A Review of Harriot West’s Shades of Absence
Harriot West, Shades of Absence, Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2018, 78 pages, perfect softbound, $US 15, ISBN 978-1-947271-22-7. Available through Red Moon Press.
This essay is not intended as a full review of West’s new collection. Instead, I’ve selected a few pieces that touched me and led me to wanting to write about how I relate to and think about them. In short, this is more a personal commentary. (I’ll use the word “haibun” throughout to represent both tanka prose and haibun and "poem" to represent both tanka and haiku).
The Structure of the Collection
Shades of Absence is a mixed collection of haibun, tanka prose, haiku, tanka and free verse poetry that have appeared in a variety of journals including Acorn, bottle rockets, Contemporary Haibun Online, Frogpond, Haibun Today, Modern Haiku and The Heron’s Nest.
West has divided the works into three major sections: Wishing Coins, Planes and Shadow and Shrouded Boughs. Each contains a number of haibun interspersed with several poems.
To a large extent, the works in all three sections follow Shakespeare’s admonition to “Give sorrow words.”
Give sorrow words: The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er wrought heart and bids it break
~ William Shakespeare, MacBeth (1606)
I’m guessing that it was this theme throughout that led Lynne Rees to write on the back cover:
I am both bruised and stilled after reading West's Shades of Absence, not from any trace of sentimentality but by her fierce intelligence and poignant insight. I found myself in these narratives and epiphanies of belonging and identity, of childhood, love and mortality and I know myself a little more from reading them.
Like Rees, I too found myself in many of West’s narratives, felt a sympathetic sadness for the protagonists in the story lines. But haibun is not just about poignant stories. West’s carefully crafted writing demonstrates that she’s one of haibun’s most significant poets.
The section “Wishing Coins” is largely focused on a woman’s memories of a childhood fraught with very difficult relationships with both mother and father.
“Planes and Shadow” is mostly focused on West (or her protagonist) as a young woman stepping away from the past and into the wide world of travel and relationships, loves found and lost, friendships vibrant and friendships dying.
“Shrouded Boughs” moves to the second half of a woman’s life – a looking back and summing up.
Below are my personal reactions and thoughts about several of the pieces that touched me.
The Pleasures of Reading Aloud with Special Friends
My partner, Nancy, and I have been reading the pieces in West’s collection to each other a few at a time. One evening as I finished reading “What Love Brings,” I noticed that Nancy was in tears. It may not be what you think from the title which suggests one of those tear-jerker pieces intended to make you feel awash with romantic impulses, maybe even consider making a frenzied dash to the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothes behind. No, instead West’s writing made one of the elephants in our room visible. (see the footnote if you don’t know what this elephant business is about).
What Love Brings
Once I was fearless. Now I am not.
to prepare myself
one pair of hiking boots
by the back door
If you’re not sure what Nancy’s and my elephant is, probably you’re a fair bit younger than we are. At a certain age, that is, at our age, one begins to wonder when one’s significant other is no longer going to around on this earthly journey. Nancy is younger than me, so her elephant is about imagining not having me around. Mine has more to do with the thought of leaving her alone. Of course she has plenty of social contacts. So she’ll cope, but using West’s evocative title, the house will be empty, yet filled with shades of absence. This even happens to me when Nancy goes away for a few days to a lakeside cottage with her book club. It’s then I eat out of cans, shuffle around in robe and slippers, don’t shave and even though I turn on all the lights, the shades linger. Your elephant or Harriot’s, if you or she have one related to this haibun, might have to do with something else, maybe a son or daughter or brother or sister going off to do something dangerous – and aren’t there a lot of dangers in that wide world beyond our door steps?
West writes some of the shortest haibun I’ve seen in our journals: a title, one concise paragraph and one poem.
I don’t intend a pejorative when I write “shortest” because it takes a good deal of talent to create a full storyline with very few words, and West has that ability. The twenty-four words in “What Love Brings” were sufficient to reduce Nancy and I to imagining shades of absence, and to bring on the tears.
In this issue and elsewhere, our featured writer Jeffrey Woodward has asserted his dismay over a number of issues facing haibun poetry, including:
“A one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter aesthetic (one paragraph, one haiku and invariably in that order) in lieu of formal curiosity and innovation.”
I take this to mean he’d like to see more paragraphs with more poems dispersed throughout as well as more stylistic variations than plain narratives. I’d guess that Woodward would be happy with West’s stylistic variations even within a short haibun context. While many of the pieces are short, they’re not all short in the same way, and the thematic variations are expressed in a number of compelling ways.
