Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch, Judges
First published in the Central Valley Haiku Club 2008 haibun contest results flyer. These haibun and my commentaries also appear in Contemporary Haibun Online 5:3, September 2009. I believe the winning haibun also appeared in the club’s 2009 anthology, Among Wildflowers. Commentary first written (mostly by me, though attributed to both me and Garry Gay) in December of 2008. See the 7 February 2008 contest announcement on the Central Valley Haiku Club website.
First Place ($100): “Fields of Cotton” by Renee Owen
Second Place ($50): “Kansas off the Interstate” by Anne French
First Honorable Mention: “Epitaph” by Ellen Compton
Second Honorable Mention: “The Day After” by Jeffrey Harpeng
The art of haibun is alive and well, thanks not only to the formative influence of the late Jerry Kilbride, who was one of the finest haibun pioneers writing in English, but because of haibun contests such as this that the Central Valley Haiku Club has named after Jerry. It has been our particular pleasure to judge this contest, because Jerry was our friend. We reviewed each of the 23 entries as we imagined Jerry would—with careful consideration and openness, entering into each experience and the mind and heart of each poet through his or her prose and poetry. We are delighted to offer our selections of the winning haibun, together with brief comments after each haibun, and regret that we couldn’t select more.
A theme with our selections turned out to be a strong sense of place. We see board-and-batten siding in North Carolina, the high corn of Kansas, the crabs and oysters of Chesapeake Bay, and an airplane view of Australia’s Southern Alps. We weren’t looking for a sense of place, but noticed it in the haibun once we’d made our selections. Conveying “place” need not be the only or primary motive in a haibun, but we think these selections do it well.
Each of these haibun is a first-person narrative, and again, haibun need not be limited to this, but these examples may serve as a model for how narratives work best when they focus on the experience, not the experiencer. We are engaged by the prose, shifted by the poems, and come to the end of each haibun a little changed—sometimes a little informed, and at least a little moved. We hope these haibun will move you also. Thank you to each poet who entered, and congratulations to each of the winners.
—Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch
Fields of Cotton
A broken window glints in the baking North Carolina sun, ivy spilling from the pane’s jagged edge. Board and batten siding barely hangs on. As I cross a clearing of dead grass, the ground, rutted with rodent holes, gives way underfoot. On its crumbling foundation, the old house sighs. Beneath the window, broken concrete blocks. I step up, peer into the gloom. After the washed-out white of summer, nothing but darkness inside. My eyes adjust, a few rays of light slant from a gaping crack in the chimney above. Motes of dust slowly twirl in the sunbeams. Leaves from a hundred autumns rot on the dirt-strewn floor. An ancient broom and apron rest, awaiting their owner’s return.
billowing fields of cotton
from the window
the master’s dark daughter
In this haibun, we have no preconception of where it might be taking us. But then, amid its exploratory saunter, an unexpected flash in the poem’s last line suddenly jolts us. We have dwelled in the haibun’s prose, in here-and-now curiosity. We may ask if the concluding poem continues to present an immediate experience of seeing a very old woman, or if we have been transported back in time to the plantation’s darker days. Either way, the thunder reverberates long after we read those lightning final words.
Kansas Off the Interstate
Once off the Interstate, a National Wildlife Refuge beckons us—salt marshes on the plains! We eat our picnic lunch and watch the birds.
ungainly in the air
but what a dive
Kansas is not the boringly all-flat state of legend. Our tattered map shows bordering geological regions in varied colors. We follow the Arkansas River, its lowlands on one side, the Smoky Hills on the other, where the Pawnee Rock is a landmark of the Santa Fe Trail. We drive across the High Plains.
in cornfield after cornfield
On either side of the two-lane road, the corn is high, the haymounds plentiful. We hear on the radio that the farmers of Kansas are gathering truckloads of hay for the ranchers of Texas, where there has been a prolonged drought.
the great circle of earth
one car on a Kansas road
The productive acres stretch to the horizon but not a person or habitation is in sight. This is the land of vast corporate holdings. In each village we pass through, the school is empty, the few houses run down and only the gas station-general store is open.
where the homestead once stood
the trees also
When we stop for the night the odor of cow is heavy in the air.
muddy feedlots and gas pipelines
where prairie grasses grew
This haibun is patient, not needing to wow readers at every sentence—perhaps like Kansas itself. Yet it is sustained, slowly developing a dark or bittersweet tone, with a touch of longing for the way things used to be. We find good leaps from prose to poem. The sense of place sometimes has surprises (the salt marsh, the hills, the oil wells) that break through myth and misperception. We wonder, in the end, is this true? Are the changes to the land and its people a microcosm of changes across the country, and perhaps also in each of us, too? Perhaps we are compelled to visit or revisit Kansas to find out for ourselves.
The beach at sunrise . . . and again I find him here. He followed the water once. Crabs, oysters, and sometimes still he sets his nets. But mostly, he builds boats. Shallow draft, to work the inshore Chesapeake. Tough, to ride the weather. His eyes search the distance . . . and he points. He knows that one. “Trims good, don’t she.” It is not a question. He nods, spits, studies his twisted hands.
a gull poops
on the weathered hull
Here we feel immediate mystery. Who is the epitaph for, and who is “he”? Through well-cadenced prose and disarming haiku, we feel deft and simple characterization of both place and person. The spitting, the question that isn’t a question, the twisted hands—all show us the character of the boat-builder, and by extension the Chesapeake Bay setting as well. We discover that the epitaph seems not to be for a person—yet—but for an old boat and the way of life that is going with it.
The Day After
Barely taxied from the gate and a technical problem has us disembarking. Backtracking the concourse, I offer a hand to a lady lugging an awkward hand-grip.
“Just changing hands. It’s full of clothes for a new grandchild. A miracle baby. They said she could never have a child.”
“I’m at the other end of the spectrum. Yesterday I went to a child’s funeral. He died at eight weeks.”
Last night the little family was around for buttered chicken and rice. Not quite the Jewish physic for all that ails, but where silence opens.
mum and dad farewell
that heart of them
April cool . . .
the white box smaller
in the hearse
An hour in the air I recall the balloon-releasing ceremony. Powder blue and powder white balloons trail blue ribbons. Two young girls, on instruction from their father, are the first to let go.
meniscus of my coffee
A friend of the mother, a heart-weld made while the babes were in intensive (she was never much on babies—never an offer to nurse—at forty-two became a mother). She nurses her Yael, whose name is already a story or two. She nurses her Moonbeam warm to her warmth.
First sight of land, the West Coast and the Southern Alps. Snow caps through clusters of cloud, a mountain lake and cloud thickening. Descent toward the place I called home. The umbilical of that context is severed.
I think of a small flight of balloons rising into a breathy southerly, into blue without respite, while the hearse turns into traffic and heads the other way.
across patchwork plains
the rivers braid
The first sentence of this haibun takes us to an airport, and we fly, with attendant travel frustrations, with the author. We soon discover the sad purpose for the author’s trip, yet the piece never becomes sentimental or maudlin. We know that the author’s world has tilted, just as surely as the meniscus in the author’s coffee tilts during the flight. We are blessed to enter into this experience, sad though it may be, through the gift of haibun.