Monday, November 12, 2007

Review of Ken Jones' THE PARSLEY BED and STALLION'S CRAG

The Parsley Bed: Haiku Stories by Ken Jones. Pilgrim Press: Cwmrheidol, Wales, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-9539-9014-6. Perfect bound, 5 ¼ x 7 ½ inches, 122 pp. Send $15 US, $17 CDN, or 15 EUR in currency notes or £7.25 in a sterling cheque directly to the author: K. Jones, Troedrhiwsebon, Cwmrheidol, Aberystwyth, Wales, SY23 3NB, UK.

Stallion’s Crag: Haiku and Haibun by Ken Jones. Iron Press: Cullercoats, Northumberland, England, 2003. Perfect bound, 4 x 5 ½ inches, 104 pp. Send $15 US, $17 CDN, or 15 EUR in currency notes or £7.25 in a sterling cheque directly to the author: K. Jones, Troedrhiwsebon, Cwmrheidol, Aberystwyth, Wales, SY23 3NB, UK.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

The Parsley Bed generously collects 35 haibun and 75 haiku of the Welsh poet, Ken Jones. Divided into five roughly equal sections (each division consisting of five to eight prose entries with a brief postscript of a dozen or more related haiku), the many haibun, by their great variety of subject matter and tone, demonstrate the impressive scope and indelible prose style of one of the foremost practitioners of this genre today.

Whether Jones assays an elegiac mode as in “Clinkers” (a memory of a distant childhood and more distant father), a wry and black vein of humor as in “End Game” (a recounting of the author’s dealings with a cantankerous crematorium manager and his chiseling of his own gravestone), a topographical survey as in “Consuming Light” (a homage to Van Gogh upon a visit to Saint-Rémy) or a character sketch as in “Per Ardua ad Astra” (an intimate close-up of a retired mechanical engineer named Uncle Jack), the author time and again demonstrates a mastery of conception and execution, however unpromising the material, at first sight, might appear.

Space limitations prohibit more than a cursory survey, but two haibun, in particular, may suffice to show Jones at his best.

“Posts” concerns itself, Jones informs us, not with “gate-posts, boundary posts and other posts that have something obvious to do” but with their long-abandoned brethren:

Particularly in wild places they are welcome companions. Well-weathered, they have been left alone long enough to have developed a bit of character. When plodding across the moor, one can see one of these fellows approaching from quite a distance…. It is an honour to salute such a venerable but well set-up post.

Against the sky
a slotted post
its bright blue eye

But beware of clapping one of these ancient too heartily upon the back. Many have been retired longer than their useful employment. And they rot from the bottom upwards.
(p. 43)

This intimacy with “Posts” continues for another hundred words or more and two further haiku, with increasing humor, as the author describes the “old salts you meet on the sea shore” and denies any anthropomorphism in his willingness to “go out of my way to see how some lonely old post is getting on.” Whereas Jones assures his reader that “the whole point about posts is that they’re only posts,” one need not leap far to see in

Blockheaded posts
their thin shins
gnawed by the tides
(p. 44)

an image or reflection of the human condition.

The second haibun, “The Knife Grinder,” achieves near perfection in its prose rhythms and in the vision it relates. One might lay stress upon the word vision insofar as this work, while presenting its subject in a matter-of-fact and realistic way, gradually assumes an oneiric character and remarkable grandeur in its 300 odd words:

Down by the gate I recognize the tricycle contraption from his previous visit, some four years ago. The same old pig-tailed hippy, with his faded army surplus fatigues and shamanic accoutrements of bead and bone. Last time I’d turned him away. Who needs a knife grinder in this outback, where every man and woman has their own means of keeping their edges sharp ― or dull ― as needed? But this time it is different …

Hollow knock ―
the rattle of wind chimes
made of bones

I sit him in the kitchen, put on the kettle, and go out to the barn to sort out my own blunt edges….

There’s something about him. I spill tea ― as out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a gothic devil’s face. But then, as he pauses at the door, an archaic smile.
(p. 83)

Then, later:

Through the window I watch him set up the tricycle in the yard.

Peddling away
in a shower of sparks
spittle on the blade

“Lovely scythe you have,” he says.
“No I don’t.”
“Up in the rafters it was,” says he. “A keen edge to it again. In three or four years ― it all depends ― I’ll be back for you, boyo.”

He turns the corner
but his evening shadow
lingers on the road
(pp. 83-84)

One is tempted to apply the term allegory or dream-vision here for the figure of the title recalls medieval representations of a visit by Death personified, often in the trappings of some commonplace disguise. The “shamanic” beads and bones, the “gothic devil’s face” that is inexplicably transformed into “an archaic smile,” the “sparks” from the sharpening of the “lovely scythe” that our poet denies any knowledge of possessing, even the shadow that “lingers on the road” after the knife grinder departs: every image is intimately connected to a vision of death’s near approach as is the antagonist’s promise, “I’ll be back for you, boyo.”

While The Parsley Bed constitutes this Welshman’s fourth collection of haibun, Ken Jones has developed a public reputation in haiku circles, at least on this side of the Pond, as being recondite and obscure, cold and intellectual, austere and inaccessible. What lies behind such misapprehension is the reception ― sometimes begrudging in its praise, sometimes scarcely veiled in its hostility ― first accorded to the next title under discussion.

Stallion’s Crag, published four years ago, offers a tripartite design that opens with the title work, a 6000 word haibun that revolves around the mountain of Pumlumon (or Plynlimon) in central Wales, moves on to a little anthology of 60 haiku, and concludes with a selection of shorter haibun. While the individual haiku and shorter haibun have much to commend them, the discussion, due to space considerations, will be limited to the ambitious title piece, the work that led to such misunderstanding on the part of so many North American reviewers.

Many of the complaints of obscurity and austerity originate with the specifically local subject matter of Welsh topography, folklore and history so central to Stallion’s Crag. Jones immerses his reader with few preliminaries in the barely inhabited wilderness of Pumlumon, of the deforestation of its mountainous expanse, of its gradual depopulation through foreign (English) occupation and, of critical importance to the author, the central role of the mountain in the tragic history of the last Welsh war of independence led by Owain Glyndwr, Prince of Wales, in the early 15th century:

I soon dismissed this bleak, featureless wasteland when I first came here as a youth in search of excitement. Even today there is only one car park, unofficial and usually empty. Instant drama begins further north, on Cadair Idris. There, if you spend only a night on the summit you will at least awaken either mad or a poet. Pumlumon takes longer. Half a century in my case. (p. 12)

“Either mad or a poet”: the two terms are inextricably connected from ancient times, from Plato’s divine frenzy ― no, even further back, to the intimate tribal connection between shamans and poetry across many ancient cultures.

Jones, however, haunts the waste of Pumlumon as a modern-day Welshman, an avowed Buddhist and sometime hermit, a poet, the tribe to whom he swears fealty being one that vanished, for all purposes, with the tragic heroism and legendary exploits of a 15th century prince.

Some local shepherds refer to “the Prince” as if he were still a local resident. Perhaps he is. “Myn Duw, mi wn y daw” (“My God, I know he will come”) sings the national pop star, Dafydd Iwan. (p. 19)

The motif of the hermit, long dear to Chinese and Japanese literature, is often evoked in these pages, often with reverence, often with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor on the poet’s part:

My way, however, lies west up the wild valley of the Gwerin. Its entrance is guarded by a crag, surmounted by the only pine in a dozen miles. Dramatically bonsai’d by the westerlies, it has survived the sheep by growing out of a deep cleft …. As to that solitary pine, my hermit name is Coedn ar yr Mynydd (“Tree on the Mountainside”) ― I Ching hexagram 53. There is a wonderful word disgwylfa, for a place of watching and watchfulness …. (pp. 26-27)

Or, later on, in a brief scene or ironic self-portraiture:

“How interesting, but what do hermits actually do?” she asked, balancing a wine glass in one hand.

The main concern of this one is not to be in the same place and time as the clouds of midges which share my habitat…. In fact this hermit’s job description is a blank; just bare attention, disgwylgar, to be all here and not somewhere else, and to let the mountain do the rest. (p. 39)

The alleged obscurity and coldness of Stallion’s Crag might be judged largely a by-product of what, for many, is an unyielding, forbidding and alien landscape, of the desolate but exotic Welsh tenor of the work overall. However, allusions that the author makes to Welsh or Zen Buddhist matters are not particularly arcane and, where one verges upon the questionable, Jones commonly provides an immediate aside to aid the uninitiated.

The Parsley Bed and Stallion’s Crag, together, present some of the finest English-language haibun to date, work that is truly groundbreaking, and both are essential reading for the person who wants to understand what the genre is and what it might yet become. Both books are nicely produced as trade paperbacks while Stallion’s Crag, with its crinkled rice-like papers and ‘watermarked’ “solitary pine” as a background for the tasteful typography on every page, is one of the most aesthetically pleasing haikai books in print.


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

1 comment:

Charles said...

What a great response Jones makes to the question: What do hermits actually do?