I agree with Woodward’s point as a generalization. In praising West’s short works, I’m not suggesting “short” is a mantra that all of us should reach for, not even some of the time. As far as I’m concerned, many short pieces I’ve read fall prey to a writing style pertinent to Woodward’s other comment, namely that they contain:
“a flat depiction of one’s domestic environment and daily routine in lieu of significant matter or theme.”
Yes, short pieces done this way lead readers to close the book. This brings to mind Richard Brautigan’s lament about haiku (what, you don’t know who Brautigan is? You are younger than me). Consider his “Haiku Ambulance,” a spoof on the blandness of some (or maybe he was implying all?) haiku:
A piece of green pepper
fell off the wooden salad bowl:
If this were written by a great haijin (aka haiku poet), I’d likely be searching the Internet for a deep symbolism related to green peppers and wooden salad bowls and their interaction, or maybe a reference to some other poet’s work from the past that focused on salad materials, just as Basho often referenced outstanding Chinese poets from times prior to his. Perhaps Wordsworth even wrote something elegant about peppers and bowls? But I won’t do the search. Instead, I’ll switch off and read something else. And that, I think, is Woodward’s point.
To add my thoughts about long haibun, I find far too many long pieces that are overwritten. As an editor I sometimes send that hated feedback message, “Try cutting this by about 50%, and send me a revision.” I don’t know where the 50% came from … sometimes I want to say “cut 80%.”
Back to West’s “What Love Brings,” I can’t think of a word that could be cut.
This speaks to another of Woodward’s missives:
Less is more? That's a pauper's recipe for haibun. . .. Every word must be justified or, failing that, cut away. It's a ruthless business, this poetry.
So we should try writing more expansive pieces, but whether we're writing long or short haibun, make every word count. Throughout her collection, West has done just that.
In closing this off, I don’t want to convey an impression that West’s collection consists only of short haibun. There are a good number of long ones. And whatever their size, none fall into Brautigan's "So what?" category.
The Abstruse Vs Obvious Continuum
In all poetry genres, it's often commented that it's best to leave room for readers to read their own understandings and experiences into the poems. If an important characteristic of haibun is to fall somewhere on the continuum between totally abstruse and patently obvious, West’s haibun do leave room for readers to bring their own elephants into their reading rooms. Consider “Tarnish”:
my hands are so dry I need to slather them with cream that’s what I tell him that’s why I take my ring off before I go to bed.
just friends . . .
of a late night text
Here title, prose and poem work together to fulfill another of Woodward’s statement about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts:
An ability to fashion memorable haiku and supple prose paragraphs is a prerequisite of successful haibun composition. The art of the genre, however, lies in the subordination and joining of these two elements into a greater whole.
In “Tarnish,” the three have joined together to form into a greater whole.
At the start, the title seems abstruse, and even reading into the first paragraph, it doesn’t seem to fit the simple act of taking off one’s wedding ring in order to slather one’s hands with cream. What has tarnish to do with that? The ring isn’t tarnished or being polished, so what is?
It’s the subtle shift in the prose that follows, “that’s what I tell him,” that makes “tarnish” start to work in interesting ways with the prose. Did I get that right? She’s telling him something, but she seems not to mean it. I get that she’s hiding something. If so, it’s the relationship that’s tarnished.
And added to that is the first line of the haiku where “just friends” appears in italics. Why the special emphasis? As I follow the narrative, it may be that she’s texting someone with an iPhone or iPad, and perhaps he’s asked, “Who’s that?” and she replies, “it’s just friends.” It seems something important is being hidden, that this is more than just a friend? If so, the relationship is seriously tarnished.
I think of the times I would bury myself under the covers with a flashlight and comic book after mom had put me to bed and turned the lights off, saying “No reading. Tomorrow is a school day and you have to get your sleep.” I’d say “Okay,” and switch off the light, while thinking, Sure mom, but, as soon as you walk downstairs, Tarzan has to save Jane who is wrapped up in a boa constrictor's coils. And I’d read late into the night wishing I was Tarzan and that I had a Jane in my life and a boa constrictor I could out wrestle. Note that I used italics to suggest the fabrication.
You’ll read your own sensibilities and experiences into this piece. And that’s the point … there’s room between Abstruse and Obvious for all of us to do just that.
I’ll close this part with Melissa Allen’s comments from the book’s back cover:
Harriot West's art is to layer minutely observed details in the service of subtlety and ambiguity. Every detail is a clue in a tiny mystery, one whose solution we intuit but that is never made explicit. This, we realize at last, is the nature of life.
