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April 2014, vol 10, no 1


Ray Rasmussen

Capturing Ed Higgins' "Escaped Poems"

 

Escaped Poems
Ed Higgins

Sometimes my poems escape. They crawl out through my Wi-Fi connection, I suspect.

One I found on the cluttered workbench in my shop next to a pair of garden clippers I hadn’t gotten around to sharpening yet. Tossed among other assorted tools scattered about the messy work area. The poem had been flirting with a slatternly trouble light when I caught up with it.

Another had made it as far as the barn. Had dropped into an open feed sack of All-Stock Grower for its intoxicating smell of molasses mixed with rolled oats, corn, and barley. The poem was sticky with the stuff.

A haiku had crept under a sitting hen, thinking itself a brown egg of sorts, enjoying a keenly perceived Zen moment: the silence of warm breast feathers.

A longer poem had climbed onto my tractor seat where I had left the machine in a half-mown hayfield while I went to the house for lunch. The green-sweet scent of newly cut brome, timothy, and red clover when I returned had left the poem heady with this palatable fodder drying in summer sun.

Several poems had found their way to the garden patch, cozying up to still green tomatoes, watching the pole beans rapid climb up bamboo stakes, nervous at discovering asparagus spears pushing through the dark loam. One poem was conversing with the Armenian cucumbers in their own language.

There are more escaped poems out there I have yet to find. Many I don’t remember writing. Some I have come upon have transmuted into reality. Like the blue dragon flies hovering over the pond down by the creek.

Still, I am always surprised to stumble upon any of them again.

words as intimacy      noun   verb   modifiers      thought’s syntax


Commentary by Ray Rasmussen

Higgins begins nicely with a bit of intrigue: “Sometimes my poems escape.” I can relate to that because it reminds me of my own lost poems, the ones I’ve written and have forgotten. But there is an unmistakable hint of potential fantasy here, and so he has me involved. What will he make of the escapees?

Each paragraph takes us into an escaped poem’s hiding place. He finds one:

. . . on the cluttered workbench . . . flirting with a slatternly trouble light . . .

I’ve not seen much personification in haibun or haiku that I like since Issa’s writing ― and that’s a lengthy dry spell. But Ed’s are gems, the kind that bring a laugh of appreciation even when you’re not in the mood. Added to "flirting with a slatternly trouble light," consider these excerpts about the activities of the lost poems:

A haiku had crept under a sitting hen, thinking itself a brown egg of sorts, enjoying a keenly perceived Zen moment: the silence of warm breast feathers.

One poem was conversing with the Armenian cucumbers in their own language.

There is a lot of talk in haibun circles about reality versus fiction and fantasy, i.e. fiction in which the writer is well hidden behind the characters on the page. Some readers may dismiss piece as too fanciful, too fictional. ‘Where is the writer?’ they might ask.

But here, the writer is clearly present. While he fabricates unlikely, but charming situations for his escapees, and has them flirting, enjoying, even conversing, in the remainder of each paragraph he provides detail about the Higgins farm, letting us know some of the places on the farm where he finds inspiration.

There's also talk in haibun circles about the use of other senses besides sight. Since I’m a visual guy, a photographer, my work is often focused on sight, and not the other senses of touch, smell, taste, sound. Higgins' use of scent/smell works well for me and could encoure me and other writers to reach more for the other senses:

Another had made it as far as the barn. Had dropped into an open feed sack of All-Stock Grower for its intoxicating smell of molasses mixed with rolled oats, corn, and barley. The poem was sticky with the stuff.

Likewise, from another paragraph:

. . . in a half-mown hayfield while I went to the house for lunch. The green-sweet scent of newly cut brome, timothy, and red clover

Higgins has me right there, in the barn … well, in the barns I’ve been in, which were rich with other smells besides feed stocks. And even if you’ve never been in a barn, I’m sure that you still ‘sense-feel’ the place as Higgins' describes it. As for the freshly mown hayfield, at the least we’ve all smelled fresh-cut grass. My lawn has clover. To my neighbors’ dismay, I often wait until the clover is in full bloom to cut it so that I can take in the fragrances, just what Higgins has so aptly told us about.

Humour is hard to write, so it’s rare in haibun and too often fails. But Higgins’ humour works in two ways: it provokes a chuckle, if not a belly laugh; and there is in these personifications, a hint of wabi-sabi, of the sadness in the transience of existence. From his starting point of a lifetime revisited through the doings of escaped (forgotten) poems, he closes with a paragraph that tells us about memory and loss:

There are more escaped poems out there I have yet to find. Many I don’t remember writing. Some I have come upon have transmuted into reality. Like the blue dragon flies hovering over the pond down by the creek.

