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Contents Page: Jan 1, 2012, vol 7 no 4

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Jeff Streeby


Voyageur

Wood smoke.
Swift river in a narrow bed.

All night long, coyotes gibber.

He knows the stars. He rises before dawn and finds his bearings. By daybreak, he takes his way. He rehearses again his avenues of retreat. He is lean, hard-muscled, confident—a scholar, soldier's soldier, official emissary of peace, scout, forager, ranger. A new Eden receives him. Strange grasses whisper against the fringes of his leggings. Hands that hold his long rifle are sunburned and scarred and stained with ink. He smells of sweat and leather and smoke.

Near the trail, fresh wolf kill—

On a bloody milkweed,
butterfly eggs.

Briefly, he considers Reed, calculates odds: Deserter? Another rubble of bones? But he is not given naturally to such speculations. He is adventurer and natural philosopher, historian, cartographer. He names rivers and mountains. He is logical, deliberate. He takes note: Wind out of the northwest gusty, chill, bringing a scent of rain; South, timbered bottoms, between tall cottonwoods, sunlight on water; vague hazed distance all directions.

Sudden din of a million wings—

Above him,
buff and blue crowding out the sky,
currents and counter-currents
intricate and deafening
that climb, crest, stall,
fall, bank,
deftly sideslip
then yielding in mysterious unison to some native pulse
begin to settle in the timber on the riverbanks.

For an hour, the nimble welter arrives.

He is a solitary tramp in Paradise. He names beasts and birds. Innocent of ambition, always he will choose sensation, experience, then make his record.

Stars scattered on the river—
new hatch of whiteflies taking wing.

As he goes, he gathers wild onions, wild strawberries. Wild plums, ripe grapes of three kinds sweeten his breath. By evening he has killed a turkey and set his camp. Night cools under starfields' predictable arrangements. Polaris shines for him from its customary place.

Troubled by mosquitoes, all night he tends his fragile fire.



Comments by Ken Jones on Jeff Streeby‘s "Voyageur";

Superficially this is an unashamedly romantic "Boys Own" yarn. However , it taps down into something very much deeper.

I didn't select it as a "model" haibun, designed to exploit the full potential of the genre, but because I found it so striking and distinctive. I am always interested in cases like this where the prose is itself so haiku-like as to raise the question of how to create haiku which are sufficiently distinctive from the prose as to be able to counterpoint them in some way. A common solution is to run the haiku and prose in parallel whereby the haiku might make metaphorical comment on the prose, much like a Greek chorus. In “Voyageur," however, the contrast is achieved by using the poems to separate nature interludes from each of the three portraiture paragraphs, thus establishing the overall structure of the haibun.

I was also drawn to this piece as an all too rare “imaginative haibun”. By this I mean a haibun which depends very much on the poet’s imaginative talents, in contrast to the usual personal experiences told in first person, singular. “Voyageur” is essentially a compelling portraiture-in-a-landscape. It does not, however, take the imaginative haibun further by making a short story out of it. In “Voyageur” there is little more than a single tantalising suggestion of a story. “Briefly, he considers Reed, calculates odds: Deserter? Another rubble of bones?” In fact, making the haibun into an explicit story would have destroyed the narrative of the trail, where, day after day, the landscape remains unchanged yet is always changing.

As with haiku, what is unsaid in a haibun, offering space for reader imagination, is of major importance. Thus, are “his avenues of retreat” which “he rehearses again” only topographical, or is something deeper going on? And “a scholar” surprisingly heads the list of this voyageur’s more dynamic and outdoor roles. Likewise his hands are “sunburned and scarred and stained with ink.” The three portraiture paragraphs cumulatively build up a strong profile of the man. He is deeply embedded in an untamed natural world and yet at the same time remains homo sapiens, he who “names rivers and mountains. He is logical, deliberate.” However, he is not given to speculations, which would doubtless alienate him from nature. “Always he will choose sensation, experience, then make his record.”

The nature episodes are very fine and keenly observed. And they are absolutely essential to the success of the portraiture. At the end the two strands come together:

"Troubled by mosquitoes, all night he tends his fragile fire.”

This is, a highly original and perhaps controversial haibun. It makes a haunting and unforgettable impact.


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