The Haibun as Essay: A Commentary on Steven Carter’s “In the Crowd”
Steven Carter began regularly publishing haibun a couple of years ago – at least that’s when his work came into my ken. From the beginning, it seems his subject matter was fairly set, his aesthetic well-defined, his preferred structure or form—the traditional prose block plus a single haiku/tanka—settled on. Like many haibun practitioners, he mines his past, fossicking for nuggets and gems that he polishes to shine a light on a moment. The moments he chooses to illuminate, his often anecdotal delivery of the material, and the consistently autobiographical nature of his work give a Carter haibun an identifiable style. If we could blind-taste haibun like wine, I’m certain most of us would have no difficulty identifying the Carter vintage.
The problem, if that’s even the word, with this is how deep can we go into our past and still be relevant to readers and, more importantly perhaps, not become repetitive? Can haibun writers trust the reader not to mistake a search for clarity and understanding as an instance of factual truth? As Amy Hempel puts it, “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth” (106). And writers, even when answering the call of factual truth, make things up because memory is recall, and in the recalling the cracks get filled with a variety of materials—colors that weren’t there, light falling where there was no light, words spoken that were never heard, poignant feelings that are only felt in the retelling. I suspect Carter, like many good writers, leaves a lot out. I can’t know this for sure, but one gets the sense that there’s a bigger Truth than the accumulation of facts and memories in his work.
There’s an ongoing discussion in the haibun world about, well, haibun. What is it? (Fictional haibun remains somewhat suspect if I understand the discussion, and the haibun as prose poem remains an aside in both the English-language haibun world and in mainstream poetry.) Many of us follow in the traveling footsteps of Basho, and many of us are miniature memoir writers. Many of us do both. Carter has conflated the two in such a way that the cliché “life is a journey” takes on a new meaning. When you read several Carter haibun together, you get the sense you are setting off on an adventure with a narrator who is trying to make sense of the world rather than peg events on a timeline and stamp them with a definitive explanation or interpretation. And if you do read several of his haibun together, certain “characters” re-appear—often in slightly different lights—the father-in-law being a good example. (The father-in-law, at least for me, is one of his most memorable characters.) Not only does this make them more believable, it gives the work as a whole a kind of organic mutability. As in a good autobiography, the narrative thread doesn’t run a straight course in Carter’s haibun oeuvre but rather loops back on itself, knots and unravels, dangles, frays. Writers create meaning; they don’t report it.
Haibun for me is a sub-genre of history in that it can be traced all the way up the line through memoir, travel accounts, autobiography, and biography (and all the many sub-genres in between). And as historians can have numerous accounts of the French Revolution depending on the lens through which they peer, so the haibunist can see his or her life not as a story but as story-telling. However, imagination, to paraphrase the Argentine novelist César Aira, is not worth much if it leans too heavily on memory (9), which is one reason he disdains “memory as a writer’s instrument. Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful” (5). Carter might disagree with Aira; nevertheless, his use of memory is not a crutch to lean on. It’s a key to remembering lost possibilities.
The interesting thing about remembering, besides the fact we’re not very good at it if accuracy is the measurement, is that we have the capacity to “re-member” a moment. A simple example of this is Carter’s “Zamek Castle,” in which the narrator muses about the concentration camp he would have seen 70 years earlier, the view blocked now by a stand of trees and the passage of time. We have this imaginative capacity to inhabit the past, to create a sort of virtual memory.
From a nearby hill, the Majdanek concentration camp, where 200,000 died, is masked by trees, but 70 years ago, I'd have seen the camp buildings, fences and dark smoke from the chimneys. The castle itself was briefly used as a prison by the Germans, who shot as many inmates as they could when news of the Allies' advance arrived.
It's a clear, bright autumn afternoon; after visiting the camp which is now a memorial, I turn from viewing Zamek to see two shorts-clad Polish boys, one chasing the other, the other crying. They disappear around a corner.
Fifteen minutes later they re-emerge, arms around each other's shoulders, walking home, their leather shoes loud on the cobblestones.
in the tiny bar
a glass of cold vodka
In his haibun “In the Crowd,” Carter specifically addresses the issue of memory. The piece is more of an essay, untypical of Carter’s haibun. Didactic themes are not uncommon in either prose poetry or haibun writing. Carter’s thesis is that “all forms of memory are masochistic.” I think of this as “remembering is masochistic” because in Carter’s explication it is clear that a single remembered experience has the power to conjure worlds “where every possibility in this particular one, every might-have-been, exists and is endlessly played out.” The masochism lies in the awareness of lost memories. Forty years ago, the narrator/author (often the same in haibun) sees a woman walking ahead of him. The image of her ankle continues to speak to him of what might have been. Carter may have hit upon what lends an air of sadness to many memory-based haibun: It’s not the past we mourn so much as the unborn futures we’ve lost.
In the Crowd
Just this morning, in the twilight zone between sleep and waking, a thought pops into my head: All forms of memory are masochistic. Because there she is yet again, the brown-haired girl in Victoria, B.C., walking ahead of me toward the Empress Hotel on a warm August afternoon. I never met her, never even saw her face, but what remains in my fevered memory is the turn of a shapely ankle as she climbs the hotel steps and disappears through the tall entrance.
Over the last forty-plus years, compared to this image burned indelibly in my mind, untold thousands of words spoken to me and by me—right up to and including yesterday's—are so many alms for oblivion.
They speak of an infinite number of parallel universes, where every possibility in this particular one, every might-have-been, exists and is endlessly played out. And so, in one universe I call to her but she doesn't turn; in another, she does; in another, brushing a lock of hair from her eye she smiles and speaks to me; in still another. . . But all these tableaux and more are stitched together by the delicate curve of her high-heeled ankle, the sun low on the horizon, a day moon, and the toss of her hair. And inevitably: all my losses before and since.
glass doors —
clouds and sky
Aira, César. The Seamstress and the Wind. Trans. by Rosalie Knecht. New York: New Directions, 2011.
Carter, Steven. “In the Crowd.” Contemporary Haibun Online 7:4.
---. “Zamek’s Castle.” Haibun Today 6:1.
Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories. New York: Scribner, 2007.