We've all searched for Basho by a pond or lake, and while there we’ve seen the dance of the tiny blue iridescent dragonflies. They rarely land and sit still, so they’re never quite in focus. This is an apt metaphor for the way memory works (and increasingly fails to work as we age). And it’s a lovely way of expressing the transience of life’s journey. Important life events quickly become vague or lost memories. Our wonderful poems get lost. What to do about that? Higgins transcends the sense of loss through humour.

Higgins’ closing haiku is unusual. It's a thought piece, a summing up, a ‘tell'.

words as intimacy      noun   verb   modifiers      thought’s syntax

As such, some might think that it fails to match the preceding prose which is quite rich in personal detail and haiku-like in its succinctness. I see it as a shift from the vivid prose to a more serious look at what he’s done in this piece and perhaps what we attempt to do with our own work. He tells us that we use inanimate objects – nouns, verbs, modifiers – strung together in a way to create interest, identification, compassion, poetry. Indeed, Higgins has arranged his nouns, verbs and modifiers in such a way as to provide an intimate glimpse into a poet’s life and character, the things that matter to him, his cluttered workbench, barn, hen house, hayfield, garden patch, and, his transcendence of aging and loss with humour.

So, can fantasy, personification and a "tell" haiku work as haibun? Does it work to use humour as a part of expressing feelings about transience? If you can write humour like this, of course it does! Consider one of our other leading humourists:

What good luck!
Bitten by
This year’s mosquitoes too.
              ~ Issa, tr. Hass

Does Higgins’ writing open doors for us, leave room for us to project our own experiences into it? Two thumbs up from this reader.

~ Ray Rasmussen


Notes, Biography, and Publications:

  • All work by Ed Higgins has been printed with his permission.
  • Thanks to Garry Eaton for his editing suggestions.

About Ed Higgins:

Ed Higgins and his wife and three whippets live on a small farm south of Portland, Oregon where they remain unrepentant holdovers from the early 70s “back-to-the-land” movement. They raise a small menagerie of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigs, Jersey cows, Nubian goats, and a rescued potbelly pig named Odious. Ed teaches creative writing and literature at George Fox University. His poems and short fiction have appeared in Duck & Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide, Monkeybicycle, Pindeldyboz, and Bellowing Ark, as well as the online journals Lily, Cross Connect, Word Riot, The Centrifugal Eye, Contemporary Haibun Online, and Red River Review, among others. His haiku have been published in A Hundred Gourds, World Haiku Anthology on War, Three Line Poetry, Haiku Reality, Simply Haiku, Roadrunner Haiku Journal, Acorn, Bottle Rockets, The Heron's Nest and Paper Wasp. Some unpublished poems can be found at his University website:


Links to Ed's Haibun in Online Journal Publications:


Alternate Tale

Ed Higgins

Suppose Eve, strolling through the sunlit Garden, had not stumbled on that particular Tree at all, the wily serpent twined in its lower branches?

She’s walking along the river’s pleasant edge instead. Thinking a swim in the buff would be nice, if only she knew how. While the serpent, bored to tears waiting for her—spoiling his big moment—decides to eat the shiny apple himself. And chokes to death trying to swallow the thing whole.

What would God do with that? Upset naturally over his favorite snake, belly-up, stiff-legged, pointing heavenward, there under the Tree? Mad at Eve because she hadn’t lived up to expectations? Call her from the riverbank where she’s skipping stones to at least clean up the mess she was now responsible for?

shamelessly dropping
her half-eaten apple
on the snake’s tale

From Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose, Issue 2.




Forging a Fishmonger’s Knife

Ed Higgins

At his forge in the city of Fukui, bladesmith Masaji Shimizu produces the five-foot-long maguro-hocho, or tuna knife, prized by Tsukiji’s tuna dealers. The painstaking process entails heating iron and steel bars to 900 malleable degrees; the gold-glowing metals fuse under precise hammer blows. The blade is scrutinized for flaws by master Shimizu-san smiling in the fire’s liquid glow off his gold-capped teeth. Honed on a wheel, the blade showers sparks that leap in arcing curves like schools of startled tuna fleeing a predator.

off the horizon
turning away–
a school of bluefin

From Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose, Issue 1, Summer 2009




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