A Commentary on My Haibun, "Running with the Yaks"
Running with The Yaks
My friend is going blind. He’s known this for most of his life. It’s genetic and can’t be corrected. His father went blind the same way. Gradually the periphery disappears and you’re squinting at the world through a peephole until finally there is no more light. He’s also color-blind, which doubtless explains his sartorial style when I first met him and he was single. He also has night blindness and has never seen the stars.
in the dark
We are on holiday together in Yunnan and take a hike along the marked path in Yak Meadow. It is a cold, clear day. Tibetan prayer flags, shredded by the wind, flap audibly. My friend leaves his wife and me gasping for air as he practically runs ahead of us, his cane skimming the surface before him. I’m a stroller and am soon far behind enjoying the scenery and catching my breath.
mountain top –
the view from down here
Later I meet up with his wife. “Have you seen S?” she asks. I haven’t and immediately begin surveying the meadow. There, far below near a frozen pond and walking through a herd of yaks, is my friend. We scream and shout and finally get his attention. He turns his back to us and stares out in the direction of the snow-capped mountains for about ten minutes before scrambling back up to the trail.
I leave before I say something angry, something stupid, and head back to the cable car terminal. I suppress the thought that he has come here to die, that the last thing he wants to see is the blinding white of these mountains. About thirty minutes later I spot his wife coming down the path alone.
“He took my camera,” she replies, in no mood to expand on the topic, “and went back down to take pictures of the yaks.”
clear evening –
watching my breath
Commentary on My Haibun:
This is one of the first haibun I had published and is very much in that strand of haibun writing that tends towards memoir and travel literature. (Because I haven’t lived in my home country since I started writing haibun, many of my early pieces read as both memoir and travel story.) In other words, “Running with the Yaks” is a true story.
But at some point in my haibun-writing career, I realized two things. First, as much fun as I’ve had in living, not that much of what I’ve done is terribly exciting. I get up and go to work like everyone else I know; I just do it somewhere else. Second, as I got drawn more and more into prose poetry and flash fiction, I began to understand better Amy Hempel’s line:
“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth”
~ From the story “The Harvest”
This is important for all writers, with the exception of really good journalists, because the ‘truth’ we’re trying to get at, the theme we’re trying to develop, isn’t dependent on the facts and nothing but the facts. As Hempel has noted, writing about one’s self is a mythologizing activity
I got lucky with this haibun because the facts had a built-in tension, an organic drama inherent in them, and an irony that carried the theme. "True" stories don’t always give us that, so we have to make some things up and/or leave other things out. I prefer writing haibun to police reports (unless, off course, I’m writing a haibun as a police report).
And there’s haiku and its relationship to the prose, the link and shift. I wanted the haiku in this haibun to be about the senses, and in earlier drafts there were more haiku about several of the senses. Looking at it now after several years, I’m glad the haiku deal mostly with sight. One observation I’ve made as an editor is that a great haiku can save some run-of-the-mill prose, but a bad or weak haiku, or a haiku that is merely a continuation of the prose broken into three lines, pushes the best of prose right off the cliff.
"Running with the Yaks," was previously published in Contemporary Haibun Online 4.1 March 2008 and Contemporary Haibun 9, April 2008.
"Commentary" was previously published in Abstract Magazine, an Online magazine of the arts, 24 Jul 2017.
"Forty-eight Ways of Looking at Amy Hempel," Powell's Books website, May 2, 2006.