I opened the email and scanned the reminder for an upcoming poetry retreat; I had registered for The Art of the Moment: Haiku and Haibun, in late spring. Now it was October, and just over a month since my father had passed away from ALS. I had envisioned the day to be a respite, possibly an infusion of creativity amidst our family’s stress, but never realized that by the fall he would be gone.
I considered canceling, unsure that I had the focus, or even the desire, to write. I worried my grief would spill over, out of context, in small group discussions. ALS had stripped my father’s body slowly at first. He needed help with buttons and jar lids, the clip on the dog’s leash. Then like an avalanche, he lost his balance, his leg strength, and every intricate hand movement that allowed his independence. In the end, the effects of ALS consumed our family, even when Dad was admitted to a nursing facility for full time care. I feared I didn’t have enough distance from his death to be able to process anything on paper.
I had never heard of haibun before, though, and was intrigued. The retreat was just a 20-minute drive from my home, and I didn’t want to regret not going, so last minute on a brisk autumn morning, I packed a notebook and pens in my bag and decided to go. As I drove away from my neighborhood and into our local mountains, the morning sun strobed through the tree line, flashing patterns over my windshield. I flipped the visor down to shield my eyes, continued slowly uphill, through winding roads that must have been wagon trails in earlier times.
Donna Baier Stein, author and founding publisher of Tiferet Journal, hosted the retreat in her home. The wide open front door casually offered a welcome; I entered and found my way into the kitchen, where other poets stood around the center island, pouring tea and coffee and chatting introductions and greetings. Large windows extended the view into landscape and the surrounding woods. The house, nestled into a hill, overlooked some treetops on the property’s far edge. Summer-green foliage held fast but competed with butter-yellows and pentecostal reds that had already turned. One by one, about 10 of us, wandered into the living room and sat down.
A sofa and various chairs were arranged in a circle. Our retreat leader, author and poet Adele Kenny, introduced herself and shared her passion for poetry, and for helping others craft their work. As she spoke, my lingering tensions eased, and I settled deeper into my chair.
Traditional haiku consist of 17 on, or morae (sound symbols) in phrases of 5-7-5. Although this rule is commonly understood as American syllables, this is a loose translation not essential to the form. Adele gave the group a prompt, “distant thunder,” a few minutes to compose our lines, and encouraged us to start with 10-20 syllables in a three-line format, focusing on a single, seasonal moment.
As a hobby photographer, I often paired haiku with images I posted on Instagram, which was a first-step back to writing poetry after a decades-long hiatus. Haiku complimented my photographer’s eye, where I can craft angle, lighting, shadow and depth of field in a single frame. Attempts to produce poems without a visual referent challenged me, but as we shared our haiku around the circle, I witnessed the possibilities of this little form. The verse varied with each poet in the group; despite its simplicity, the haiku captured a slant of elegance, violence and infinite facets of nature.
During our mid-morning break, I wandered back to the windows. Dad loved the woods, especially in autumn; one comfort was that he wouldn’t be hostage to his failing flesh while his season blazed outside the window. I peered up to the skylights in the ceiling, traced the shadows they made over our sunny retreat space, appreciated the clear New Jersey sky overhead.
After break, the discussion turned to the haibun, which combines prose poetry with haiku, first recorded by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho in his travel journals. The subject of a haibun can range from autobiography, a moment in time, a physical or internal journey, an emotional travel journal and beyond. Typically, a paragraph of prose is followed by haiku, though the structure can be flexible: several prose paragraphs and one final haiku, alternating prose/haiku for several paragraphs, haiku to begin (less common).
Without wholly defining an experience, images and impressions set a mood by connecting bits and pieces of a story. Conventional grammar and punctuation rules are as bent and fluid as willow branches. Prose poetry, as Adele explained to our group that morning, often contains “a nod to the surreal.” The prose and the haiku portions complement each other, although the haiku isn’t merely the last line of the poem. It can serve as closure, or a jumping off point for the reader’s experience, an invitation of sorts, to extend the poetic journey.
Mid-afternoon, we dispersed for time to free write. Some found nooks inside the house, others wandered the scenic yard. I chose to stay in my seat; I gazed up to the skylight, once again, and watched a leaf drift to the glass. Overcome with memory, I wrote.
My sister and I, and our dear friend were with my father in his palliative care room the morning that he passed. Danielle curled up next to him on the bed, Chris by his feet; I stood beside them, one hand on Dad’s head, one hand on his chest, over his heart. As he breathed his last, the sensation of his soul lifting from the cage of his body reverberated through me. Washed me in peace as I grieved.
A few weeks after the retreat, I finally finished my first of many haibun.
I slide my Converse off and perch in half-lotus on the armless chair. Ribs spiral away from the spine—I inhale. Exhale, ribs roll in. Spiral away, roll in. Away.
Through the skylight, no cirriform wisp, no crows; simply blue until the leaf. Dry veins, frail—it lands on the skylight.
Last month Dad shed his body for flight. Away.
With time and practice, I have come to enjoy crafting poetry in these three forms (haiku, haibun and prose poem). The forms aren’t interchangeable––without hard and fast rules, sometimes a prose poem is just that, and doesn’t require the haiku for resolution. A haiku may stand on its own more resolutely than any prose could help accomplish. Once in a while, something as poignant as a small brown leaf is the spark for haibun magic.
Photo by Bùi Linh Ngân, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post b Michelle Rinaldi Ortega.