Fireflies and Haibuns

I’ve started working on a new collection of poems and decided to try my hand at haibun, a form I’ve never used before.

Haibun is a poetic form that focuses on nature and landscape and creates the sense of a journey, which can be internal or extrernal. A haibun is the combination of two poems, a prose poem and haiku, and the form was popularized by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Both the prose poem and haiku typically communicate with each other, though poets employ different strategies for this communication—some doing so subtly, while others are more direct.

Generally, a haibun consists of one or more paragraphs of prose written in a concise, imagistic haikai style, and one or more haiku. The prose part of the poem usually describes a scene or moment in an objective manner. Meanwhile, the haiku follows the typical rules for haiku and usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of thinking about the haibun is as a highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey that ends with a kind of murmur.

A haibun may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. The accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections. However, there may be considerable variation of form.

In Robert Wilson’s series Vietnam Ruminations, a collection of individual haibun, each haiku begins the poem and the following prose is a piece of reportage or explanation:

Fireflies
on the water’s surface –
a house of mirrors.

Standing guard in the wee hours of the morning on the bow of the repair boat barge I was stationed on, was eerie, to say the least. You could never relax. Stories were told in the chow hall of Viet Cong frogmen who traveled across the small bay we were moored in, using hollow bamboo reeds to breathe through. Like ghosts, they appeared when a soldier’s guard was down. The only sound during this watch was the faint lapping of waves against the barge’s hull and the steady thump thump thump of my heart. In the distance, gunships sprayed the horizon with machine gun shells laced with tracers that lit up the sky. More than once, I saw my reflection in the water. At that time of the morning, at nineteen years of age, a variety of thoughts and questions danced in and out of my mind; some deeply introspective.

Whereas Stallion’s Crag by Ken Jones is a seamless collection of  haibun with the haiku at the end of the prose, as demonstrated in this extract:

The black tarmac strip comes to an end. The motor disappears back into the mountain silence. Down by the stream is a reception committee.

Three crows in a bare tree

proclaim the meaning of life

                            as usual

I give them a wave.

 

Ahead lies a broad valley. Great hills rise on every side, the grey bones of the mountain showing through their flanks. Here and there fans of scree spill down the slopes, and boulders litter the brown bogs. This is now a vast sheep walk, roadless, ruined and depopulated — a tumbled world of mist and bog, of looming and elusive shapes. There was once a notice at the farmhouse of Eisteddfa announcing that “The Notorious Hill of Plinlimmon is on the Premises and will be shown to any Gentleman Travellers who wish to see it.” All the literati who took up the offer seem to have had a bad time; Thomas Love Peacock, for example, wrote in 1855 about getting lost and soaked to the skin. And all this despite repeated warnings from the guidebook writers. One declared that “The Voluptuary will find little in this region to detain him.” And Benjamin Malkin, in 1804, warned that “it affords little food for the picturesque enthusiasms of those who venture on the laborious perils of the ascent”. He added that “it is the most dangerous mountain in Wales … and should not be attempted without a guide, whose attendance is very precarious.”

I soon dismissed this bleak, featureless wasteland when I first came here as a youth in search of excitement.  Even today there is only one car park, unofficial and usually empty. Instant drama begins further north, on Cadair Idris. There, if you spend only a night on the summit you will at least awaken either mad or a poet. On Pumlumon it takes longer. Half a century in my case.

Back on the mountain

my grey beard

soaking up the mist

 

Here at the road’s end there’s a keen wind blowing. Cold and rain are kept out by closely woven cotton, over finely spun lambswool, over Welsh flannel, over Japanese silk, over mortal skin. Dyed field grey, head to foot, and lightly waxed. Buckled snug down to the hips is a well worn backpack, with five days of green tea, frankincense, midge repellent, and much else, but not a word to read.

Contentedness

of mist and bog

miles of trudging solitude

I love the freedom that prose gifts to you and also enjoy the demands and constraints of the haiku. To combination these effectively will be a serious challenge, but then, life is all about change, of moving out of your comfort zone and going places you’ve never been before. To do otherwise is to stagnate.

Wish me luck.

