Review of Peter Butler's The Trouble with Mona Lisa
(Alba Publishing: Uxbridge, UK, 2015)
In The Trouble with Mona Lisa, Peter Butler has gathered together haibun that can in turns be humorous, quirky, creepy, fantastical and touching, as well as frustrating. After my first reading, I checked up on the three poems that had stood out for me. One, "Sunday at the Office," was winner of the Haibun Section of the 2014 British Haiku Awards. I could never quite figure out the point of view in that haibun and was never sure how many people were in the office, but it has the best haiku of all the haibun in the book. The other two I liked, "A Shelter in the Rain" and "Driving through the fence," had, as I discovered, been published in Contemporary Haibun Online. That fact no doubt explains my feelings about some of the other haibun in this collection.
In his introduction, Butler points out "there are, as yet, no fixed rules for writing haibun." However, he also quotes Nobuyuki Yuasa's observation that in haibun the prose and haiku must do more than simply mix together, that they must work together to create an organic whole. In current writing on haibun this generally refers to the link and shift between the haiku and the prose. Butler does this well in the haibun mentioned above and in several others – "Night School," "Waking the Dawn," and "A Lungful of Clean Air," to name a few. But in many of the other haibun, the link and shift isn't there, or isn't clear.
I can see two reasons for this. In several cases, the haiku are really part of the prose broken into three lines – no shift, and more direct connection than link. Take the beginning and ending of "Early Morning Call" as an example.
from a bad dream
to a worse one
Three cops at the door. A fourth in the car with the engine running….
And the conclusion:
Before they find out more about me.
it has my DNA
Both of those haiku read like extensions of the prose.
In some cases, there is no discernible connection at all to the haibun. I can be obtuse at times, but no matter how I tried with some of these haibun, I couldn't satisfactorily grasp the link between prose and haiku. I believe the reason for this is Butler is having great fun playing with point of view and blurring genres in the prose in these haibun. Consequently, the link is not what the reader expects or the shift falls short in some way. "The Left Boot," for example, is written from the point of view of a left boot found at the site of the Battle of Ypres almost a hundred years after the Great War. At the end of the haibun, the left boot speculates on the fate of the right boot, but the capping haiku
coach drivers chatting
stubbing cigarettes on
pulls us out of the fantasy of a ruminating boot to a pedestrian scene of bored coach drivers waiting for the tourists to return from the cemetery tour. Granted, the cemetery in this case is a link, but the shift is wanting, almost dissonant. In "Socks," the haibun begins: "He worked his socks off, so they left him." (That reminded me of something Saki would write, and it made me smile.) The prose then recounts the various places the socks had been seen and how they had returned clean and refreshed, willing to stay at least until the next washing day. But the capping five-line haiku
left me hanging. I like the image in the haiku; it can make you chuckle; it can evoke sympathy for the daddy/husband. What it doesn't seem able to do, at least for me, is link back to the prose. Haibun may not have fixed rules (or at least not many), but the haibun-reading community has expectations. They aren't always met in The Trouble with Mona Lisa. However, Butler may be ahead of the game here as haibun seems to be in a period of change, perhaps at a pace that makes it difficult to pin any (more) rules to it. Perhaps we'll have to learn to read haibun differently.
Another area where Butler may be exploring new territory is in the field of ekphrastic haibun. The Trouble with Mona Lisa begins with the eponymous haibun of this collection and ends (if we ignore the epilogue, a haibun about the adventures of sculptor David Ash's "Wooden Boulder") with "Goodbye, Lisa…". Both haibun explore the relationship between painter and model. So, from the beginning, Butler has removed himself and his haibun from the traditional definition of ekphrastic poetry. He is not narrating or reflecting on a scene, as Williams does in "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," inspired by Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting; rather, he is playing with the lines between reality and fiction much as Woody Allen does in his film The Purple Rose of Cairo.
In The Trouble with Mona Lisa we are far removed from any Renaissance atelier. This is firmly planted in the now – mobile phones, contact lens, overtime pay. Because Leonardo da Vinci's "The Mona Lisa" is well known to most visually literate people, Butler is free to skip all that business about narrating a scene. Instead, he can focus on the painter-model relationship, a working relationship with several complications. In "Goodbye, Lisa…," Butler identifies the painter as Leonardo da Vinci, but the setting is still our present, which we know for certain from the haiku
alone in the café
she drops her ring
in the sugar
as it depicts a scene – the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant alone in a café – not likely to occur c. 1500. Moreover, cafés weren't in existence then.
In those two haibun, Butler shifts between first person (in "Trouble") and third person (in "Goodbye"). It's impossible for the reader not to read the two haibun as part of a one larger narrative, as they bookend the collection, so that shift may add a layer of meaning or cause confusion, or both. In "Things in my Attic," another haibun in which Mona Lisa makes an appearance, Butler once again uses first person. It's possible the speaker of this haibun is the same as in "Trouble," just aged, but the piece is impossible to place in a temporal setting. The only clue is a telephone, but the incoming calls are from Manet and Monet. Physically, the attic is in Pigalle, in Paris, a quartier well known to tourists and once the haunt of great artists of the 19th and 20th century. There's more in this attic – Van Gogh's chair and Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel.
Are any of these haibun examples of ekphrastic poetry? It depends on your dictionary, I suppose. I'm not qualified to make that call. They are good reads. In fact, despite my frustration with the point of view change in "Goodbye, Lisa…," I would have liked to have seen more Mona Lisa haibun. We are stoytellers. Just from these three pieces I've got a story going on in my head about how Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci stepped out of that Renaissance frame and couldn't get back in. Now they're sharing an attic apartment in Pigalle. Imagine the adventures they could have, unconstrained by reality. Mona Lisa meets Josephine Baker! Maybe in the next book.