HCSHR 4:21—Ray Rasmussen, Landmarks: A Haibun Collection.
HCSHR 4:21—Ray Rasmussen, Landmarks: A Haibun Collection. Haibun Bookshelf Publications, 2015. 978-0994813800, 114 pages. Available from Amazon.
Review by Pearl Pirie
I was at the evil empire of Amazon, who are wonderful at curating reviews and recommendations, when this title was suggested to me. Landmarks is a tight collection, perhaps the best collection of haibun I’ve read. That's not surprising, I suppose. Ray Rasmussen, the former haibun editor of a variety of journals, has been writing haibun and about haibun for decades. The stories in this collection are grounded, alert, amiable and articulate, the haiku striking.
At the back is a Q&A, over a page of haibun resources online as well as an essay on haibun. Rasmussen describes haibun as personal storytelling. It may be turned into literary micro-stories that may be fiction. Each has tight prose with a spark and leap to a haiku. They are their own beast from prose poetry or flash fiction.
Haibun can be fragmentary like prose poems. Terse as verse. Perhaps one paragraph.
In his own writitng, Rasmussen includes dialogue, relates stories and easy-going reflective anecdotes. Most are one-to-two pages before one haiku. You can pull up a chair as he shares as an equal. He relates that time he helped a friend pack up his ex-wife’s things, or a couple talking about a duck they saw, about being in the ER, or closing down the classroom after the last lecture. These are friendly, approachable, relatable vignettes — written with polished language, as considered as a “studied blankness” (p. 54), “ice crusted creek” (p. 33), or “a wicker creel slaps at my side” (p. 60).
In “birds of a flock” (p. 54) Rasmussen shares of walking as a street photographer and the suspicion in the eyes of young men, the same territorial look he remembers from peers when he was their age. The leap to the haiku hinges and pivots from the idea of gang, flock to
dark alley —
a black cat
That gives some tangent to chew. Who is the cat, who is the sparrow? The photographer hunts, presumes self innocent and domesticated, yet the lens intrudes on the sparrows, scares them off at the least. Or is the black cat a young tough in black and tattoos, the potential prey who should watch her step and be ready to fly off? No doubt it is both and can be read both ways. It weighs other and self, and the options of engaging and of how we engage. Rasmussen raises consciousness of talking instead, breaking through the barrier. Merge into the crowd, ruffle no feathers.
The stories often have a good natured air of how we all fumble forward best as we can. In “Weighing In” the men decide they need to lose weight and talk among themselves. The dialogues carry the tone. There’s a comic end (spoiler alert) of discussing how much an hour’s walk burns in calorie versus sliver of pie. The link and shift to the gesture of a sliver of pie connects the haiku
on the far horizon —
The goal being as far away as the moon is implied in the context. It fits retroactively as one reads but is an unpredictable leap as one goes forward in first reading.
Drifting by Marco Fraticelli (Catkin Press, 2013) started with archival journal prose and the leaping point of what he wrote made new haiku to create haibun. In “Monk’s Journey” Rasmussen uses a different method: he starts with Basho poems and intercuts a conversation between lovers about monks, dating and moving on. It is a unique way to structure a new piece of writing.
In another haibun, “The Reader,” Rasmussen uses as a springboard Ted Kooser’s poem “Selecting a Reader.” Rasmussen regales us with who the ideal reader to receive his writing is: a woman, romantic, on a hillside picnic with him, requesting he read his writing which she loves. It’s an interesting elaboration. What would be the scene I would picture my ideal reader in when the read? What is their posture? Or pasture? What are they eating? What season is it? What response do they have to my writing that piques their interest?
Rasmussen’s haibun are often direct, plain-spoken but vulnerable and frank. Finding a cancer spot that the doctor removes, we are with him with the scalpel and stitches and the odd sense of being fundamentally different. When he comes home, his daughter doesn’t glance up from the phone when saying hi, but everything is changed. As after a vacation you come back and say, do I live here, are these my things, do I know these neighbours?
The haibun are good to read for content and style, and to reread for both kinds of reading pleasure.