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Volume 36.2
Summer 2005

book review:

by David Cobb


Reviewed by Michael McClintock

Forefathers, by David Cobb (North Falmouth, Mass.: Leap Press, 2004). ISBN 0-9747229-1-X. 28 pages, 8 x 5, saddle-stapled. $8.50 postpaid from the publisher, PO Box 1424, North Falmouth, MA 02556.

Contemporary 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
(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 creator’s 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 literary diversion.

The 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 won’t really know that until we show some willingness to chew on it and swallow some.

Forefathers is the second book in Leap Press’s 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 Cobb’s 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. Cobb’s 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. Edmund’s Eve:”

A 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.

out of the clouds
in desperate flight
the noonday moon

Cobb’s prose is heavily descriptive of features — the physical appearance of things, with subjective modifiers carefully placed to reveal the narrator’s 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…” is seen, riddled with arrows and decapitated. The haibun ends in the present, at the narrator’s cottage, where he reports watching a film about English soldiers trying to keep the peace in Bosnia.

So 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 Cobb’s own struggle with the elements of history, folklore, and legend with which his haibun are clearly preoccupied. Cobb’s 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:

How 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?

To 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 hosomichi—around 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.

I 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 it’s 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]

And again, in this passage from his “Introduction” we read:

Speaking 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: ‘I’m going to tell you about my first fishing / hunting trip when I was nine years old.’”

I’ve 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 explanation …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” meet.

These strike me as intellectual knots or, in a word: fudge.

Cobb’s 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.

I 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.

I suggest, therefore, that this book’s 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 dive in.



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