2011 Haibun Contest Judges' Commentary
Judged by Penny Harter (PH), Mays Landing, New Jersey
Scott Mason (SM), Chappaqua, New York Overview
If haiku is a portal, haibun is a path.
A haiku may open the doors of our perception or reveal some fresh insight, while a haibun may let us walk in another person’s shoes (even if only for a brief stretch) or explore the more intimate landscapes of another’s soul.
As judges for HSA’s inaugural haibun competition, we felt privileged to be included on the journey. Many of the ninety entries offered intriguing and rewarding itineraries. The best of them not only invited us to venture forth, they also moved us in some fundamental way. These are presented below with our remarks.
As will happen in any co-judged competition, our individual preferences diverged here and there. Yet we reached our joint selections fairly quickly. More remarkably, we arrived at the same top choice independently.
On the evidence of this year’s submissions, the state of English-language haibun is bright indeed. Join us now in celebrating seven exemplars of the genre. In the words of Robert Frost, “You come too.” (PH) & (SM)
First Prize ($100) - Lynn McClure Burnsville, North Carolina
Some Things That Are Left
It comes down to the tea in the bottom of my cup, an old silver spoon, the way light falls into honey. This is old age, the privilege of life stretched thin and transparent. I crave the sweetness of cream and the bitter joy of a cut orange. I notice the streaks of rust on the bottom edge of my iron skillet. I find them beautiful and have no inclination to remove them. I prefer wool against a chill and can gaze for long periods at knitted stitches. Memories, once held desperately close, are now wisps of fading paper flying from my open hand. I greet wildflowers as dear ones, Joe Pye, Ironweed, Mullein and bow to Queen Anne in her lace. Another summer passing, another autumn presaged in the curled edges of leaves.
spill onto my table
a shameless fragrance
Here’s a love letter to life; a paean to what’s still sweet in the bittersweet experience of advancing years; a tribute to what endures in the midst of dissipation. I am humbled and inspired by the recognition and passionate embrace of everyday wonders so beautifully expressed in these words. I witness and experience a level of identification approaching mystical union, culminating in the capstone haiku’s stunning last line. (Of all our senses, smell entails the deepest exchange.)
This haibun vivifies. With each reading it absorbs and lifts me. (SM)
The opening words of this haibun, “It comes down to” echo a universal truth. It does all “come down to” whatever time and place we find ourselves in. For this writer, the things it comes down to are wonderfully given to us in a sequence of multi-sensory and specific images—even to specifying wildflower names. The poet, in old age, celebrates “the privilege of life stretched thin and transparent.” He or she richly captures an understanding that we all can hope to reach as we age—that we live in the present and have learned to cherish the luminous and simple gifts each day—even each moment—can offer. Moments like “the sweetness of cream,” or the contrasting “bitter joy of a cut orange.” There’s also a lovely contrast between “streaks of rust” on the bottom of an iron skillet with “knitted stitches”—sweet vs. bitter, harsh vs. soft—all matter. In,”Memories, once held close, are now wisps of fading paper flying from my open hand,” the poet’s hand is open, not clutching tightly, not greedy to hold on to anything. The poetic prose in this haibun invites us into a timeless meditation, enabling us to experience that slowing down, that transparency of experience we all need to find more often, whatever our age. And the beautifully linked haiku startles us with that word “shameless”—it is a sensual and affirmative word, hinting that we must be “shameless” in our celebration of life. (PH)
Second Prize - Renée Owen, Sebastopol, California
The Great Migration
Black as night they rise in a fury, the quiet cracked open by their sharp caws, by the rustle and flapping of hundreds of wings, the air above the cotton fields flowing in a stream be- hind their dark bodies, their great migration.
the canyon fills
dirt stained fingers
knead silver starlight
a picker’s tunes
The first striking thing about this haibun is the movement of the prose—the rhythm of its non-stop flow of words echoing the flight of a vast flock of crows. Even the words are noisy and sharp as the poet captures their “sharp caws”, their rising “in a fury.” I love the “rustle and flapping of hundreds of wings”—I can almost hear them! And the wonderful image of the stream of air above the cotton fields flowing behind their dark bodies extends their flight: we aren’t just seeing and hearing the crows; we’re also feeling the wake of wind they create as they move across the heavens.
