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July 2013, vol 9, no 2

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Naomi Beth Wakan

Review of David Cobb's Marching with Tulips and What Happens in Haibun.

David Cobb, Marching with Tulips, Alba Publishing:Uxbridge, 9780957526501.
David Cobb, What Happens in Haibun, Alba Publishing:Uxbridge 9780957526518
The books are obtainable from www.albapublishing.com

I had been familiar with Issa's My Spring, and had read both Sam Hamill's and Dorothy Britton's (rather ladylike) translations of Bashō's travel haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but I had never been drawn to consider the writing of haibun in depth until I read David Cobb's sensitive collection, Business in Eden. Cobb, a founding member of the British Haiku Society, has done so much to promote the haibun form, and that particular book, which pleased me so much, made me curious to explore haibun in more detail. I was delighted then to find that his recent collection of haibun, Marching with Tulips, had an accompanying volume of in-depth commentary, What Happens in Haibun.

Usually commentaries on texts are done by a variety of other writers, but in this case the commentary is by Cobb himself. This does present an unusual, rather schizoid, but strangely interesting situation in which Cobb speaks for himself in the third person, as 'the writer'. For example, on one page he writes of one of his own haibun, "yet throughout he maintains a rather pitying, slightly snide attitude." He is able, for the most part, in What Happens in Haibun, to present a detached and insightful analysis of the haibun in Marching with Tulips that wonderfully illustrates the haibun he has written and that also provides a fine introduction to the art of haibun writing. Other haibun writers might criticize what Cobb has done here, but as I think he wrote the haibun in a spontaneous and unself-conscious way, why not be allowed to go back over them and consider them from an almost total stranger's point of view later on? It is a rare writer who has the ability to analyse his own work in such a detailed way. Occasionally in What Happens in Haibun, Cobb lapses and uses the first person singular, but even in those cases, the analysis is just as perceptive.

I first read Marching with Tulips straight through in one sitting, just letting Cobb's variety of scenes and haiku sweep over me. Then I reread the book along with his commentary on each haibun, and marveled at the variety of haibun he had presented, and at the many functions the haiku play within the prose. The first portion of the commentary is as much a lesson in how to write haibun as the last part, which actually attempts directly to suggest some parameters for haibun writing. In this later section, Cobb is never dogmatic, for he recognizes that haibun in English is a developing form and that one must be able to sift out the essence of a traditional Japanese haibun to see what can be carried over into another culture. He generously allows for a number of possibilities.

I have dwelled on the commentary, What Happens in Haibun because I think it is an invaluable introduction for writers seeking to explore the haibun form. Of Cobb's actual haibun in Marching with Tulips, his gentle wry humour is wonderfully present in "Cool," an account of a ginko gathering of haijin to write haiku in rather difficult conditions, (how familiar this will be to most of us haijin) and in "Banged Up," a haibun covering Cobb's valiant attempt to teach haiku in a prison. His haibun in this collection range from fantasy to autobiographical. The fantasy ones, such as when Cobb imagines he is taking a walk with Issa and his dog, or having a picnic with Boudica, are compelling. His longest haibun, and, perhaps, the closest to a traditional kikōbun, or travel diary, is "Mint Tea with Moses." It is an account of a trip Cobb took through Jordan, visiting various schools. The fifteen haiku embedded in it seem to mark stages of his journey, or at least mark the days passing. In it, he frequently uses the monostich, or single line haiku that takes a bit of getting used to if you are not familiar with this form. "Mint Tea with Moses" has the parallel of life's journey running through it, as well as aside comments directed to Moses. A truly complex piece. The haibun in Marching with Tulips seem to be arranged in some chronological order, but if I have any small quibble with them, it is that I would have liked all the Anglo-Saxon ones to have been grouped together, all the ones taking place in Thailand together, etc., for his haibun pull you immediately into a mood that one would like to maintain while reading a group with the same setting.

His own efforts make it clear that just putting a number of haiku into a piece of prose doesn't make a haibun. Cobb well understands that although the haibun prose is important, it is its interaction with the embedded haiku that move the piece along, take it to a deeper level of reflection, or shift its direction. As he states, "The aim should be to make haibun prose and haiku companionable, responsive to each other like bedfellows, and not to reduce both to any kind of common denominator." Although he says he sometimes uses a haiku to inspire the prose, or vice versa, I find his haibun flow in such a spontaneous manner that I can hardly believe they are written with much premeditation – the haiku and prose seem so seamless and natural. Cobb often adopts the traditional Japanese way of using allusions to other writers' works and this, for the most part, comes off well. However, the UK (and North America) is not as homogenous a culture as traditional Japan and so the reader may not always catch the allusions.

Another thing about Cobb's commentary that struck me it that it has none of the write-speak that often obscures the literary world (e.g., using the term "many-layered" when really the piece is just obscure). The commentary has the integrity and clarity of his haibun. I am reminded that R H Blyth demanded of a haijin the qualities, "selflessness, loneliness, grateful acceptance, humour, courage, wordlessness, simplicity, non-intellectuality, freedom, contradictoriness, non-morality, love and materiality." I am struck by how Cobb, both in his haibun and in his commentary on them reflects so many of these qualities. They can only come after years of struggle. Thanks to David Cobb's experience with writing so many haibun over the years, one way or another, when you have finished reading Marching with Tulips and its companion volume, What Happens in Haibun, you'll have a head start on most people seeking to understand the developing form of haibun.