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Volume 35.3
Autumn 2004


book review

Stone Circles: Haiku and Haiku Prose, by Noragh Jones


Reviewed by Ed Zuk

Stone Circles: Haiku and Haiku Prose, by Noragh Jones (Cwmrheidol, Wales: Pilgrim Press, 2004). 76 pages; 5.5 x 8; paperback, perfectbound. ISBN 0-9539901-2-5. List price £6.00 from Amazon.co.uk or $12.00, or for further ordering information contact the publisher at Troed Rhiw Sebon, Cwmrheidol, Aberystwyth, SY23 3NB Wales.

As readers, we tend to think of poets either as traditional or experimental, either as striving to preserve the history and identity of poetry or to push art towards new forms and discoveries. Most poets fall primarily into one group or the other, though others defy easy categorizations. In which camp, for example, would one place the Japanese poet Seishi Yamaguchi, who believed deeply in the 5–7–5 syllable structure and season word, but who also opened haiku to modernism? Stone Circles is, like Seishi’s haiku, a work that is both traditional and experimental. It points the haibun towards both the past and future, and haiku poets of all persuasions will find much to ponder in its pages.

The traditional aspect of the book appears in the suites of travel haibun, which recall Bashô’s journeys, especially his shorter travelogues. Bashô tended to arrange his travels around visits to important cultural or religious sites, and in a similar spirit Jones journeys throughout Britain to explore, among other things, local myths associated with stone ruins, monasteries that were ransacked by the Vikings, and holy sites consecrated by Catholic saints. On one journey she visits a circle of stones that, according to legend, was formed when a Catholic priest asked the Lord to rid him of a drunken wedding party. On another she makes a traditional pilgrimage to St. Melangell’s Healing Centre to find that the yew trees, surprisingly, “go on offering shelter to whoever comes—faith or no faith.” At the end of one of her travels Jones ponders the meaning of tradition when she asks herself “what’s in it for us moderns, then?” Her answer is the following haiku:

a power of stillness—
stone tree
in a cloud of midges

This view of the past as a silent yet abiding aspect of our lives is one of the stronger statements that I have read in an English-language haibun.

However, the heart of the collection lies in the five “Songs of Old Age,” which won the Noboyuki Yuasa International Haibun Contest in 2003. Here Jones unveils the experimental side of her art by imagining the last days of an old woman who is fully conscious of her approaching death. The prose parts of the haibun are written as streams-of-consciousness, and they show the old woman’s combination of vitality and weariness:

what was I saying o yes the message this is it yes at least I hope it is but I can’t be sure of anything these days the words slip and twist like eels—bright and dark and shiny—rose and yellow and eau de nil I can’t explain the colours of thought

The haiku, however, are traditional and help to anchor the woman’s restless thoughts:

old grey cat and I
sharing a can of sardines
he winks I wink back

I was not convinced by the stream-of-consciousness, which I found to be more abstract and less engaging than, say, that of James Joyce—this in spite of wonderful lines like “I can’t explain the colours of thought.” Yet the sequence does break new ground, raising the possibility that other literary techniques, whether traditional or experimental, will increasingly shape the prose sections of our haibun.

This collection is not without its faults. North American poets would have pruned a good number of the haiku, for example, and the haibun are far more memorable than the sections of poetry. Yet, as I read through Stone Circles, a small voice inside of my head kept whispering, “This is important.” I can’t imagine a serious writer of haibun who would not want to have this book lying on his or her bookshelf within easy reach.



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