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October 2013, vol 8, no 3

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John T. Daniel

A Review of Stanley Pelter's About Time1

This is Stanley Pelter’s seventh volume of Joycean-style memoirs, profusely illustrated with his own drawings and based on a series of habun, which for the uninitiated – (and I confess I am one) – are short sketches or vignettes ending with a haiku. The haiku may act as a summing-up of the narrative or vignette – or it may offer a glimpse of a parallel reality, although there is always a link between the two.

In his interesting preface Stanley Pelter writes: “I work to avoid building a haibun around a haiku successful when self-contained! Leave these sleep in their own bed!” So the two forms are inter-dependent although this does not mean there is a rigid format followed in each haibun. On the contrary there are a multitude of variations. Sometimes a haibun will contain as many as five haiku as in "First First Edition" which is a fascinating re-visiting of the author’s enrolment in the Royal College of Art, his placement in a group with David Hockney, Ron Kitaj and others, his purchase of a first edition of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and finally his descent into the Underground which turns into an elegy on Ron Kitaj.

The five haiku in this episode punctuate the narrative in various ways, contracting or expanding a moment of observation or awareness. In other haibun, as in "gone for a while" Pelter records a period of three or four days when he lapsed into unconsciousness while in hospital, ending with a single haiku which is unrelated to the hospital environment:

stork collapses
inside a koi lake
movements of silence

The absence of punctuation in the haiku allows for flexible interpretation – does the stork collapse inside the lake or outside? I prefer the second reading but there is an ambiguity which adds to the total effect. The attraction of these traditional Japanese forms is that they are related to the visual: their impact has the same immediacy. They do not move through time in the same way as a novel or a film although some of the sketches here certainly do move sequentially. Nevertheless the main emphasis is on the moment of apprehension. The envelope of time and culture is secondary to the mind’s awareness which is often similar to an-eye-blink. All the paraphernalia of politics and society so beloved of English novels is of secondary importance.

In spite of this choice of forms Stanley Pelter has a personal story to tell which touches a number of important social and cultural areas. There is his childhood in the East End of London, more fully developed in previous volumes; there are his art-school memories and sexual encounters; there is his Jewishness which although far from orthodox does mean something: “Even I used to fantasise in harsh, burnt-out images”

deep water
young and old fish
drown together

But central to this volume is the writer’s experience of illness and hospitals, blood-tests, syringes and cardiologists. The volume that began with birth will conclude, if not with death at least with a sense of an ending:

walk from hospital
beyond st pauls cathedral
head in cleaned up thames

Renewal and regeneration perhaps, for the author is far from being a gloomy, nail-biting pessimist. He is capable of creative humour and renewal. Opposite the haiku quoted above is an image of tiled and dotted hearts criss-crossed by heavy lines like Uccello’s pikes in the Battle of San Romano. Life is clearly a battle against the heart. Stanley Pelter has been drawing on hearts all his life one way or another – scraper-board and lino-cuts – and there are some fine examples here, notably on page 60 where a diaphanous heart is covered by nailed-together planks that resemble a crucifixion knocked together in a hurry. The heart fights back, literally and through humour and nature itself. The title about time implies a concern with our allotted span but it is also the testy remark made by someone who has been kept waiting. This comic aspect permeates this volume even at its most desperate, as in this short but telling Alice-in-Wonderland moment:

that present time timepiece

she brought his watch. battery died. he died. she wore it at his funeral. wore it to her own.

messy ward
clean birth
his mother’s gift

A surrealistic vision lightens nearly every piece and many of the accompanying images too. There is in all surrealism perhaps a cock-eyed way of presenting the world that can contain the possibility of humour so that it becomes a life-saving force, a way of revitalising a tired and doormat realism. To this Pelter sometimes adds a comic language, not unlike that invented by the American poet John Berryman in his sonnet sequence, "Dreamsongs":

not loomking at the keyboard
feeling finger
feels a way axross culors
non sense keynboard

For all of us who are not touch-typists the keyboard presents an immediately surrealistic challenge unless we are directly watching it. Take your eye off the letter and death itself becomes comic:

O fallow me into a grave grave of a heated room that go ho so low into morte. Gowes no nose, no eyes, no grit into a toothless dustbowl; - a-month allways mute in2 ashgas blown into thin air so nothing rremaynz

Death in its comic and surreal forms as well as in the realistic world of hospitals and blood-tests haunts much of this final volume. But Stanley Pelter is also capable of more than a zany opportunism, which is the elephant-pit into which surrealistic writers as eminent as James Joyce are sometimes shoved. As with Joyce, nature itself is always there, at the back of the illness, the hospital-wards, the jewish jokes and art itself.

golden emperor charts the flight of a moth or perhaps its search for food:

irregular remains of a pockmarked, punctured skin is what it wants. on one side an earwig passes, aerials spreading air. on a second, a grass snake coils inside a comfort zone.

it watches with fairy lightness. multi-coloured wings flap quickly-open-quickly-shut. barely a swallow for a field mouse more than fills a golden emperor. just there before gone. again in flight, more caught in wind channels, pianissimo movements, irregular circles, air current ascents than before.

meadow flower
petal spread unfolds
into rhapsody

That joyful haiku seems an appropriate ending to the moth’s erratic flight so beautifully captured as well as an upbeat conclusion to a volume which is a paean to creativity as much as a chronicle of mortality. To say that it can be opened anywhere is finally a compliment because anywhere can be made to flourish and has a relevance that does not rely on the development of character but on the immediacy of apprehension in the present moment.

1. Stanley Pelter, About Time, George Mann Publications, 2012, 176 pp., £10 UK; $AU15.50; $US15.50, ISBN 9781907640100. The seventh collection of illustrated haibun by Stanley Pelter is available from 5 School Lane, Claypole, Newark, Lincolnshire NG23 5BQ, United Kingdom; email address: spelter23@aol.com.

2. John Daniel's biography