 

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From page to screen

I went to the cinema last night to see The Railway Man and was once again disappointed that the film lacked integrity or any loyalty to the book. It’s bad enough when film-makers change endings and characters of novels, but when they do it to autobiographies it’s somehow shameful, as if they’ve set themselves up as God and decided what someone’s life story should have been like. I know it coverd itself by having Based on a true story under the title, I think Eric Lomax, who died in 2012, would have been very unhappy with their version.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer attached to the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, who was caught up in the war at the time of the surrender of Singapore. He was marched to the infamous Changi Prison, along with the rest of the soldiers captured. From there he was sent to Thailand to work on the infamous Burma-Siam railway. As an engineer he escaped the crippling jobs of digging out of rocks and laying tracks that ended the lifes of thousands and thousands soldiers and captive Indonesians, but life for him was not easy. He was tortured and humiliated by his Japanese captors and after his liberation he suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of his guards, Takashi Nagase, acted as interpreter for his torturers and this man is the one that Lomax focussed all his hatred upon. He was the one constant in his life, the voice that spoke to him during the torture, the voice and face that stayed with him in his nightmares. But what the film fails to do it to show that Nagase was also troubled by his memories of the war and the Imperial Army’s treatment of prisoners. His disturbing memories featured a young British officer whom he helped interrogate and whose bravery and refusal to break haunted him.

After the end of World War II, Nagase became a devout buddhist priest and tried to atone for the treatment of prisoners of war. Takashi has made more than 100 missions of atonement to the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, which was also built by prisoner-of-war labour. Nagase, like Lomax, also wrote a book of his own experiences during and after the war entitled Crosses and Tigers, and he financed a buddhist temple at the bridge to atone for his actions during the war.

The reconciliation of the men did not occur when Lomax went to Thailand to kill Nagase following the suicide of a friend. For years Lomax had dreamt of ways of killing his tormentor, to end his nightmares and to lay the war and all its horrors to rest. But PTSD is not something that easily goes away by itself and eventually Lomax sought help from The Medical Foundation (now entitled Freedom from Torture). He was the first British citizen to receive their help and it was through their support and the admisitrations of his second wife, Patti, that he was able to make the journey to Thailand and meet his old nemesis. The men became friends and died within a year of each other.

I think what I dislike most about the film, apart from re-writing Lomax’s life, is the complete denial of the intervention of The Medical Foundation, as if to seek help from an organization is somehow less worthy, less manly, than struggling through your demons on your own. Just look at how we have historically treated soldiers with PTSD, most notably during WW1 when we shot them for cowardice, but each generation up to modern-day has abused its victims by denying the condition exists or witholding treatment. It has been seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice to ask for help but slowly the army is recognizing that it owes its soldiers this help and support. Then along comes this film which ignores the valuable help Lomax was given in favour of providing the audience with the gung-ho image of a tortured man who heals himself. Yes, he was tortured, yes he healed himself, but he was enough of a hero to recognize when he needed help and asked for it, despite the stigma attached to this. He also recognized and showed us that war damages people on both sides. And that, to me, is the unltimate heroic act.

 

Alter ego

I’m currently re-reading Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For those unfamiliar with the work, Persig is driving across America on a motorbike with his son, Chris, and a couple of friends, calling in at places that hold resonances for him. He is accompanied by a ghost, Phaedrus, who turns out to be his alter ego. As the story unfolds fragments from Phaedrus’ memory and writings surface. Phaedrus was Persig as a young man who strove to align what he called “classical” and “romantic” methods of thought and tried to define ‘Quality’. The struggle drove him to depression, a nervous breakdown, hospitalization and electric shock treatment.

He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come to it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.

This journey is not just a physical and metaphorical one, it is also a journey into the heart of philosophy and rational thought, and into the mind of the man who struggled to make sense of it.

To the Persig riding the motorcycle, Phaedrus is a ghost, someone who haunts his thoughts and dreams, someone he wants to bury forever. But in order to do so he has to return to the places where it all happened, to look at things with new eyes and to understand where it all went wrong. It’s a compelling read, even for someone like me who’s one of the “romantic” school, who sees things emotionally rather than rationally. It is also beautifully written.

The gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semi-sleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken… And then it reappears.

When I picked this book up again last week all I could remember about it was that it was a story of a journey and parts of it looked at why you need to understand and keep the workings of machines well serviced. Nothing about philosophy. I remembered I’d loved the writing style and that he had explained things that made sense at the time but my brain hadn’t retained any. Inside the front cover is a note from the writer that includes this:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’.

It was time to read it again.

Like Persig, I have a Phaedrus. My alter ego doesn’t have a name but she pops up at times to undermine me, telling me I’m not good enough, of course I’ll never be a success and why do I think anyone is remotely interested in anything I have to say? She’s been my companion for years, a shadow dogging my steps. Peter Pan lost his shadow and was searching for it to stitch back on, but I’m trying to find a way to do the opposite, to cut her off and leave her in a drawer. Permanently. Yet I have tremendous compassion for her and therein lies a problem. How do you eliminate something that has been part of who you are? She’s born of other people’s qualitative judgements so perhaps Persig’s book will help peel away any acceptance of those judgements because they are just someone else’s ideas and the quality or worth of a person doesn’t adhere to any agreed universal definition. We’ll see.

