pound look-alike buddy who rides majestic horses, who rages when a nosebleed fragments a shared drawing, who lives with Miss Compliant Shaw who, too, rides majestic horses.

In these haibun, and others throughout the collection, Pelter’s tight control over language and rhythm facilitate the transformation of physical experience into visual and aural patterning.  This approach can be seen in three pivotal haibun, “salt of the earth” and “72?  ‘You don’t look it’” and “73  yes another birthday.”  Here the poet introduces the difficulties faced by the poet who wants to contact in a necessarily disrupted manner.  In “salt of the earth” (114), Pelter addresses the problem of using typography to convey experience:

Because once, a long time ago, in a musical accent, an abnormal teacher singsang a song to a room of nearly sweetness, to nearly light:dificuult peepul arrre thee sss-alt of thhe urrth, wun grrreatt resapee mix of animull, vegeetabull, minurralls.  They stand up to peepull oo wood uthrrwyse trrie tooo gveltt urway with murda, an’ sucherlike.”  Do you remember that radio game, ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’

Because the colloquial idiom of this poem is literal (echoing accurately the metaphor-poor plainness of typical Northern English speech), the concepts which drive it have to be strong, and sometimes one feels that they just don’t quite achieve the necessary strength.  Curiosity will be aroused by Pelter’s choices of such words as ‘peepul’ for people, ‘vegeetabull’ for vegetable and ‘sucherlike’ for such like.  We may question why this use of non-standard forms is necessary.  For me, in reading this particular poem, there are moments of frustration when there is not enough sense or language interest to keep me going.  I like this kind of poetry when it is brilliant and I get impatient when it’s not—perhaps I’m more demanding when reading this kind of experimental poetry than when reading more mainstream poetry.  However, Pelter does have moments of real brilliance, and his combination of philosophical intensity, irony, humour, idiosyncracy and deft wordplay makes him an interesting poet to read.

The fact that there’s no doubt that nature is more physical though just as ephemeral as language is made clear in “72?  ‘You don’t look it’” (129), where the poem celebrates the poet’s birthday:

            drawn cloud birthday                        email smile              colours it in

Yesterday a dutiful daughter wished me “happy birthday”.  Wonder if sister will remember,
Happy birthday” from inside another distance.  Son is flying from Tokyo to South Korea.  We spoke yesterday.
Happy birthday.  Are you feeling better?”  Doesn’t mention how young I look.  “Hope you haven’t opened my parcel yet.”

The book traverses a wide range of styles and voices, some more successful than others.  There is little to disturb a straightforward reading of the voice as the autobiographical voice of the poet, with references to family, friends, neighbourhoods, writers and artists. Be reassured by the determination, the humanity, and the maturity of these haibun.  And by the author’s philanthropy:  Pelter’s collections of haibun are gift books, free to members of the British Haiku Society and available worldwide for a small charge.


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