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January 2014, vol 9, no 4

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Ray Rasmussen


Those We Carry into our Writing:
A Commentary on “Witness,” A Haibun by Glenn G. Coats

Since beginning writing haiku in the mid-1990s to his focus on haibun starting in 2009, Glenn Coats has had numerous haiku and haibun published in a variety of online and print journals. A New Resonance 6 (Red Moon Press, 2009) included Coats as one of the “emerging voices in English-language haiku.” Given his many haibun published since 2009, were there an announcement about 'emerging voices in English-language haibun' Coat’s voice would certainly be among them.

So when I received a copy of Snow on the Lake, (1) I stoked up the fire, settled into my chair, and began to read with interest. Of the book in general, Jeffrey Woodward writes in the foreword:

This book . . . is saturated with the spirit, if you will, of the many neighborhoods and acquaintances, past and present, of the author’s life.

While I have read the entire volume containing 33 haibun and numerous haiku, this is not a review of Coats’ book. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on one haibun, “Witness,” a memory of a schoolyard experience. Given that a good many published haibun are of this type, one could almost call memoirs their own sub-genre.

The first paragraph of “Witness” presents an unusual way to invite readers into the narrative:

I cannot remember the splash of a fish at dusk, or the way a falling star scratches the darkness. I cannot recall the green colors of pines that change quickly in the light. These things are gone in an instant.

By telling us about events that he can not remember, he stirred thoughts about what it is that we remember and don’t remember. Indeed, there are many poignant events that stand out and yet are not anchored in long term memory. Although I’ve sighed at the sighting of many a shooting star, I can only remember the idea of them.

The prose turns to a concrete memory of a long ago event at school that has stuck in Coats' mind:

I see my teacher slap Billy down and then just as quickly pick him up by the shirt. It is just a flash like a gust of wind. Was Billy talking too much? Did he sass her back?

A memoir haibun can be judged in part by the life shaping experience it lays out, and in part by the extent that we readers are prompted to recall our own similar, yet distinct, memories. Who does not recall dramatic school scenes? And the confusion that follows as we try to make sense of them . . . and so often never do.

Memoirs can also be judged by the extent to which the prose anchors us in the past. Coats writes this piece in the vernacular:

I am near the end of the line, only teacher and Billy are following me.

With his use of ‘teacher’ instead of “my teacher” and the child’s name “Billy” (instead of Bill), the feel of a schoolyard scene from the past is aptly conveyed.

Coats closes his haibun prose with this very poignant step beyond simple memory:

I know she saw my eyes. Does she see them still?

I’d guess “Yes, she does.” Who too can not recall mistakes we've made as adults, the regrets carried through our adult lives, the look in the eyes of our children when they first come to realize that we are, after all, only human?

Looking at the prose as a whole, I initially felt that the first paragraph was both hauntingly lovely and yet unnecessary. I would guess that most readers would struggle with the why of it ― why begin by telling us what he doesn't remember? I think Coats has chosen to make a comparison between those sharp but fleeting “ah-hah” experiences like the viewing of a shooting star and the more long-lasting, blurred memories. And thus he leads us into the more significant domain of life-shaping memories. In doing so, he invites us to consider this proposition: Beauty disappears quickly, while brutality endures. Herman Hesse offers this related thought:

We cannot evade life's course, but we can school ourselves to be superior to fortune and also to look unflinchingly upon the most painful things.
                                                  ~ Hesse, Gertrude.

Among others, Ken Jones states that haibun prose is best written “in the style of haiku.” (2) Consider some of Coat’s phrasings which could easily have been phrases employed in haiku:

  • the splash of a fish at dusk
  • a falling star scratches the darkness
  • my eyes. Does she see them still?

And what of the haiku? W.F. Owen writes:

“The oblique but relevant association between haiku and prose is the defining moment of the haibun. . . . The haiku link offers readers a springboard to multiple, and often unexpected, meanings.” (3)

Coat’s closing haiku does indeed offer a springboard to multiple meanings and it does step away from the content of the prose narrative:

mountain lake –
on the bottom
the blur of rocks

Because I’m a canoeist, I can easily place myself in the haiku’s setting. Rocks on lake bottoms are most often viewed through murky water. Even in crystal clear rivers, one passes over stones beneath the surface quickly – they go by in a blur. This is an apt metaphor for the way memory works, always a blur, nothing sharp, yet each stone somehow significant, each memory, here for a moment, then the mind sweeps past, that stone gone for a time.

Some have suggested that Basho’s old pond was a metaphor for the psyche and the spash of the frog jumping in, for the moment of zen awakening. (4)

The old pond–

a frog jumps in,

sound of water.



 Translated by Robert Hass


Coats’ mountain lake can similarly be viewed as the human mind filled not just with the clear images of present experiences like a shooting star, but with many blurred memories of events carried from the far past. It’s these blurred stones, and not zen clarity, that serves as the defining metaphor for most of us.

Of course, one can’t be certain of the writer’s intent, particularly with that most succinct of the world’s poems, a haiku. Yet within that uncertainty there’s a door-opening intrigue in both haiku and haiku-like prose ― an invitation to explore this well written work in ones own terms.

The title, "Witness" might be seen as falling into the denotative category as do the titles of most published haibun. (5) A denotative title that doesn't merely repeat words in the prose can serve sufficiently well to provide a entry point for Coats' narrative – the piece is about witnessing something. But there are also connotative possibilities. We generally use "witness" only for events out of the ordinary, possibly something inhumane or even criminal or for momentous events. We witness car crashes and the Civil Rights march on Washington. We don't use the term for shooting stars or the splash of a fish at dusk, precious as they are.

Many of the haibun in Coats’ Snow on the Lake fall in the memoir genre. For that reason and for the outstanding quality of the prose and the variety of the haibun and haiku, I highly recommend it.


Witness

I cannot remember the splash of a fish at dusk, or the way a falling star scratches the darkness. I cannot recall the green colors of pines that change quickly in the light. These things are gone in an instant.

I do not remember all the details. It is either spring or autumn since we are not wearing heavy coats. The fire alarm has gone off and we parade in straight lines out two pairs of doors where we form lines with our teachers on the grass. I am near the end of the line, only teacher and Billy are following me. It is when I step out of the second set of doors that I glance behind.

I see my teacher slap Billy down and then just as quickly pick him up by the shirt. It is just a flash like a gust of wind. Was Billy talking too much? Did he sass her back? I know she saw my eyes. Does she see them still?

mountain Lake –
on the bottom
the blur of rocks


Notes:

Glenn G. Coat's haibun, "Witness" was published with permission. It was originally published in Haibun Today 7:1, March 2013.

1. Glenn G. Coats, Snow on the Lake: Haibun and Haiku, Pineola Publishing, 2013, p. 56.

2. Ken Jones, From “A Review of Up Against the Window: American Haibun and Haiga,” Blithe Spirit, 11:2, June 2001

3. W.F. Owen, “Editor’s Welcome”, in Simply Haiku 4:3, Autumn 2006

4. See Ribert Aitken’s “Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku: Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary," Bureau of Public Secrets Website: http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/basho-frog.htm

5. Ray Rasmussen, "A Title Is A Title Is A Title, or Is It? — The Unexplored Role in Haibun," Frogpond 33:3, 2010. http://www.hsa-haiku.org/frogpond/2010-issue33-3/essay2-haibuntitles.html




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