Phaedrus had once called metaphysics “the high country of the mind”–an analogy to the high country of mountain climbing. It takes a lot of effort to get there and more effort when you arrive, but unless you can make the journey you are confined to one valley of thought all your life.

Home is where the heart is?

I’ve been away for the Xmas break staying with my family in the NE of England. I lived there for most of my life before moving to Scotland 10 years ago, so Newcastle has been “home” for a very long time. I holds memories that are the threads of my life, stitches that have held me together through adversities, cloth that has kept me warm and offered protection from harsh winter nights. Whenever I travelled south on the train my pulse would quicken as soon as I saw the Tyne Bridge, or if I travelled by car, when I passed the Angel of the North. But things are changing. Or maybe I’m just getting older.

When I was young we moved around a lot and I went to 8 different schools. At first leaving friends was like having my heart torn open but gradually I perfected growing a leather sheath over it that could be repaired. “Home” became a ghost, a concept that lived in the realm of consciousness but had no definite substance. Later it became something I carried around inside me. Then everything changed. I had children.

Determined my kids would never have to leave their friends and familiar surroundings, I stubbornly stayed on in the house we bought just after we were married. But I yearned for freedom, to travel, to experience. It was only when my babes were all grown up and had left to make their own way in life that I went off to work in Nepal. I had such grand ideas of career changes, working in developing countries and “making a difference”. But like a lot of my grand ideas this one didn’t work out either.

The illness that had dogged me for years reared up again and I was sent back to the UK for treatment. Unfortunately I got a diagnosis that would not allow me to continue working in developing countries. I was bereft. But at the same time, all the things I’d taken for granted before going away suddenly had their colour volume turned up. The streets were clean, traffic didn’t have foul black smoke belching out of exhaust pipes, and there was an order to driving on roads. And of course, some of those roads led me back to the Tyne Bridge and the Angel.

In Nepal I had contemplated on rooftops waiting for the Himals to appear, back in England I sat in parks. In Nepal the breath-taking beauty of snow-peaked Himalayas spoke to me in air that was fresh and soft and stupas expanded my appreciation of the spirit. In Northumberland I looked at castles and churches with different eyes, seeing in them people from the past, my people, whose lives were just as hard as modern-day Nepalis and Tibetans. The grass and forests and rivers or Northumbria became sacred to me, places that nourished my soul and where I found temporary peace from my fears that I would die never being good enough or do anything that made a difference to anyone. I was wrong about that as well.

Shortly after I moved to Scotland a former teaching colleague invited me to the Sixth Form Reunion at one of the schools where I used to work. I wasn’t well enough to travel so sent my apologies and thought that was then end of it. However, after the reunion she got back in touch with me to say that several students had been disappointed I hadn’t been able to go but one lad in particular wanted me to know what a difference I’d made to his life.

David had been in my A level literature group and was someone who had been bullied a lot. He had  a wandering eye, was very quiet and overweight. We were studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I’d asked the group if they’d like to do a Geordie version of the Mechanicals play for assembly and perform to the rest of the school. They were a bit dubious but once we got underway they started to be excited. I asked David to play Bottom, the lead part. He kept suggesting other students for the role so I told him that if he didn’t want to do it, that was fine but I thought he’d do a good job of it. He did. When he came to the reunion it was let me know he’d played Hamlet at university and had just appeared at one of the theatres in Newcastle as part of a nationwide tour with a theatre company. Coming back ‘home’ to perform had been one of his greatest pleasures and seeing me would have been another. There was a write-up in one of the local evening newspapers of the play David had been in and he was quoted as saying “It was all down to my English teacher. She was the only one who believed in me”.

I left teaching for a lot of reasons but other than the pleasure I have derived from my own children it was the next best. I miss the freedom I had to explore texts in whatever way I saw fit, to take the ‘bottom set’ students to the theatre and see their eyes shine, to take them on outings and socialize them, to make assignments real and not just fabricated exercises with no cause or effect. But most of all I miss their youth and their honesty –

“Poetry? What the fuck use is that?”

Can’t buy me love

It’s New Year’s Eve and thoughts automatically turn to a review of the past year and what has been achieved. On the writing front I’ve been really busy and had several poems and a short story published. My second novel, which is still to place, has been critiqued and I’ve started a third. I’ve been actively sending my work out, shrugging off any rejections and feel a lot more grounded in self-belief. There will always be areas I can improve but I’m pleased with my progress and the fact I don’t let criticism destroy me anymore.

