HCSHR 6:14 - Penny Harter, Keeping Time

Keeping Time: Haibun for the Journey: Poems by Penny Harter (Kelsay Books, 2023). ISBN 9781639802913. 95 pages. $23 US. https://kelsaybooks.com/products/keeping-time-haibun-for-the-journey

Reviewed by Pearl Pirie


Born in NYC and much loved in the Haiku Community worldwide, Penny Harter has received many awards and fellowships. She has also been an editor and teacher. Penny Harter is perhaps best known for collaborating with her husband William J. Higginson to write The Haiku Handbook.  


Keeping Time: Haibun for the Journey: Poems by Penny Harter (Kelsay Books, 2023) is the well-polished result of decades at craft. A slim volume at 95 pages, it has over 60 haibun. Some are personal stories, such as "Today's Menu" (p. 69) where she mulls associations over under-appreciated food, her Nana insisting she eat segueing through a haiku pause to visiting Mother-in-law whose habitual answer was the humble, "As good as can be expected". "I remind myself of that as I embrace my morning". The end haiku acts to deepening the spirit of inquiry:


        stuffing my freezer—what is it

        I am hoarding?


An interesting structure to make it two lines but the cut line's gap rushed into, crowded into even in a hoarding density. It reaches back as if to question the choice of consumption, the menu offered, whether there is too much.


I had the good fortune of being able to reread this collection in parallel with Haibun: A Writer's Guide by Roberta Beary, Lew Watts and Rich Youmans (Ad Hoc, 2023).  The Guide reflects on how an exemplary haibun has each part (title, prose body and haiku) carrying its weight of work and adding up to more than the sum of its parts.  All parts feed back into each other, and the end may open a new interpretation for the title. One of their example poems is one of Pennys haibun in Keeping Time (p.44-45), demonstrating how the writer can insert haiku to create islands of rest and additional insight” (p 40). In her haibun "A Thing with Feathers" we see the ideal movement in haibun from title to prose body to haiku, repeated to the end which brings us back to the title again. There's a movement from Dickinson's hope without naming the word, to literal feathers, and each prose section another association with feathers to end on a haiku that hoops us back to the titles while it both intensifies and opens the poem to new directions, (p. 89)


         low tide

         I gather shells

         and their echoes


And those shells and echoes become, because of what came before, a metonym for our earthly shells and memories of those who have since died who we can remember cyclically, when the tide and time is right.


Reading this book was a pleasure that I wanted to tease out longer. I can be waylaid in one haiku for many minutes, such as one on p. 83:


         traces of gossamer

         your fingers across my

         aging cheek


There are so many ways to read it: As brushing cobwebs from a friends face, as fingers being as soft and ephemeral as cobwebs, as the cheek being gossamer soft, as the cheek being traced with fine lines like cobwebs, as gossamer being an elegant insubstantial silken fabric compared to a loving touch.

The sound of gossamer” echoes off across”, while traces” chimes off aging”, and the g and m in gossamer” makes cross-ties with fingers” and my” to make a tight sound package. Another set of words is bundled in sibilance: traces”, gossamer”, finger” and across”. Only cheek” stands out from all the consonance as it is the concrete and now contrasted with the rest which is tethered in insubstantial memory.


Interestingly Harter says her process was making autobiography using her already published haiku rather than writing haiku as she goes.


Split into 3 sections, the first section of the book wavers between childhood and the graves of elders.  “Our words, a flimsy hedge” against loss. Poems circle around whats kept among the memories of travel, declaring the past as our only security” (p. 29).


The second section circles around summer camping with birds as touchstones. It contains some wonderful, luscious turns of phrases such as your cells a colony of thirst, determined to keep it alive” (p. 35). There are images of morality percolating through the riverbanks of poems, such as in White Stone” (p. 40) with a found beach stone, a worry stone like a bear skull its mouth permanently open” which then leaps to a haiku that twists mid-air of page to


         senior centre

         a woman asks for more

         canned fruitcup


Its painful and haunting as a sequence in reveal by reveal. Look at the poem alone, the bear skull cutting to an old thin-skinned head. There is nearness of death of bear and person. Then the old woman, vulnerably asking for more, more life, more as Dickenswastrel. What more does she want? Meekly a cheap small fruit cup which is probably capped to one a person.


It is a section that questions how to put to bed the past and how to make peace with the future. This idea is expressed in Bird Watching (p. 45) as How many origami doves should we fold to hang above the crib of the past?” Theres something surreal and allegorical colouring Relativity” and its story of a found grandfather clock (p. 51-52) that is treasured, abandoned, valued, and let go of.


The third section circles around notions of harvest and autumnal things to the point of snow and the hinge of spring” (p. 91) and looking forward and letting go.


All snow is the same snow, falling through the years” (p. 90) is a mundane observation in a way that we are inside a closed system of a water cycle and yet it feels profound to connect the snow of today with being essentially and molecularly bound to the same flakes of childhood. We are irrevocably impermanent and yet even our gestures are connected to deep time whether we walk, drink water or


         lowering a bucket

         into a spring-fed well

         whose memory


Theres comfort in commonality across millennia.  Somehow it makes a person feel less small and curtailed.


Theres a sense of well-being suffusing the poems "maybe even ready to gracefully dive off the dock and float down with the currant, wherever it takes me, I know I will not drown.” (p. 94).


As a spoiler, she ends the book with the thought that lifes purpose is to love this broken world” and do whatever work we can to praise the light” (p. 95)


Harter has written many books of various genres. This is Harters third book within the last three years. Fans may want to also grab Still water days (Kelsay Books, 2021) and A Prayer the Body Makes (Kelsay Books, 2020) https://www.pennyharterpoet.com/books which are lyric poems coming ”from a place of stillness and deep intention.”


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