Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Review of Jim Kacian's BORDER LANDS

Border Lands by Jim Kacian. Red Moon Press: Winchester, VA, 2006. ISBN: 1-893959-58-9. Saddle stapled, softbound, 4 x 6 inches, 68 pp., $12.00 US.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

This attractively produced, shirt-pocket sized volume is that relative rarity in its genre, the book-length haibun. Jim Kacian ― co-founder of the World Haiku Association, former editor of Frogpond, owner of Red Moon Press ― presents, in Border Lands, a modern staple of haibun literature: the travel journal. Not content to assemble a disparate collection of individual pieces, the author demonstrates an ability too often lacking in poetic circles of Eastern and Western persuasion: the disciplined skill necessary to construct a book.

The poet is summoned to this journey to the Balkans, to Serbia, to attend the funeral of a distant friend’s father and, in fulfilling this obligation, surveys an ancient culture torn apart by ethnic and civil war. Though the rite of burying the dead is the very cause of Kacian’s pilgrimage, the funeral itself, although the pivot or centerpiece of the narration, plays a truly marginal role in Border Lands. The author, instead, is concerned with the journey proper ― the going out, the coming back. He states why in his very succinct foreword to the book:

Once in a great while we are fortunate enough to witness something of great significance outside our usual ken. The rest of life is preparation for such moments. The question is not whether or not we will be able to cross the line once we have come to it, but what we will be when the time has come, and if we are able, to cross back.

Kacian, who carries with him not only a backpack but a justifiable anxiety about crossing a country at the brink of war, is quickly immersed in a landscape physically ravished by a history of exploitation

These mountains, stripped of their hardwood forests by Venetian shipbuilders at the behest of merchants more than five centuries ago, are mere karst now, the bones of mountains, yet they appear no less impenetrable….

and depopulated by the current conflict:

Darkness is overtaking us. We still have fifty miles to sustain before we stop. The first sickle of the waxing moon is dead ahead, and nearly nestled in its arc, the steady gleam of a planet, red, Mars….

ancient road
wearing away
my share

We have arrived in Z.’s native place. It is now a farming village, a few hundred souls, but once it was a sizeable market town. The church is dedicated to Sveti Sava, patron of travelers and poets. A small waterfall flows down the ancient steps, worn in the center by innumerable feet….

The poet follows briefly with a sketchy description of the village and preparations for the burial:

lighting a votive
for the living
with one for the dead

Then, with the simple words, “And then it is done…,” Kacian shifts boldly away from the motive that directed his narrative through the first half of Border Lands and directs the reader’s attention to what, at first, appears as nothing more than a tourist’s detour: a previously planned meeting with another friend to climb in the Alps. While the segue is abrupt and unexpected, the poet, with a steady hand, guides the reader, in this fashion, through the first steps of the journey home:

The air is light and incredibly bracing. It smells of snow and rock, old and unsullied. We can’t breathe enough of it in, after the smoke and catarrh of the keening. We speak in great fogs which dissipate instantly…. I want to carry that with me all the way down the mountain, back through the city, through the country, through the air, all the way back home.

This trip to the Alpine summit acts, also. as a purification ritual after the preceding immersion in war, death and desolation. Kacian is preparing himself for the “coming back”

returning home
the chessmen have maintained
my lost position

The irony of the haiku is self-evident and requires no exegesis. It foreshadows, in a quiet but moving way, the final return as well as serving to highlight the ambivalent position of Kacian who is caught up and inexorably changed somewhere between the anxiety of a strange land and the comfort of home, between the going out and the coming back:

The next morning we arrive at the airport in plenty of time, then sit in a smoky bar without saying much. The airport is brightly lit, generic, not any place specific but a place between places; really, no place.

The structure of Border Lands can be summarized quickly. The narrative proceeds episodically from one brief prose notation to the next, not one of which exceeds two pages, while these several entries are linked together by the intermission of three to four haiku that expand upon the prose exposition.

Border Lands challenges the reader to follow its author’s example and to question his own honored values and assumptions, to measure his private and local vision against a public and universal reality. In doing so, Kacian eloquently but modestly illustrates his personal courage and his indelible artistry.

reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
first published in Lynx XXII:3, October 2007

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