My home life keeps me on my toes and my health, apart from a dodgy hip, is probably the best it’s been for years. I’ve been able to have more work done on the house to make it warm this winter and have replaced a couple of old settees to enhance my comfort. It’s all been good. So what’s missing?

When I worked in Nepal and on my travels in developing countries I was always impressed by the incredibly happy outlook of people who had nothing. They never worried about whether their clothes matched some fashion dictate, or whether their body shapes were in vogue. They didn’t seem to agonize over whether their partner loved them or if they were worthy of love. I suppose when you are stripped to basics and survival is your main concern, then those other things are luxuries you can’t afford. Now I’ve got a new career going, have a home I can be safe, warm and comfortable in, I’ve no more excuses; it’s time to look at the area of my life I do any displacement activity to avoid addressing. Love.

Those who have followed my blogs know that I haven’t been particularly successful in that area and that the way I deal with being unsuccessful is to either bash away with my head, or run away. The latter is easiest. I’ll take lots of risks with my body but am a real wuss when it comes to my heart. I’d rather give up desire than risk rejection so have settled into a very pleasant ‘safe’ existence where I can and do anything I want without having to explain myself or make compromises. It always seemed a win/win situation to me. And yet…

Lately the old yearning has surfaced, that feeling of desire for intimate communication between bodies and souls, where connections are forged that can take me to the realms of the divine. The heat and static on skin that electifies the slightest touch and can take me to another dimension. The meeting of minds that seems to expand intellect yet at the same time makes space for the trivial minutae of life, recognizing it’s implicit importance in the great scheme of things. There is so much more than I am currently experiencing. It may be blasphemous, but for me meditation can only provide so much. I’m having a human experience that is enhanced by contact with Spirit but perhaps it’s another human being who can be a more successful channel to that contact. And maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I remember reading Milton’s Paradise Lost at university and loving his portayal of Satan and Adam. His Adam is not the gullible soul sometimes portayed in anti-feminist religious writings. He knows what Eve has done is wrong but his love for her is so strong that he chooses to follow Eve and be damned with her rather than live in Eden without her. I’m not good at deferred gratification so I would choose like Adam for the ‘now’ of Eve rather than the ‘later’ of what life might be like without her. Love is one of our strongest motivating emotions and to live without it is limiting. With 2014 approaching it’s time for resolutions so I’m send out to the Universe my desire to be open in mind and heart to all opportunities and I’ll see where that takes me. Wherever it is, it’ll be an exciting journey, with or without a companion.

 

Revenge

My new novel is about revenge and how betrayals and broken dreams can turn someone into a killer. I’ve been watching a lot of crime programmes here in Holland on the ID Channel and have been noting how many of the murders have been motivated by revenge. One particularly horrific case was about a mother who killed all four of her children to get back at the husband who dumped her. That shocked me much more than all the men who killed their wives because they either thought, or they were, cheating on them. Maybe I have low expectations of men and believe them much more capable of heinous acts than women, which says a lot about my conditioning. Women are expected to be the caring, nurturing partner, the men the hunter-gatherers, so when a woman commits a murder she is judged much more harshly than a male counterpart.

Myra Hindley is a case in point. There have been men who have committed the same sort of acts that she did but she’s remembered because a) she’s a woman b) because as a woman she was able to lure the kids to their deaths c) she was the first female serial killer to be ‘discovered’ and was the subject of so much media attention. Obviously she wasn’t motivated by revenge and what she did doesn’t bear thinking about. But she shocked us into accepting that women are capable of committing those kinds of crimes.

Revenge is an act usually conducted after some time stewing over jealousies. It is cold and calculated but I wonder what, once the act is committed, what the revenger feels. I’ve had spats with people and secretly wished them ill. I’ve never acted on my feelings except when something bad happened to them I had a smug sense of ‘Serves you right’. But that feeling is short-lived and I can never hold onto that smugness for very long. Feelings of revenge that lead someone to murder are obviously much more powerful and I wonder whether once the act has been committed whether there’s any real satisfaction at all. So much time and energy has been invested in planning and executing the revenge, there’s a focus and purpose that drives people forward, so when that is no longer there, do they feel deflated rather than elated? I don’t know the answer to that and for my character in the novel I’ll have to use my imagination.

Earlier this year I worked collaboratively with my son, Elliot Nichol. He’s a fine art photographer living in Malta and a fine art exhibition in St Julian’s Bay. I used the images from the exhibition and wrote poems to accompany them that were on a Greek myth theme, which we then published in a book. (See http://www.elliotnicholphotography.com.) Here are two of them. The first is about Amphitrite who was Poseidon’s wife. Being a king he had lots of consorts and she had to put up with that.