This haibun closes with two haiku, each quite different from the other. The first is closer in to the text in that it’s still talking about crows, but it takes even further what the crow migration leaves in its wake—feathers, and a canyon that “fills with echo.” It is a singular “echo”—not “echoes”—as if as if the migration were one body, one being. The second haiku takes us in a different, but still connected, direction: the “dirt-stained fingers” of the cotton-picker are probably plucking the strings of a banjo beneath the night sky, the “picker’s tunes” both an homage to the silver stars overhead, and an echo of that great “black as night” migration that would have blotted out those very stars. (PH)
The truly great migration of this haibun is its Tolstoian scale shift from the panoramic to the personal—all achieved in the less-than-Tolstoian span of sixty words. In the picker’s tunes of the surprising but essential closing haiku I hear the faintest echo of Basho’s rice-planters’ songs. Those conjured for him the beginnings of art, or of poetry. These speak to me of the long road to freedom. (SM)
Third Prize - Marjorie Buettner, Chisago City, Minnesota
My dreams are abandoned houses which let the gold of afternoon light filter in through open windows. There you will find birds nesting in the open rafters and raccoons in the walls. A pump well in the back yard has dried up long ago becoming a prop now for wild flowers and the swing on the front porch is pushed by wind alone. If you are tired, you can rest your body in a field of sunflowers, and watch their faces follow the sun. There you can breathe deeply and shed the dust of your days, breathing in, too, the scent of a distant lake—you can almost see the bubbles rise up where the fish feed . . .
a vine of morning glories
twining around itself
With this haibun we enter and travel the parallel universe of dream- scapes and the subconscious. The images feel genuine, if haunting, as we pass through virtual wormholes (e.g., to the vividly imagined distant lake) propelled by language that often dazzles (“you can breathe deeply and shed the dust of your days”). What is real and what is dreamt? Here the two entwine like the apt parting image. (SM)
This haibun combines a dream-like quality with the use of everyday images that beautifully capture the passing of time. The prose is a dream, itself, the words drifting outward from birds and raccoons within the remains of the poet’s dream houses, to the yard with its pump well and swing, each now fulfilling a different purpose. The well props wildflowers, and the swing is pushed only by the wind. Human life has been here, and passed on, and now the natural world is reclaiming its own. But human life comes back in when we are invited into the dream as it expands its view even further. We can rest in “a field of sunflowers” whose “faces follow the sun,” as our own faces do each day of our lives, where we can shed “the dust of our days.” And then we are carried further yet, to sense the scent of a distant lake—a scent so present that we can “almost see” the bubbles rise up where the fish feed.”
The closing haiku leaves the gate open for us, and “a vine of morn- ing glories / twining around itself,” perhaps on the ruins of a porch, both greets us and sends us on our way, reminding us that we and the natural world are one. (PH)
First Honorable Mention - Priscilla Van Valkenburgh, Liberty, Utah
First the ashes and four sprigs of orchids, then a stream of champagne, then the empty bottle. While leaning over the three foot deep round hole his reading glasses fall in.
the small boy tap dances to
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”
Here we travel not in space but in time via flashback. A solemn ritual devolves into a moment of awkwardness and embarrassment, even humor. Quite unexpectedly (for us), that moment instantly arcs to an earlier, deeper indignity. The title figure—never mentioned again—literally hovers and presides over both sets of proceedings. The initial surprise and ultimate shock of the capstone haiku makes this haibun a tour de force, and unforgettable. (SM)
Second Honorable Mention - Lynn McLure, Burnsville, North Carolina
After the Visit
Summer fields in the distance, the hay cut and left to dry brown and stalky. A dry breeze pushes the wind chimes and leaves turn their backsides seeking rain. The sheep keep to the shade, grazing and resting. Even the crows are quiet. I have tidied up after a week of grown children who leave a familiar wreckage when they exit. Sheets turn in the dryer and a second load of towels is in the wash. I have remade the beds with clean linen, emptied the dishwasher one more time. Now I sit tired in my porch rocker staring at pond, sheep and fields.
