HAIBUN (Judges: Kala Ramesh and Keith Polette)
Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland
There is a parquet floor and four beds.
The one that matters to me is on the right, closest to the door. He is sitting upright, pyjama clad, more shrunken about the chest and arms, this time. The same slightly lopsided smile, his eyes still bright.
We chat of this and that – I forget the details. But then I tell him I have been looking through a few of his old civil engineering books. I say how I came across a discussion on concrete and the crystallisation of calcium silicate. How I was fascinated to see it chimes with my understanding of the way mullite crystals of aluminium silicate bind the particles of ceramic materials when clay is fired in a kiln. I tell him how delighted I am to find this connection between our two lives’ works.
My enthusiasm falters when I realise his gaze is blank. He gives a small, regretful smile and says
‘Guy, I can’t remember that stuff anymore.’
I do not know what to say; the rest of the visit seems obscured, as though through a sound-proof, rain-swept window. As we end this, our last real conversation, he leans back into his pillows and closes his eyes.
T-square and scale
dusty on the drawing board
forgotten slide rule
The haibun is clear and evocative in the manner in which it depicts and dramatizes an ill-fated attempt to recover a relationship with the father, one made irrecoverable by the father’s loss of his hold on memory. The imagery is strong, especially in how the “crystallisation of calcium silicate” and the binding properties of “aluminium silicate” stand in stark contrast to the father’s blank gaze. Especially poignant is the image of the kiln and how it serves as a metaphor for the speaker’s attempt to forge a new relationship, one based on recently found common ground, with the father. In this attempt, though, the forge fails in both its literal and imaginal functions, a failure signified by the father’s final move of closing his eyes, which also directs the reader back to the title, “Too Late,” and its reference to the myriad levels of loss that are described. The haibun ends with an effective haiku, one that talks about how the instruments of measurement and design were once robust with meaning in his father’s life but are now only collecting dust. The haiku also carries an echo of the father’s haunting statement to the speaker, “Guy, I can’t remember that stuff anymore,” as the reader is left with a sense of loss, in which as Eliot wrote, “nothing connects with nothing.”
Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada
On his concertina, Cousin Sonny played a polka and a schottische at my sister’s wedding. When I asked him how he had learned to play, he said that Grandpa had taught him. This was unexpected news. Three days later, I rode my bicycle into the city to see Grandpa and asked him to play for me. He did so, just slow lullabies on a battered concertina I had never seen before. He reached nearly all the right buttons, and most of the notes sounded, though there was some wheezing. It seemed wonderful to me. Later, Grandma told me I should have asked him to let me keep the instrument, but I had never wished for that. What I wish I could have kept was Grandpa. By the next weekend, he was dying. In the hospital, I whispered to him that I had just graduated from high school. He spoke no words, but he reached for my hand and stroked it. There was some wheezing.
certain seeds fall
on fertile ground—
humming by the cradle
This haibun focuses on the complexities of human relationships. The title, the prose, and the haiku coalesce to take the reader into the realm of human failings, which is manifest in the speaker’s attempt to recover from a deep sense of loss. The title conveys the action of loss and recollection by suggesting that the speaker, who was unaware of some important particulars of the grandpa’s life, finds and follows a broken melody in an attempt at reclamation. Particularly effective is the use of “wheezing” as it suggests varying states of consciousness. The haiku is also quite effective in how it articulates how “certain seeds fall on fertile ground.” The last line, which evokes an image of the presence of loved ones, who may be “humming and singing near the cradle,” offers an image of new life, one that is suggestive of the cycle of nature itself.
Santa Cruz, California
empty parking lot
my young husband teaches me
to skid across ice
He is not with me tonight when my car climbs through sleet and tempest, not with me when I crest the coast mountains. A pickup speeds past, spraying my windshield with oil and slush. Ten p.m. Cars waver ahead. They drive like candidates for DUIs. Brake lights flicker on, flicker off. I glimpse a patrol car, its roof strobing red and blue behind a stopped SUV.
I keep just below the limit on the descent. Cars accelerate past and we all swing raggedly into the first curve, the familiar hard right, hard left, rushing toward the Pacific storm.
When I enter the next bend, the road falling steeply to the right, I'm overwhelmed. Both lanes are jam-packed with brake lights, blood-bright. The grease-slick road squeals under all the tires. Beside me, cars rear-end, sideswipe, spinout.
And then he is here. He eases up my foot on the brake till my wheels catch again. He steers toward the crash barrier to straighten my skid, squeezes the brake, pumps the brake, quiets the nails-on-chalkboard screech inside my head. I breathe in, breathe out, his firm hands on the wheel beside mine, his grip dry and holding.
My little car straightens, squeezes between the barrier and the pickups whose drivers have slowed to gawk and block. I drive carefully and relentlessly past the wreckage, eyes on the road, to leave the swerving vehicles behind.
In my rear-view not one headlight follows me past the wreck. I stop in the dark damp at an emergency phone and call it in, my hands trembling, my face salted.
clear mountain air
his ashes float from my fingers
on to snow
This is a haibun with a twist, offering a sense of mystery, which is something that is not frequently found in this genre. The opening haiku seems, on one level, to serve as a kind of predictable exposition of a long story, but the narrative that follows swerves in a new direction. As the haibun proceeds, the reader is left to wonder if the husband, who appears in the fourth paragraph, is a life-saving agent conjured from the speaker’s imagination or a spectre who has suddenly appeared to aid the speaker in avoiding a collision. Overall, the sense of tension and drama are well crafted. The haiku that concludes the haibun offers an image of life.
Kala Ramesh is a poet, editor, and anthologist who received a Pushcart Prize nomination in Modern Haiku (51.3) for her haibun "On Slippery Ground." Her book of haiku and haibun, Beyond the Horizon Beyond, was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize in 2019, and HarperCollins will publish her new book of tanka and tanka prose, The Forest I Know, in July 2021.
Keith Polette lives and writes in El Paso, Texas. His book of haibun, pilgrimage, received the Haiku Society of America's Merit Book Award (2021).