A Tribute and Commentary on Bob Lucky’s new collection, My Thology: Not Always True but Always Truth.
Bob Lucky, My Thology: Not Always True but Always Truth, Cyberwit.Net Publications, ISBN: 978-81-8253-673-9, 2019, $14.00, order here.
I’ve been working with Bob Lucky for five years at CHO and reading his haibun for as long as he’s been posting them. I’m saddened to lose him as a colleague, but fortunately for us, we won’t lose his writing.
As a tribute to his five years of service to the haibun community, I offer this commentary on his editorial comments about haiku and haibun and on his new collection, My Thology. My spellcheck doesn’t like "Thology," but the word isn’t a typo. It took me a bit of time to figure it out. It’s Bob playing with words in a witty way that sends a message – something he does well, something we need more of in haibun, humour, wit, wordplay.
I’ve called this a commentary and not a review because it’s not a critique of Bob's entire collection. Instead, I comment on few pieces and step outside the collection to mention some other things I like about Bob’s poetry and his critical writing about haibun that he's brought to us in his editorials and reviews.
Over the last several evenings, my two partners in life, Nancy (the woman) and Triscuit (the cat), and I (the guy), have spent our evenings reading through Bob’s collection, a few at a time, until Nancy or I feel snoozey. Since as you can see in the image below, Triscuit is often cat-napping, we don’t stop when she’s snoozing. Good news and bad news Bob – Triscuit doesn’t seem to dig poetry but Nancy’s awake and chuckling.
image: Nancy and Triscuit
Bob’s collection is a mix of haibun and haiku-less memoirs and fantasy pieces. They’ve been published in a variety of venues, the usual array of haiku and haibun journals, but also in unusual publication places – mainstream poetry journals. As many of us have found out, the poetry world hasn’t yet discovered haibun.
In an earlier review of Bob’s work that was part of a Contemporary Haibun anthology, the reviewer selected a piece by Bob for comment and described him as a great storyteller. I’d add that he’s much more than a storyteller. He manages to wrap in wit, poignancy and even some poetic tropes in his work. And there’s more to his writing, as I’ll explain.
This piece In My Thology offers a taste of a seemingly everyday event in his life:
It Was Twenty Years Ago Today
After dinner my wife and I buy some coffee ice cream cones and stroll along the river. I tell her about my idea to add a slide ukulele riff to a song we’ve been working on. A musical wink to George Harrison, I explain. She’s quiet for a moment, concentrating on the last of her cone, and stares out at the river. “Ringo,” she says, “must be at least seventy.”
hauling coal upstream
the moon in its wake
The last sentence of the prose presents a shift of a type that Bob is very good at creating. You may have noticed his editorial pronouncements about the importance of the link-shift, not only within the haiku, but also between the prose and haiku. I think Bob has a gifted link-shift ghost whispering in his ear as he writes. The within-prose takes us from upbeat – the simple pleasures of ice cream and a stroll along a river, to creative – sharing ideas about a homage to the Beatles' George Harrison, to downbeat – his wife’s comment about Ringo’s age. From personal experience, and how else am I to interpret any piece of writing, aging is an issue that’s often on my and Nancy’s minds, but not yet on Triscuit’s – she’s mostly concerned with when she’ll next be fed. And I think it likely it’s on every couple’s minds after a good deal of together time. It’s not only a tough to talk about, but it slips out at unexpected times. As Bob’s protagonist, I felt I had the upbeat and creative rugs pulled out from under me when she mentioned Ringo’s age. As TS Eliot keeps whispering to me, I grow old, I grow old.
The haibun ends with a haiku that contains both a prose-haiku and an internal-haiku link-shift. As for the prose-haiku shift, the coal barge and moon's reflection are a big jump out from the prose itself. The haiku can be seen as a metaphor for the feeling tone of the piece, the upbeat moments followed by the denouement that comes from thoughts about aging. At whatever age Bob is (I’ve seen his white beard in a photo which gives a hint), there’s a sense of swimming upstream at this point in life, and a barge loaded with coal suggests struggle, heaviness and darkness. With respect to the within-haiku shift, I asked myself, What has a barge hauling coal upstream have to do with the moon in its wake? Is it that we grey hairs (or greybeards in Bob’s and my cases) look back on the river of time and get glimpses of our younger selves, of a time when we were caught up by reflections of the moon on water while we walked hand-in-hand with our lover? It’s difficult to reach back and not feel a sense of loss.
