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'The Angel's Wound'

George Marsh

The novels of the Irish American author J.P. Donleavy are unique in that the last few words of each chapter are a short poem similar to a haiku. I can find no reason to believe that he knew the Japanese poetry form called ‘Haibun’ and must have devised this himself, but it is startlingly similar.

‘The Angel’s Wound’ is a collection of Haibun by Portsmouth poet George Marsh. Haibun is the invention of the C17th master of Haiku, Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s leading poets. It is a ‘prosimetric’ form of literature, one comprised of a combination of prose and poetry. The prose can be a prose poem, a story, and essay, an autobiography, a diary or a quotation even from a technical or scientific source. Pieces of prose are accompanied or interrupted by short haiku-like poems. Haibun has spread beyond its native land to become a worldwide poetic phenomenon and gained popularity in recent years. Haiku, which is contained in a Haibun piece, is a short poem of three lines containing a total of seventeen syllables. If you have never encountered Haibun it may sound strange, mechanical, even pretentious. If you know the novels of Donleavy you will have some idea how powerful, effective and moving it can be! ‘The Angel’s Wound’ is proof of that.

The Angel's Wound

Alba Publishing 2022

That impact comes from what is and should be a contradiction, the juxtaposition of the poetry against the prose. It can introduce an element the prose does not have, place emotion into the factual or banal, heighten emotion or make it personal for the reader where otherwise it was not. An example. One of the most moving, disturbingly so, pieces in this collection is ‘Hall of the Victims’ based on a visit George must have made to the Memorial Hall Museum in Nanjing, China. The museum records one of the worst atrocities of the C20th, the massacre of three hundred thousand Chinese soldiers and civilians and more than twenty thousand rapes committed under orders by the invading Japanese army. George has interspersed sections from a harrowing museum guide of factual information with delicate haiku. After a paragraph on the order to massacre a poem reads.

“plum blossoms

thanks be thanks be

my life so easy”

Without the intrusion of saying so, these additions to a harrowing text, connect the slaughter to the other great WW2 holocaust, expose the banality of evil, remind us that the worst things happen on the most ordinary of days and (this so essential) that goodness can ensue.

“so green the leaves

a light breeze ripples

my heart”

Most of the poems are personal and the prose/haiku combination is wonderfully effective at adding or exposing aspects of a narrative that would otherwise be cumbersome. The prose can narrate, and the three lines summarise a feeling, a memory, an emotion. The opening piece in this collection of thirty haibun, ