Stylistic Inventiveness in Contemporary Haibun:
The Work of Carol Pearce-Worthington and Patricia Rogers
Ray Rasmussen, Technical Editor
The initial surge in the 1990s of English-language haibun tended to fall, as would be expected with Basho's travel journals as the common mentor, under the rubric of "nature walks" and “travel diaries” and the style was predominantly "prose followed by a haiku." While there are notable exceptions, most published contemporary English-lantuage haibun apprearing in the last two decades were written in the writer’s direct voice – either about the writer’s own experiences, or about someone the writer knows or observes, or about something seen or heard by the writer. While such subjects, styles and voices remain viable and continue to dominate published haibun, the inventiveness of haibun poets has moved considerably beyond them.
Although by no means typical of haibun being published currently, two pieces in this issue are of interest in expanding the range of 'voices' utilized in haibun composition. Both are written in a voice other than the writer's own, which serves to further illustrate that English-language haibun remains in an exploratory and expansionary phase.
Carol Pearce-Worthington's "Treecutter" employs the voice of a person with a mental disorder (dementia? anxiety attack? Alzheimer's?) who seems to be on the verge of having to leave her residence. However, that she has to pack and that there's a van waiting to take her somewhere may be a figment of the person's imagination or this piece may be an account of a particularly disturbing dream. The articles the person is agonizing about taking with her – a watering can, a flower in a pot, a smooth rock – are a surprise and lend much to the poignancy of the piece. There's no thought given to the possessions that one normally might want to pack – clothes, family photographs, music, toothbrush, to name a few. How is it that a smooth stone has become such a prized possession? Those readers who pick up stones on their travels, as I do, have an answer to that question. And those who have experienced the confusion that accompanies mental disorders in a relative or loved one, as I have, will strongly identify with the story. Pearce-Worthington uses a stream of consciousness style in this piece and in most of her writing–a string of short phrases and sentences with no caps. This style works for me in this piece because I imagine that it could be close to the workings of a mind that is no longer organized, that holds neither long term memories nor an ability to think strategically, well ahead of the present. Of course, the writer is present in anything he or she writes, but we'd have to guess how Pearce-Worthington came to write this piece: is this a parent, a close relative, a sibling, a friend, or as mentioned before, a particularly disturbing dream? And what does it matter, so long as the prose touches you as it did for me.
Patricia Rogers' "Seduced" uses the voice of a substance (alcohol) speaking to (seducing) an alcoholic. This rang a bell about two other pieces, Brianna Hall's "Betrayal" where she uses the voice of a pair of pants1 and William Ramsey's "U-Boat" where a submarine is given voice.2 Given the level of alcoholism and drug abuse in our society, most of us will be able to identify with the alcoholic in Roger's piece. But whether we readers have direct experience or not doesn't matter so much as whether the writing takes us into the mind of the alcoholic, or, to generalize, a drug addict (or even into the mind of the more common overeater – my fridge regularly speaks seductively to me, does yours?). And I would guess that even those readers who don't have experience with drug or alcohol addiction would gain an insight into the mind of the substance abuser through this piece. Indeed, Roger's treatment of the mind of the substance abuser reminds me of the popular mystery writer, Lawrence Block whose protagonist Matthew Scudder vividly informs us what it's like to be in the mind of a bottomed-out and later, a recovering alcoholic.3
It is worth noting that these four pieces employ different expositional styles. Pearce-Worthington's, Hall's and Ramsey's pieces are expansive, whereas Rogers writes in an increasingly utilized minimalist style with just enough prose to set the stage followed by a poem.
1. Brianna Hall, "Betrayal," Haibun Today, 5:2, June 2011.
2. William Ramsey, "U-Boat," Contemporary Haibun Online, 1:1 June 2005.
3. Lawrence J. Block, Wikipedia.
4. Ray Rasmussen's published essays on the haibun form are: