Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Fowler's New Anglo-Japanese Blues

James Fowler, Falling Ashes: Haibun, Haiku, Senryu, & Other Poems

Remember your high school instruction on writing haiku? Remember counting syllables, imagining happy splashing frogs, and crafting something so ethereal and useless that you despised your own words? (Or was that just me?) Tear all that up, it has nothing to do with real Japanese haiku. Instead, behold this glimmering, untitled gem:
a taxi arrives
my neighbor takes down
her yellow ribbon
US Navy veteran James Fowler served an extended hitch in Japan, learning the language and the people’s ways, and emerged with a distinct fondness for traditional Japanese verse. Like the haiku above, they generally don’t have titles, and concise imagery matters more than syllable count. As above, true haiku usually have no titles, and leave eager, attentive readers with more questions than answers.

Note, for instance, that Fowler’s neighbor has memorialized her absent husband (son? brother?) with a yellow ribbon. Yet she doesn’t greet him at the gate; he has to purchase a ride home. A yellow taxi for a yellow ribbon? The memorial goes away, but the memory of her soldier’s absence cannot vanish so easily. Fowler captures a moment in time, but doesn’t let us process it flippantly.

Fowler gracefully appropriates traditional Japanese verse for a modern setting, expunging generations of accumulated Western fake rules. Sure, Matsuo Bashō wrote about waving reeds and temple bells, but these were contemporary touchstones in feudal Japan. Like Bashō, Fowler uses older forms to describe the world he sees, in brief, uncluttered moments of surprising clarity.

Also, Fowler combines forms much like Bashō did, such as the haibun, a brief prose essay interrupted by snippets of verse. Some haibun run under fifty words, a quick dip into a moment, as poetically compact as the poetry around them. Take, for example, the fleeting, possibly hilarious moment captured in “Yokohama”:

In Chinatown I try to pass a pastry shop, but the scent of sweet-bean-curd and the sight of steam rising from the dumpling basket entice me to enter. I buy a dumpling and half-a-dozen fish-shaped cookies.
I eat a cookie
three uniformed schoolgirls
giggle and look down
Fowler trades primarily in themes of outsidership. First as the gaijin outsider discovering Japan, then as the veteran relearning his homeland after a twenty-year absence, he brings a worldview uncluttered by lifelong learned prejudices. This permits him to inject his verse and prose with unforced clarity, and as in the haibun above, moments of remarkable comedy.

Skirting the boundaries between Eastern and Western civilizations, Fowler manages to evade tedious “Inscrutable Orient” stereotypes that annoy cultural explorers and literary critics. He doesn’t use Japanese poetry as virtuoso performance or glib finger exercise. His focus on haiku’s intent rather than Westernized form frees him to write, essentially, about himself.

In that regard, Fowler resembles less Matsuo Bashō, more Sylvia Plath. Not in form, but in skillful, almost invisible use of his own questions, doubts, and aspirations as poetic inspiration. Having married late, for instance, he composes in a simultaneously loving and unromanticized tone when describing his wife. As veteran of two wars, he achieves plainspoken objectivity about combat.

Moreover Fowler serves to revitalize Western poetry with a shot of Japanese frankness. Later in the book, Fowler writes several typically contemporary non-rhyming English verses. Yet he imbues them with an essentially Japanese image-driven timbre, eschewing typical American linguistic ornament, as in “Poem Made in the Shape of a Burning Buddhist Monk”:
This poem is made to be read aloud
on a crowded street and dropped,
with a match, into a beggar’s bowl.

This poem will lift up in a cloud
of flames. High above, the fire
will burst and feather down upon
the shoulders of those passing by.

There will be many poems read
in the memory of burning monks.
Tears will streak the sooty faces
of the ghosts. Ash will fill their cups.
Read from an Anglo-American perspective, Fowler resembles Sylvia Plath, but rather than making himself the object of his verse, he conceals himself behind images. We glimpse not the poet himself, but his shadow, cast by the images he chooses to foreground. This near-Buddhist clarity communicates with readers, without ever lecturing them, or shanghaiing their insight.

If Western schoolteachers have trivialized haiku, James Fowler reclaims their original essence for curious readers. Audiences grown discouraged on today’s glut of Seventh-Grade open mike poetry will find his near-complete lack of intrusive narration refreshing. And his clear, brisk images free language from its gathered clutter. Here’s hoping more Western poets discover this clarity, and make it a trend.

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