Commentary on “Birthday Lunch at the Cubee Pub”

My commentary on Joanna Preston’s haibun first appeared in Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose #1, Summer 2009, page 168. Originally written in April of 2009, commissioned by MHTP editor Jeffrey Woodward.

Birthday Lunch at the Cubee Pub

This place burnt down the year she was born. Built again in brick and no time. We’ve hired the back room for her birthday lunch, dressed her in cherry red, sat her by the fire. The new owners had it stoked up long before we arrived, stood at the door smiling as we made the slow way across from the car in the sun. Winter in the Wheatbelt feels like summer to me. But she is always cold now, as though already underground. She is twig and husk, a frond of bracken curled in on itself. Feather snagged on a brittle stem. Cirrus cloud teased to thread by the wind.
        Tomorrow, she will not wake up, and we will take turns not saying what we’re thinking.

                102 today—
                only strangers wish
                Many Happy Returns

                                —Joann
a Preston

As is common for haibun, Joanna Preston’s is written in the present tense. Yet, in its brief second paragraph, it takes an unusual twist. It knows the future, and that future immediately casts a pall on us as readers. We know what will happen, but we dwell in the present of celebrating the birthday of a beloved centenarian who is about to die. It’s her last hurrah, and through the magic of words, we know what the characters in the story do not yet know. Remember the bestselling book Love Story? Its very first sentence tells you that the main character dies in the end. That simple device is useful because it deflates what could have otherwise been a maudlin ending to the book. It also gives every unfolding event throughout the book added tension and context. What Joanna does here is different, because we do not know the key detail in the first paragraph. But we do know it before we read the concluding haiku, and that fact changes how we apprehend the poem. It gives the concluding poem an irony in that those who are not strangers do sense that the end is near after all. Perhaps that’s an easy assumption regarding a person who is more than 100 years old, yet it’s not an assumption made by strangers. This haibun is unique for the way it plays with time, and unique for the interesting effect that its time-play has on the reader. We are chilled, too, in the realization that perhaps even the centenarian also knows that her end is near, for she is always cold. Even the cirrus clouds are reduced to barest threads by that chilling wind from the future.