Travel Haiku Along the Way
First published in Blithe Spirit 31:3, August 2021, pages 86–90. Originally written in September and October of 2020, with revisions in July of 2021. +
Along the Way: A Search for the Spirit of the World, by Gilles Fabre, Alba Publishing, 2020, paperback, 180 pages, ISBN: 978-1-912773-30-5, €12 from www.albapublishing.com.
Gilles Fabre’s new book, Along the Way, makes a first impression of being ambitious. The cover lists hundreds of names of continents, countries, and cities, and the text inside is similarly arranged—and in Japan’s case, by major islands. We know immediately that we’re in for a grand tour, with haiku and senryu about prominent places throughout six continents of the world, all visited by the book’s French-born resident of Ireland. Each country’s section is divided into focuses on specific cities or regions, and this helps to give readers easy entry points, wherever they would like to travel. I immediately looked up Seattle in the United States section, where I live, and connected with this poem (51):
out of the fog
descending from the Space Needle:
an empty monorail
I’m not sure that it’s possible to see inside the monorail from the Space Needle’s elevators, since the monorail’s roof would hide whether it’s empty or not, so I immediately wonder if this scene is imagined rather than experienced. Or perhaps the monorail experience couldn’t happen at the same time as one is descending from the Space Needle. With this initial reaction in mind, I began to explore the book’s other poems with a bit of skepticism, and yet awe for how ambitious the book’s plan is to explore so many corners of the world.
I next flipped the pages to Japan, and read this Tokyo poem (86):
in the izakaya
all the salarymen
have loosened their ties
A useful footnote explains that an izakaya is a bar or pub. This poem feels authentic to me, in my own experience of Tokyo, but I could also see it as arising out of imagination, since we’ve all heard about hard-working salarymen and how often they get drunk together at the end of the workday. But I’m happy to believe that this is experienced rather than imagined.
Next, I randomly found a poem about Gothenburg, Sweden. I’ve driven through the city on the way from Copenhagen to Oslo, but have no memory of the city itself, so I can’t apply any personal experience to the five poems presented in this section, but here’s one of them (136):
through the pine forest needles—
my dad, now widower
Gothenburg is a long way from the arctic, but of course could experience arctic winds, and southern Sweden has ample pine trees. Here, the last line seems to shift away from the Swedish context, adding information that is present in the author’s mind. It’s a fitting juxtaposition, in that the author’s dad has lost a wife (it is possibly not the author’s mother, though, or surely he would have said so). This loss is reflected in the feeling of a cold wind rushing through the trees, and more specifically their needles. So, this poem could take place anywhere in a northern climate and isn’t limited to being Swedish in character. Consequently, we are presented with something that happens in a particular location but isn’t necessarily about that location in an exclusive way (that could happen only there). This example therefore sets at least part of an expectation for what I might find in the rest of the book: some poems simply take place wherever they happen, whereas other poems are about specific places. In the introduction, Fabre says “because everything that happens takes place, a haiku also catches and brings to life the spirit of place” (14), but my feeling is that this is true of only certain poems. On one level this distinction does not matter—we can enjoy poems of either type. But on another level, it may matter to some readers if they might prefer that this book’s travel poems lean toward being about their various locations rather than being poems that just happen to take place there. An open-minded reader might well want to welcome both.
Notes at the end of the book explain that the author visited all of the places he writes about, and he describes trips to the United States, New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia, India, Malaysia, and Japan. Specifics are not provided for other continents, such as Africa or South America, but we can presume that the author has actually visited each location and that these are not purely imagined poems—even while imagination has its place. I believe we can be empowered to write effective haiku out of imagination, if we do it right, but here we have poems of experience where the burden of empathy shifts to the reader.
The book’s introduction provides inspiring thoughts about the pleasures and challenges of travel—or “voluntary exile.” Fabre also connects his own expat wanderlust with feelings of the Japanese ancients, such as through the intro’s selection of travel poems from the Man’yōshū (circa 760; the text incorrectly says 760 BCE). He also talks about the poetics of haiku and how it can reveal an awareness for place like no other poetry. Fabre’s introduction concludes by saying “I hope you will enjoy this narrative account of experiences . . . which may resonate with you and make borders . . . disappear” (16).
And that, indeed, is what this book is about. The poems appear up to seven per page, interspersed now and then with short notes providing context or background, and footnotes occasionally explaining foreign terms. Each continent’s section also begins with travel-related quotations that in themselves provide inspiration. But the real inspiration is the poems, weaving together the narrative of the author’s travels, presumably over many decades. Not all of us are so fortunate to have travelled to the many places documented in this book, but we can all travel vicariously to far-flung locales through this book’s poems. I applaud the book, too, for having such a large and clear vision, exploring the world using a genre of poetry that itself has spread worldwide.
One caution with travel poems, of course, is to be wary of the mere report. The exotic can feel like it has more weight than it does, because it took a lot of work to reach particular locations, or because the situation or image might be markedly different from one’s everyday experiences back home. But is that enough to make the poem a strong haiku? Is simply reporting such experiences enough to elevate them above diary entries into being a haiku? [See “Fuji Over the Clouds: The Dangers of Travel Haiku.”] Tourists may sometimes see and appreciate what natives take for granted, but it sometimes also takes a native to know the deeper significance and context of what is seen. This is the endless challenge with travel haiku, and for my own part I’ve found that it’s worthwhile to at least report everything that strikes me, and to decide later if a poem is worth publishing. As with any haiku written anywhere, a percentage of them might rise above tourist snapshots to be artful photographs. And yet the snapshot has value too. In Gilles Fabre’s remarkable book, we find poems of both kinds, and we are richer for his choice to record his many travels with haiku.
no matter how long I gaze
the gorilla’s thoughts
are inscrutable Cameroon (23)
in strong winds
when did you move last? Arizona, United States (45)
over the desk
where Neruda used to work
a white butterfly, fluttering Santiago, Chile (55)
the worn-out sandals
of the trishaw rider
braking with his feet Penang, Malaysia (66)
on the wooden steps
deepening the temple’s silence
three cats Hongyo-ji Temple, Japan (88)
here and there
on the marble floor
grains of sand Dubai (119)
across Jim Morrison’s grave
as the sun goes down Paris, France (123)
North Sea breeze—
seated on a granite bench
two lads in kilts Edinburgh, Scotland (144)
even when escaping
the sting ray
does not seem in a hurry Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia (169)
end of the journey—
if I shave
will I forget everything? Fremantle, Australia (174)