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Volume 34.2
Summer 2003

book review

Arrow of Stones: Haibun
by Ken Jones


Reviewed by Michael McClintock

Arrow of Stones, Haibun by Ken Jones, with Japanese translations by Nobuyuki Yuasa and Akiko Sakaguchi (Essex, England: British Haiku Society, 2002). 5I" x 6G", 64 pages, perfect softbound. ISBN 0-95223974-4. £5.00, ¥1,000 ($10.00 postpaid airmail printed paper rate to the USA) from The BHS Bookshop, Sinodun, Shalford, Essex CM7 5.5N, United Kingdom.

This bilingual edition features eleven of Ken Jones’s short one- and two-page haibun, which contain about sixty haiku; half of the book is in English, the other half in Japanese. Jones is a leading haibunist in the United Kingdom, some of his earlier work appeared in Pilgrim Foxes (Pilgrim Press, 2001), a collection co-authored with Irish writers Jim Norton and Sean O’Connor. David Cobb, Arwyn Evans, Jonathan Buckley, David Walker, and George Marsh are other names strongly associated with haibuneering in Great Britain. Jones has practiced Zen for several decades, written books on socially engaged Buddhism, and currently makes his home in Ceredigion, Wales, with his Irish wife, Noragh.

In an introduction of nearly 3,000 words, Jones briefly sketches the origins of haibun in Japan, cites the work of Bashô, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Sôseki as found in the translations of Nobuyuki Yuasa and Makoto Ueda (the only translators he mentions), and then moves on to his primary concerns: establishing standards for Western haibun, highlighting issues, and proposing criteria. He is not a happy canvasser, observing:

A large proportion of Western haibun are bald narratives rendered in colourless and banal prose, with a bland earnestness devoid of feeling, irony or any subtlety. Their inconsequential themes meander nowhere, and many read like nature walk guides, or holiday letters, or just casual, prosaic anecdotes.

Jones’s first criteria involve an expectation of fundamental literary quality: does the haibun have any? Specifically, does it have “a theme which is shaped, crafted and polished to some creative end?” As a corollary, Jones states that in haibun “Poetic truth should be set above factual narrative, but always on a bedrock of authentic experience.” Jones discusses four additional “clusters of criteria” which appear, basically, to be drawn from the first. His second and third criteria insist that “the haibun shows rather than tells,” and that the haiku “need to be strong in their own right … in turn powering up the prose.” Fourth, he calls for a style of haibun that is “multi-dimensional in its treatment, with a richly layered textual density” and, fifth, that is “enriched by historical, mythical or similar cultural treatment.”

Whether or not we agree that these are the best criteria for haibun in English, Jones is being up front and emphatic about his own objectives as a haibunist. He has taken great pains—in seven pages of text—to explain something about his most favored methods, techniques, and subject matter.

Jones’s interests in myth, legend, folklore, and history are shared by other haibunists in Great Britain, particularly Arwyn Evans and David Cobb. Time and human memory are among Jones’s special preoccupations. In his haibun the present moment has no clear-cut edge or boundary, and time is experienced as a layered dimension. The narrator shows a constant, persistent awareness of a past that has left its bones and ghosts and nearness everywhere over the landscape. That landscape is both objectively perceived and subjectively, emotionally understood; concrete details are embedded in a prose of reflection. Here is an excerpt from “A Skylark’s Song:”

Before the war
in some heavy-furnished foreign inn
that mezzotint

The Peak cannot be seen from any settled place, only from ruins. Like that shepherd’s cottage at the head of the pass, still protected by its storm-wrecked pines. A dream mountain, misty, remote, forlorn, long since adrift from time and place. Across the Great Waste, at the world’s end it lies. At its summit meet the domains of three lords, their names long lost, if ever known. The one rules that pathless forest of dwarf oak to the north; the second a tumble of crags and drops; the third the great moor, with its meres and bogs.

Peak of the Three Lords
at the ford
I wash the mud from my boots

Beyond, the summit never gets nearer. Never. Mabinogian. Morte d’Arthur. How can this ever be reached or told?

In these haibun, we read much about the isolated, hidden dwelling, the odd and imposing landmark. Jones has, in more senses than one, conjured up the spirits of his Welsh, Irish, and other landscapes. Another example, from “There Is No Time. What Is Memory?”:
It stands on the edge of Mynydd Bach, a desolate upland. Rocky hillocks rise among the ginger bogs. Here and there a few storm-wrecked trees around a pile of stones mark the site of ty un-nos. A hovel built in a night. Dawn smoke from its chimney gave legal title.

Summer evening long ago
rusty horse rake
tall rushes through its spokes

And there it is—I remember the slate slab. talfryn and a lively painting hand. Walking up its track, somehow you can sense when the life has gone out of a house.

Sagging bench
facing out towards the western sea
how many sunsets?

In all of this, there is an overriding tone of elegy, or ode, abutting upon a kind of existential hardness, if not quite despair. The localities described are frequently weird, secretive, and almost always isolated; the narrative style flickers in and out of present and past with a strange, compelling matter-of-factness. The surreal never seems too far away; one begins to sense that Jones is on a quest for some revelation involving his own selfhood and personal identity, as much as he is intent on discovering something essential about the mysteries of time and place.
Overall, Arrow of Stones is a must-read for anyone interested in the development of English-language haibun, particularly by one of the United Kingdom’s most prolific, widely-read exponents of the form. The direction Jones has taken is unique, and his voice distinctive, personal, and complex.



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