by Michael McClintock
by David Cobb (North Falmouth, Mass.: Leap Press,
2004). ISBN 0-9747229-1-X. 28 pages, 8½ x 5½, saddle-stapled.
$8.50 postpaid from the publisher, PO Box 1424,
North Falmouth, MA 02556.
haibun in English appear to straddle most of the
familiar forms of narrative and discursive prose,
including the essay, short story, and autobiographical
narrative. Moreover, their authors show a readiness
to adopt conventions from both fiction and nonfiction
genres. When we review the contents of such series
as American Haibun and Haiga, or Contemporary
Haibun (both from Red Moon Press), the best
haibun being written appear to be, author to author,
as varied in style, theme, and treatment as any
of these other forms: they show their creators
fingerprints. Generally, this is a good trend, I
am sure, keeping the haibun form and genre several
steps away from becoming either easy, or conformist,
or merely a cookie-cutter formula for eccentric
real rub in all this variety and energy is that
readers expectations may have no firm place
to plant their feet, other than on the solid ground
that only plain good writing may afford. Since haibun
by definition (albeit the most simple and practical
one) is prose that in some way incorporates haiku,
we may have the expectation that the haiku will
meet at least some of our expectations for haiku.
As for the rest of the haibun its prose layers
of allusion and symbol and metaphor one may
do best simply to hope that the cake tastes good
and satisfies our hunger for good writing,
whatever that may mean for us individually. We wont
really know that until we show some willingness
to chew on it and swallow some.
is the second book in Leap Presss series,
Explorations in Haibun, devoted to original English-language
haibun. The first was Ascend with Care by
William M. Ramsey (see More
than Raisins in a Cake, review by Michael
McClintock, Modern Haiku 35.2 [summer 2004]).
We are offered a sampling of David Cobbs haibun
from 1997 forward, including excerpts
from two of his longer pieces, The Spring
Journey to the Saxon Shore, and A Day
in Twilight, and four much shorter pieces.
Cobbs voice in prose and haiku is very distinct,
as is his approach to the subject matter that concerns
him, and may be fairly represented by this opening
passage from St. Edmunds Eve:
north wind and heavy weather. The sky black with
threatened snow; air laden with the smell of bonfire
smoke, seeping through ventilators of the car.
Forest trees solemnised by a sudden overnight
fall in temperature; dank leaves sheening yellow.
On the skyline, a wind turbine flailing against
the approaching storm.
of the clouds
in desperate flight
the noonday moon
prose is heavily descriptive of features
the physical appearance of things, with subjective
modifiers carefully placed to reveal the narrators
personal sense of the scene here, the trees
solemnised, and in the haiku, a desperate
noonday moon. There is much use of incomplete sentences
and short phrases strung together with commas and
semicolons. The haibun proceeds to unfold its ghostly
(and grisly) vision, where against a tree
the pallid outline of our first patron saint, Edmund,
Martyr, King of the East Angles
riddled with arrows and decapitated. The haibun
ends in the present, at the narrators cottage,
where he reports watching a film about English soldiers
trying to keep the peace in Bosnia.
far, so good. It is a weird little piece that conveys
simple impressions of place and historical presence.
For me, things get fudgy when Cobb tries to describe
his creative process. The problem of readers
expectations, which I sketched out earlier, is central
to Cobbs own struggle with the elements of
history, folklore, and legend with which his haibun
are clearly preoccupied. Cobbs angst about
it leaps off the page. In a long essay at the back
of the book, titled A Long View of the Vertical
Axis of Haibun, Cobb offers this description
of his approach and concerns:
much knowledge can be expected of readers, without
which a piece becomes opaque? How many notes dare
one supply before the wheels of the text grind
to a halt?
begin to answer those questions, let us go back
to my first haibun, The Spring Journey to the
Saxon Shore, which was published in 1997.
For a first attempt, this haibun was certainly
not lacking in ambition, as it was pretty much
on the same scale as Oku no hosomichiaround
8,000 words in length, moving from one topic to
another, with recurrent themes and deliberate
variations of style. My watchword was to find
some sense of each place wherever I stopped. What
I discovered was that the spirit of place was
more or less inseparable from the dimension of
historical time. And to convey those dimensions
adequately, I added numerous notes at the end
of the haibun, adding background on everything
from the Roman origins of the region to quotations
from English authors.
have also gone beyond mere reference to bring
in new dimensions; several times I have actually
conjured up spirits from the past and brought
them onto the stage, as if they were with us now.
Some will object to such use of imagination, but
its my belief (not shared by all, I know)
that haibun is a work of poetic literature,
so we may reasonably ask the reader to suspend
disbelief. [emphasis mine]
again, in this passage from his Introduction
of original haibun in English, The majority
of these pieces operate on the horizontal
axis only that is, life in the truthful (or
truthlike) context of the present only,
defined by the limits of personal experience. Something
like the three classical unities of time, place,
and action are observed in them: Im
going to tell you about my first fishing / hunting
trip when I was nine years old.
written many of these kinds myself, and shall no
doubt continue to do so. But the haibun in the following
selection expand until the unities are ruptured
and the vertical axis exploited
that is, extra dimensions have been added to
the present contexts by relevant invocations of
the past, either through allusion or through substantial
This approach involves more than
a shift in tense. At the point where the two axes
cross, our senses are able to give us a feeling
of those things we know only by intuition and faith.
Down the vertical axis, the absolute and the particular
come together, the definite and the infinite fuse,
the normal and the paranormal
strike me as intellectual knots or, in a word: fudge.
explanations of his intentions, and the theories
behind them, will make heavy reading for all but
the most devoted examiner of artistic motive. The
man sincerely wants to understand what he does in
his haibun, and why, and how; this is not the same
thing as being able to convey these mysteries to
us, alas, though clearly he wishes to make the effort
and seems to hope, fervently, that we will, too.
can say this much: I gave it a try. Does the idea
that living in the world may also involve living
with some sense of its history need such belaboring?
And can this be news to anyone? These discussions
that Cobb offers lose touch with the poetic content
of his own work and have really little to do with
haibun as a form or genre of writing. He is trying
too hard to grasp and hold it by its ears, like
a field specimen, and apply the rectal thermometer.
It simply will not yield to the kind of clinical
examination he seems to insist that it needs and
attempts to give it.
suggest, therefore, that this books critical
discussions be read and absorbed, if that
is even faintly possible apart from reading
the haibun themselves. For those, the best course
will be to suspend disbelief and just