Bob Lucky with One of His Ukes
In his review of Steven Carter’s haibun, “In the Crowd” (in our last issue), Bob quotes Carter as saying, “all forms of memory are masochistic.” And Bob went on to say, “in Carter’s explication, it is clear that a single remembered experience has the power to conjure worlds where, (quoting Carter) “every possibility in this particular one, every might-have-been, exists and is endlessly played out.” Bob concludes that “The masochism lies in the awareness of lost memories.”
Getting back to the link-shift concept, two of my favourite free-verse poets, Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, both past US poet laureates, achieve this same sort of ending shift in their work. As examples, consider Collins' “Forgetfulness” and be sure to catch the poignant shift in the last lines – where the piece goes from witty to a sense of loss.
And try Kooser’s “Selecting a Reader” which also contains a witty, surprise shift in the last line.
Importantly, the themes addressed, Collin’s, Kooser’s and Lucky’s, all feel real. Our common human foibles are on display, albeit often with a sense of humour and poignancy.
For second shift example from Bob’s works, but this one within a haiku, consider one from his Ethiopian Time (2014) collection. He achieves the same kind of shift using just 7 words, 12 syllables and two juxtaposed phrases.
the warmth of
Billy Collins has suggested that many, if not most, mainstream poets are writing for other poets, and not for a general public. They’re producing work filled with poetic tropes with the result, as Collins asserts, that too many people dislike and don’t read poetry, feeling it’s impossible to understand.
I remember high school English classes in which we were force-marched into stating what we understood a poem to mean, only to be too confused to reply or, if we ventured a guess, we were told we were wrong. Of course, there was usually a poet-type in the class who came up with an answer that made the instructor smile – the kid was the kind we threw spitballs at when the teacher turned her back.
Seriously, as a 16-year-old, how was I to understand T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Arthur Prufrock?" I didn’t even have sufficient insight to understand some of the simpler verses:
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
Okay, I get those lines now, maybe. Old guys don’t dare eat a ripe peach because it’s impossible to do so without the juices running down one’s chin and clothes, making them look as if they’re drooling. It’s difficult enough being old without looking ridiculous. But at the time when I had to comment on "Prufrock," I had thought: What’s that nonsense about parting my hair behind? Or daring to eat a peach? I loved peaches and dared to eat them all the time. I even swiped them from a neighbor’s tree. And I had a crew cut. Nothing to part. And who cares if the juice dribbles down my chin? Nancy just nodded her head indicating that she didn’t understand those lines either, and Triscuit mewed that she prefers tuna and doesn’t understand why anyone would consider eating a peach.
As an editor of various journals, I’ve noticed some haibunists reaching for poetic embellishment in an otherwise great narrative. As soon as I see a metaphor that doesn’t work, it’s like getting shat on by a squawking seagull (see what I mean? Poor choice of metaphor, yes? I promise, I won’t do it again). This isn’t to say that no haibunists manage great poetics within their storylines, just that very few do. Jeffrey Woodward, Ken Jones and David Cobb come to mind.
We haibunists are largely not in the free-verse, high-poetry business. Whine Jeffrey Woodward has lamented about the plethora of one paragraph plus one haiku works, and Ken Jones has called for more high poetry in haibun, it hasn't happened. In my view, haibun and haiku are for the most part about writing clear narrative texts with haiku-like succinctness and show-type imagery, and particularly without a lot of poetic embellishment. Okay, if you have a good story and an idea for an apt metaphor, why not use it? That is, so long as you’re not just showing off and are good at it, just as a peach tree is good at producing blossoms and peaches. (See, wasn’t that an awful distraction! It doesn’t work unless you spend a lot of time learning how to employ poetic tropes. And it wasn’t necessary for the purposes of this piece of writing, or was it?).
To reach for narrative works as opposed to prose poetry doesn't mean that our creative juices aren't stretched. Compelling work, humourous and/or poignant with a focus on descriptive detail, is a type of memoir writing that is not only difficult, but even more difficult in that we try to effectively marry a haiku to the prose.