In my view haibun are stories about real events that have taken place in the writers’ lives. Of course, they are embellished to carry the story more effectively. I tend to enjoy stories about relationships that are well told, that bring a fresh look at problems we all have encountered and/or know about. Here’s her “In Another Country”:
In Another Country
He would never turn the furnace on until November. It seems such a small thing, barely worth arguing over. After all I had a drawer full of woolen sweaters. So life went on. I made chili without Jalapenos, listened to Coltrane instead of Tina Turner, drank Irish whiskey not Pinot Noir.
If only I’d stood up for myself. But it wasn’t like that. I simply moved on to the next man.
such an easy metaphor
I nod, too embarrassed
to ask what he means
In the first paragraph, West presents small scenes portraying differences common to partners, married or not. Each issue along with many, many others (toilet seats up or down, windows open or shut) can be enough to break a relationship, depending of course, on how they’re played out.
So there’s little surprising in the first paragraph … it simply sets the stage and causes me, the reader, to think about the small differences in my relationship. In Nancy's and my case, it’s the sound level on the TV set. Okay, there are several other things I won't mention here. As in all relationships, West's couple has differences and they have a certain way of resolving them – one yields to the other’s demands, and the yieldings add up until the yielder breaks.
The second paragraph tells us that she wishes she had stood up for herself (one approach to resolution), but instead put up with it for a time, and then moved on (another approach). We don’t yet have a sense of why she didn’t stand up for herself, and why she thought the simplest solution was to move on. After all, moving on is seldom a simple thing.
It’s not until we come to the poem, and particularly the use of the word “bindweed” that we get the additional hint needed to understand the why of the protagonist's solution at that particular stage of her life. And in this, the poem sings a subtle surprise fitting Woodward’s suggestion that it’s the joining of prose and poem that produces a greater whole.
Here’s my guess. At some point in the relationship, she may have used “bindweed” as a metaphor in a poem. Bindweed is a plant that not only lives on another plant, but it eventually strangles the host plant. I’d guess that he and she are in a superior/subordinate life stage, him older, him an established writer or English lit teacher, her a younger wannabe writer and/or student. And he had put her down by scoffing at her use of the word in her writing. At her stage of life and given the difference in age/position in their relationship, she was too embarrassed to even ask what he meant by the obvious put down.
So while the obvious part is that she’s being suffocated in this relationship, there’s more to it. In writing this piece now as a woman in a later stage of life, she’s found a witty way to again use bindweed, but with great effect. This time it serves as a rejoinder to that remembered long ago put down – it's a long overdue toxic pie in the face for her ex.
This brings to mind students in my classes who were too embarrassed to ask a question or raise an issue. They feared being thought stupid or receiving one of the professorial clan’s participation dampening remarks, “Did you read the book?” The sense is, “It’s only me who doesn’t get it,” even when the whole class might be mystified. Better to hide in the back rows with head down. Better to avoid the possibility of a put down.
Reality versus Fiction
We don’t know whether the protagonist in these narratives is actually West, particularly since she hints that some or all of her pieces might be fiction in the book’s dedication:
For Jack, and for my brother Brad,
who know I make up stories.
Are her stories made up or only part truth, part fiction? It may be West writing as a persona in first person, and they’re about her observations of people she knows, which in a way is about her, about things she notices in relationships. As she put it in a private memo:
I . . . take issue with the notion that haibun is in any sense a memoir. I often tell other people’s stories in the first person because I like the intimacy and immediacy of the voice. And even then I manipulate details for effect—whether for the story or the way the words end up on the page.
Autobiography or Fiction, does it matter? While I have a strong preference for haibun that authentically depict the writers’ lives, West’s writing has the feeling of being true to the human condition, as is the case with the better fiction writers I enjoy reading.
By all means add Shades of Absence to your private collection of very good writing. Allow West to take you through childhood, youthful relationships and explorations of the wider world, and a summing up from a later position on life’s journey. As Lynn Rees says on the back cover,
It’s through the lives of others and good writing that we come to better understand ourselves.
“Elephant in the room” is an English-language metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss. In 1814, Ivan Andreevich Krylov (1769–1844), poet and fabulist, wrote a fable entitled "The Inquisitive Man" which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant. The phrase became proverbial.
Jeffrey Woodward is our Featured Writer for this issue. Woodward, founder of Haibun Today, is one of the most important literary critics of the English-language haibun genre. So I decided to use his musings about haibun found in this issue.
Harriot West lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her first book, Into the Light, a collection of haibun (Mountains and Rivers Press, 2014) tied for first place in the Haiku Society of America’s Mildred Kanterman Book Awards. Her work appears in journals and anthologies, including Modern Haiku, KYSO Flash, Haibun Today, Contemporary Haibun, The Norton Anthology of Haiku in English, Journeys 2015 and Best Small Fictions, 2017. She has just released her second book, Shades of Absence, a collection of haibun and tanka prose through Red Moon Press.