Sunday, September 10, 2017
"UNDETECTABLE", COLLECTION OF HAIBUN THAT IS REAL (AND UNTIL NOW-ONLY) WESTERN EQUIVALENT TO BASHO'S "NARROW ROAD TO INTERIOR"
(Kim Goldberg, Undetectable, 2016, Pig Squash Press, Nanaimo, BC, Canada)
A short review by Dimitar Anakiev
"Do not walk the footsteps of the elderly, but ask what they asked for"
There are many Western collections of haibun inspired by Basho's "Oku no Hosomichi" but none of them came close to the artistic achievement of Matsuo Basho. Among others I have read impressive collection of haibun in Croatian "Bijeli cvijet" (White flower), issued 1994 by „Yugoslav Blyth“, Vladimir Devidé and not less impressive book of haibun, A Boy's Season, 2010, by established American haiku poet & editor Cor van den Heuvel. In case of Devidé we find a lot of talent and lack of complexity and inner cohesion while in the case of van der Heuvel we see book written more by will than with talent. "White flower" is quite exciting poetic reading but without bones while "A Boy's Season" offers mainly bones – poetic level is very modest despite 253 haiku poems along 23 pieces of prose.
Differently from Vladimir Devidé and Cor van den Heuvel, Kim Goldberg and Matsuo Basho have many things in common. First of all, both have an authentic approach to life. I doubt that really authentic poetry, authentic art in general, is possible without authentic approach to life. That simply means: accepting the risk of life. Work of Basho and work of Kim Goldberg are direct results of their ability to take risk that creates the dramatic base for their work. Life and work without dramatic base are usually boring or/and artificial. Secondly, both Matsuo Basho and Kim Goldberg, write from clear ideological position, riding the wind of mainstream ideologies of their time and creating a kind of ideological (political) activism. That is quite different from „retro style“ of Devidé, who to some extent tries to imitate Buddhist approach, while van den Heuvel writes from the conservative position of American nationalism, which is, as any nationalism, ideology of provincialism. Comparing ideological backgrounds of these authors we see that we have at work Devidé´s retro-“apolitical“ approach (in its nature conservative), van der Heuvel modest, „politically correct“, nationalism-provincialism, Basho and Kim Goldberg active and universal political posture (we can not say that Basho´s attitude to life was „leftist“ because in his time „left“ politics was not yet conceptually invented but for his historic circumstances introducing Buddhism in his poetry and giving up military service was surely a kind of „progressive“ behavior including poems with messages of pacifism, like his famous „summer grasses“ poem in which Basho express futility of human sacrifice in war). The ideology of Kim Goldberg expressed in the book is clearly liberalism (precisely: social liberalism) interlaced from time to time with fatalism and New Age`s mysticism. In that way Undetectable is deeply rooted in philosophy and literature of Beat Generation presenting in some way itself late and ripe, one of the most beautiful, artistic flower. But let us answer the question stated indirectly by Basho: Do not walk the footsteps of the elderly, but ask what they asked for. So what was Basho asking for? What is Kim Goldberg asking for? Both of them, as any authentic author, ask for the truth of own life and own time, they do not imitate other people and times.
Narrative summary of Undetectable pictures contemporary drama: A woman devoted to liberal and full-blooded life in her youth faces later the consequence of own careless behavior in Hepatitis C infection. After decades of illness she went through a 12-week cure with extremely expensive medicine... From these two lines, a film script can be written, novel or... collection of haibun. Kim wrote a diary of healing in the form of haibun interlaced with many topics related and (seemingly) unrelated. Waiting for the LAB result “undetectable“ she tells the stories of many other undetectable things, for example in people’s history of Nanaimo where she lives – crimes of racial discrimination, which are one of her favorite topic. In her thoughts she faces situations when she may have been infected with the virus. In the form of haibun, she poses questions vital to human life. But before all, her attitude to the virus she is infected with – and she is fighting against - is deeply one of genuine haiku poet. That means she shows sympathy to the virus exposed to heavy drugs, she suffers for massive killing of viruses inhabiting her cells and with whom she spent decades in co-existence. That is the standing point of genuine haiku poet respecting – being emotionally connected with - all kinds of life. I remember haiku written by Japanese poet Tohta Kaneko when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Watching the X-ray picture of his brain with cancer, he wrote:
An autumn crab
within the light
in my brain
Following are some of the topic (or themes) explored in Undetectable: survival instinct (race), knowledge, rhythms of life, immortality, illusion (simulacrum), co-existing realities, finding oneself (lost & found), unknown, historic perspective, drug´s effects, undetectable, being a patient, pull of forest, racial discrimination (Chinese miners), drug policy, killing, place of science in one´s life, crimes against Natives, killing (barred owl), dream, consequences of acts, stereotypes, boundary, side effects, ecology (massive killing of whales), prediction (superstition), political discrimination and crimes against Japanese-Canadian citizens during WW2, fatalism, New Age interpretation, meaning of words, mother, crimes against Natives, reconsideration, killing (bladderwort), cure, side effects, death (Douglas fir), overrated brain, family, morality of science, social justice, ... It is clear that such richness and complexity of presented topics offer to reader much broader and much deeper experience of life and culture than we usually get from Western writers of Japanese forms. Kim Goldberg uses personal drama to ask big questions of our being and she did it without making any compromise. That is what serious writers and poets do. That is what Basho did. And not many Westerners writing haiku and related forms. Kim Goldberg made gigantic literature of haibun again – what give us a great hopes for the future. No doubt Kim is engaged writer and poet, one of the few real leftist in the world of haiku. Her writer´s skill is evident, her talent to lead complex dramaturgy too but before all she is a talented poet. The level of her haiku poems is much bigger than we usually see in haibun, much higher than in two above-mentioned works of respected poets. Her numerous haiku poems are written with easiness (Basho would say karumi) and are full with fresh poetic ideas. In Undetectable, with 86 pieces of prose, she attached 156 poems of significant quality. Let us finish this short review with a few Kim´s haiku from the book:
from the unseen heart
of the cottonwood tree
a small bird sings
emerge as geese
invasive species strangling
our big-leaf maple