tiny blue butterfly
on the potted basil
In this haibun, it is late summer. Distant hay fields lie fallow after being cut, a dry summer breeze pushes wind chimes, and leaves want rain—earth, air, and water shimmer in sequence. A sense of quiet, of peace in contrast to the burgeoning of earlier summer days, is settling in on a summer afternoon. “Even the crows are quiet.”
The poet then leads us from outdoors to indoors. Here again, things are moving from activity to peace. The “familiar wreckage” left behind by the grown children’s visit echoes the cut hay “left to lie brown and stalky” in the field. Towels are in the washer, sheets in the dryer, and the beds have been freshly changed. All is now ready for, perhaps, another visit—another day. Then the haibun returns us to peace, as the poet rests and rocks on the porch, staring at the familiar landscape. The word “staring” is a intriguing word choice there, perhaps connoting a mindless meditative state—a gazing without thought while the poet rocks in now.
The haibun nicely echoes the movement in the prose: after flight, the butterfly rests on the potted basil, much as the poet rests on the porch. (PH)
Third Honorable Mention - Tish Davis, Dublin, Ohio
Crossing a Small Stream
gathering branch wood and pine needles old friends
Silhouettes of the Rocky Mountains slowly fade as evening cools into slate gray darkness. We’ve finished the bonfire dinner served on picnic tables across from the main lodge. Now, the sound of an accordion draws us to rustic wooden stairs. Some of my classmates are wearing cowboy boots, but we’re all wearing cowboy hats. We climb in silence through the thinning air and towards the music.
8:00 pm the once wild mustangs run to pasture
With a parting note of wry humor, this haibun bears witness to the passages of life and the temperaments that often characterize each lifestage, from the rebelliousness and exuberance of youth, to the impulse for comforts (both creature and communal) and the acquiescence of later years. The shift, though profound, can be gradual —just as the prose here presents us with a steady march to conformity, from the merely cosmetic (“we’re all wearing cowboy hats”) to the nearly robotic (“We climb in silence through the thinning air and towards the music”). What a sea change results from “crossing a small stream.” (SM)
Fourth Honorable Mention - Priscilla Van Valkenburgh, Liberty, Utah
At the Nature Center I’m staring through the bars at the rescued raven. Nearby, handicapped eagles and owls hunch solemnly on their perches. But Cronk, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, pokes his formidable beak right through the bars and tilts his head from side to side. Then he turns his back to us, stretches his neck up and over backwards until he is looking at us upside down.
is it half full
or half empty—
the waiting room
In this haibun, Cronk, a raven, stares at us. Having been rescued from some injury or other, he is now being held in a cage in the Nature Center. His demeanor is in marked contrast to the other birds—“eagles and owls [who] hunch solemnly on their perches.” He pokes his beak toward us through the bars, tilts his head, turns his back on us, and ends up looking at us upside down. He is clearly playing with us—as ravens are wont to do, being both very intelligent and often mischievous.
The haiku that follows this opening narrative is startling in its simultaneous linking to the prose and shifting to expand the meaning. We have all had the experience of sitting in a “waiting room” of one kind or another, a medical or dental waiting room, perhaps. We look around us at the others also temporarily being “held” there, awaiting rescue from illness or concern. It is up to us to decide whether the room, and our feelings about why we are there, are “half full / or half empty”— whether we are ravens or solemn, perhaps even depressed, eagles or owls. The raven might be our role model, having decided on a playful perspective, despite his current captivity. (PH)