Amphitrite’s Pool

Wild fruit of the seas,
the wash of tides covet her beauty.
In the lift and creak of the ocean
her power is beyond appearances
beyond meaning.

Here in the weft and weave
of water she waits
splinters of coral in her eyes,
stabbing pain of longing
for the ecstasy of being his.

She understands the language of the sea;
flutes of currents through shipwrecks,
folding dark echoing against rocks
clotted with smells of seaweed
and sea-bleached sand.

Yet the weeds of her mind are cruel;
incandescent imaginings
scurry like crabs across trust,
unfurl an anger brittle as bone.
She threads storms to make a blanket,

catches the first breath of deceit.

The second poem is about Medea who gave a poisoned wedding dress to her lover’s bride; it burst into flames and killed her. She also killed all her children to get back at him.

Medea’s Revenge

The love you gave me
blisters my skin with lies.
You have betrayed me.

The gown I gave her
incinerates like passion—
she will not have you.

The children I bore you
scorch my eyes with memories.
Killing is easy

Home

I discovered something about myself the other day. I’m in Holland staying at my brother’s flat while he’s away on holiday. It’s the first time I’ve been here and I don’t know the area very well so I set off on an exploratory walk. Usually I walk in grids so that I can orientate myself back and the grids get wider and wider each day until I’ve worked out the topography of the place. Anyway, I set off and was having a great time. Everyone uses a bicycle here and it’s very tempting to do the same because you can travel a lot further, easier, using less energy. But I like to explore on foot, to fix in my consciousness the streets and houses, and where they are in relation to everything else. I also like to look in more detail at the houses and gardens, shops and public buildings, architecture, design and landscaping. So off I went.

It was a warm, sunny day and for once my hip wasn’t bothering me. I’d been resting it for a few days and that seemed to have paid off. I wandered around streets and shopping areas until I came to a long, straight road so I set off on that, having fixed the spire of the church as a landmark in case I got lost. I was determined to make the most of the day and my level of fitness. It had been raining for days and some of the paths were flooded but I plunged through, eager to find out where the road led to. I ended up near the motorway that leads into the Vlissingen, the next town, and followed the cycle paths that led me down to one of the tow paths along a canal (pronounced ‘kennel’ here). The sun was behind me, dark clouds in front of me, and I got an odd sense of dizziness and disorientation.

I thought I might be taking ill again but soon discounted that theory because I felt fine otherwise. I’ve felt like this before, so wondered if the problem lay in my ears and some sort of vertigo, which I have suffered from in the past. I checked this by shaking my head but the dizziness didn’t get worse so I ruled that out. I kept on walking and my mind wandered, as it often does. I remembered feeling like that on different holidays, particularly those in the southern hemisphere. I’d put that all down to jet lag, but as I was walking I became more and more aware of the sun at my back. I thought it must be giving me some sort of sunstroke, then for no reason a thought popped into my head, ‘East to West’. I had no idea what it meant but kept pondering. I’m not very good at direction and compass points, but with the sun at my back that time of day I was walking north along the tow path. So what? Then it struck me – most of my journeys at home are either west, from my home, east to my family and back again. When I go walking, I seem to go in the same direction and in all the houses I’ve lived in I’ve been happiest with my bed facing east-west. My current home drives me crazy because the garden faces north and is cold and dark. I had to change everything around inside which I now realize is on an east-west line. How odd is that?

I’m currently working on a novel that involves feng shui and compass points so that’s obviously why this has arisen. But I find it interesting that despite being someone who takes ages to work out directions, I’m suddenly consciously aware of them when I had little or no awareness before. I suppose it’s a bit like being on a diet and suddenly you notice all the adverts for food. Once an idea breaks through then your brain is good at spotting other instances and coincidences. Yet I do think there’s something inherent about directions that used to be vital for our survival and which we’re now losing. We no longer live and navigate by the stars because we have equipment to do that for us, but whatever homing pigeon facility we used to have as a species has not been eradicated completely. At least I hope not.

I was born in the North-East of England and now live in South-West Scotland. My main line of travel is along the A75 and A69 from home to family. It’s as if my body is attuned to travelling between those two directions. Even when I’m completely lost, in the dark and on unfamiliar roads, I can always eventually find my way back to either ‘home’. I’m an east-west girl with a spiritual home in Scotland and an emotional home in NE England, but even though the forces that drive me are much more than magnetic pulls, or waxing and waning of the moon, there’s no denying they have their effects on me. And home, at the end of the day, is really where you are.