This isn’t to say that Bob’s work lacks poetics, just that his tough with poetics leaves a feel for the piece being accessible, and not unduly oblique. Here’s an example from the collection in which Bob is the teacher assigning a complex poem to his students. I find his storyline both accessible and yet, containing poetic flavourings. Frost's free-verse poem that he assigned tends toward the oblique. No wonder he agonized over how his students might react:
Another gray morning. I sit in the easy chair and watch a Sunbird hang upside down and suck nectar from the Impatiens. The puppy whimpers in her sleep. As hard as I try, I can’t ignore a stack of papers that need marking. What an idiot I was to assign Frost’s “Mending Wall.” I can guess what I face. A manual on stone wall construction. A philosophical treatise on two sides to every argument. A manifesto against animal cruelty replete with disturbing polemic: if people didn’t kill rabbits, they wouldn’t have to die.
glimmer of sunlight
the smell of fresh bread
rising in the air
In his editorials, Bob, along with many others including Collins, has written that some obliqueness is workable in haibun, maybe even desirable. So let’s look at the not too obvious link between the prose and haiku in this piece. Here’s my take: Down, down, down goes the prose’s protagonist teacher as he imagines and receives the students’ essays. But the haiku in a few lines suggests an up experience – sunlight and the smell of baking. But what was that experience that led to the upbeat haiku? The prose didn’t mention one. My take: maybe
Bob was finally rewarded with a student's paper that went somewhere creative and interesting with Frost’s poem. For Bob, the teacher, it was like a burst of sunlight, the smell of baking. I’m not sure whether my take is spot on, but the haiku evoked ideas and was a good step out from the prose. Bob left room for us to decide the meaning.
I’ve provided a link to Frost’s poem in the notes and you can decide for yourself its level of obliqueness and whether he was, as he claims, an idiot for assigning it. I’m guessing that if I was a member of Bob’s class and a classmate came up with a worthy statement about the poem, and Bob praised him or her for it in class, I would be throwing spitwads at the show-off when Bob turned his back.
A bit more about Bob’s work. I know that he’s lived in and traveled through many countries and that he’s written haibun about his experiences. In just a few pages of the current collection, he’s taken Nancy, Triscuit and me to Thailand, China, and Ethiopia. This collection also takes us to many writing styles and content: to some literal stories, some fanciful work, some with humour, some with poignant moments, many with link-shifts, most the work is accessible, all fun to read, all which will evoke thoughtfulness.
In closing, I wish you well, Bob, on the next of your life’s journeys. I’ll miss our working relationship in producing the CHO issues. I wish I could share a beer with you at your next uke band gig.
And for you readers, I wish you the pleasure of reading Bob’s collection aloud, a few pieces at a time, maybe even with a dog or cat snoozing nearby, your lover cuddled in close, and a fire burning, while reading about the foibles of human life.
Bob Lucky was Editor-in-Chief of Contemporary Haibun Online (2014-2019). His two collections are Ethiopian Time (Red Bird Chapbooks 2014) and Conversation Starters in a Language No One Speaks (SurVision Books 2018). He's a winner of the James Tate Poetry Prize 2018. He currently splits his time between Saudi Arabia, where he teaches and plays in a ukulele band, and Portugal, where he is working his way through all the regional cheeses and wines. He’s also the best kind of cultural anthropologist – one who knows how to tell stories that bring readers to remote places that most of us will never visit except through him.
T.S. Eliot’s phrase “I grow old, I grow old,” is from “The Lovesong of J Arthur Prufrock and can be found here at The Poetry Foundation website.
Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” can be found here at The Poetry Foundation website.
Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness” can be found here at The Poetry Foundation Website.
Ted Kooser’s “Selecting a Reader” which also contains a witty surprise shift in the last line can be found here at The Poetry Hunter website.
Ken Jones haibun: "Lady of the Lake," "The Knife Grinder," "Turning the Corner," "Bread of Heaven."
Jeffrey Woodward's haibun: "Questions for the Flowers," "The Widow's Place," "Woodbury Tavern," "Time with the Heron."
David Cobb's haibun: "Christmas," "Down Epiphany Way," "A Hole with A View," "Christmas."