Evening in the Plaza by Jeffrey Woodward: A Review

Below is a review by Cynthia Rowe of Jeffrey Woodward’s new collection of haiku and haibun.

$13.95 US/ £8.50 UK/ €10.00 Available through Amazon, Amazon Europe and CreateSpace.
ISBN 978-0615834757 Publisher: Tournesol Books (July 12, 2013) Paperback: 94 pages

Jeffrey Woodward currently acts as general editor of Haibun Today, a journal that he founded in 2007. He formerly edited Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose and served, in 2010 and again in 2011, as adjudicator for the British Haiku Society’s Haiku Awards. His selected poems, under the title In Passing, were published in 2007 and he edited The Tanka Prose Anthology in 2008.

Evening in the Plaza contains forty-one haibun and forty-eight haiku, selected from the published writings of over a decade, by Woodward, a leading exponent and theorist of haibun. The origins of haibun, or the wedding of prose and haiku, can be traced to 17th century Japan but this literary genre gradually fell out of favor and practice in its homeland; it has been revived and naturalized internationally by English-language poets in recent decades and Woodward is one of its finest exponents.

On first viewing, one is struck by the elegance of the cover, austere, intriguing and inviting. Cover designer Ray Rasmussen’s use of light and shade is a metaphor for the haibun and haiku within the pages of this handsome volume.

The book comprises five parts: ‘Questions for the Flowers’; ‘Out of Season’; ‘Dead Letter Office’; ‘Legion’; ‘Imago’. Each section, apart from the final ‘Imago’, concludes with twelve beguiling haiku. The writing is talented, the mood remote and yet engaged, while the poet’s eye for detail is exemplary. The haibun are haunting; the haiku are fine examples of the genre, his style, at times, whimsical and reflective, seductive in its lyricism and mastery. The author leads us gently into the collection with the haibun ‘Adrift’, beginning with:

This calm? No less immediate and palpable than the unexpected storm that just passed.

and concluding with the run-on haiku:

a yellow skiff
adrift from the dock
and rocking idly

The poetry is halcyon and muted, leaving us wanting more.

In contrast, ‘Shorty’ (Contemporary Haibun Online 3:3 September 2007), a particular favourite of mine, invokes stream of consciousness writing, sans punctuation, as though the poet must disgorge these thoughts, needs to get the words out before they desert him.

that summer at the sawmill at the end of a gravel county road dusty cottonwoods and cicadas parallel rows of corn inscribing the shortest distance between any two given points acre upon acre so irredeemably flat as to tempt neither carpenter’s nor mason’s level the equidistant straight lines

concluding with:

Shorty seated on his wooden stool before the shed maybe bent to his task of honing of honing an occasional glint from the blade’s edge

single-mindedly
rubbing a whetstone away—
cicadas at dusk

Line 3 of the haiku juxtaposes the sound of the cicadas with that of the rubbing of the whetstone. The kireji emphasises the point.

An excellent example of Jeffrey Woodward’s work which contains conversation, prose, and personal involvement is ‘Goat’s Beard’, beginning with the delightful dialogue:

That’s not a very pleasant name for a flower – goat’s beard. Nor is Tragopogon dubius much better.

Woodward is in a confiding mood, as if complicit with the reader, concluding with the haiku:

noon flower –
the solitude of
a wish floats away

(‘Goat’s Beard’ published in Contemporary Haibun, Volume 9, 2008)

Haibun without haiku exist. ‘Dead Letter Office’ (Haibun Today, Oct. 28, 2008) is a notable illustration. Again the mood is confidential, almost wry:

Although you may count me among that number who are inclined to say, I would prefer not to, midway in my journey I do not find myself disoriented in a forest but here, in the Dead Letter Office, where the Fates, busily foreshortening somebody’s thread, have secured a position for me.

Woodward affirms the Sisyphean effect of the Dead Letter Office with the final paragraph:

Meanwhile, my position is secure, for the sorting of this mail will not end. I almost said my purgatorial business but, in this trade, there is no cleansing. Instead, letter after letter with a bad or illegible address, with an intended recipient long departed–judgments for debts overdue, offerings of condolence, confessions of love: the destiny of every petition, no answer.

In this haibun, a haiku would be redundant.

Within the closing ‘Imago’, the first haibun ‘California Trail’ (Contemporary Haibun Online 4:4, Dec. 2008) stitches together some threads of the history of the Donner Party.

Often the land is level, broad and dry and one makes good time. Then there is rain or there is a trail by a thorny thicket overtaken.

A stranger, a passerby, tells of a detour to an easier route. The promised shortcut is tempting and is tried.

The concluding haiku has a sense of finality:

a late autumn wind
over the Sierras
to the Donner wagons

‘California Trail’ recounts the tragedy lyrically and yet suitably bleakly, leaving the reader, in the comfort of his/her armchair, subdued by the experience.

The equally chastening haibun ‘Sharecropper’ (Simply Haiku 6:4, Nov. 2008) revisits another American tragedy, the poverty and displacement of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. We are reminded of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

It was my mother’s great uncle on her mother’s side, patiently waiting there just outside the screen door for perhaps the last time, the straw hat with the soiled band crumpled in his hand, there with the gaunt exterior of a black-and-white Walker Evans’ Depression Era photograph, his skin wrinkled and parchment-thin, his voice like an echo in a dry well, his singular tale that of lean times and crop failure, of winds blowing the very land away, leaving only parched lips, only the vacant gaze.

The final haiku is mournful, redolent of what might have been. The third line impresses with its phonics in the alliterative: a faraway freight

not a drop of rain
since the hired hand came —
a faraway freight

In the four haiku sections, Woodward leads the reader through the seasons and their ever-changing moods.

‘BRIGHT ESCORT’—HAIKU

she lets the baby cry
and blankly scours a pan …
gathering thunderheads

Despite the overly long syllable count, this haiku appeals to me in its evocation of despair, the simmering anger implied in the final line.

‘ANOTHER WOODEN TURN’—HAIKU

thorns alone
adorn the tree–
December

Tied to the harshness of winter, there is a hint of religious connotation with the specific use of December and the first line: thorns alone.

‘BORROWED LIGHT’ —HAIKU

the snowman
has no hat,
snow falling

The fact that the snowman has no hat adds to the bitter cold of this haiku, as though a snowman needs head cover to ward off the iciness – an interesting haiku, offering a quizzical take on the season.

‘THE APPLE’S COLOUR’ —HAIKU

hand-in-hand
with an amicable monster–
a child’s drawing

This haiku brings a smile to the reader’s face. In the innocence of childhood, monsters, although inducing a pleasurable frisson of terror, are always benign.

Jeffrey Woodward, with the exception of abbreviated stints in West Virginia, New Mexico and California, has worked and lived in the Great Lakes Region for much of his life. Evening in the Plaza is a compelling collection that reaches deep into the human experience. It is moving, honest and memorable. Worth visiting and revisiting.
Cynthia Rowe
www.cynthiarowe.com.au
Editor: Haiku Xpressions
President: Australian Haiku Society
www.haikuoz.org
http://twitter.com/cynthia_rowe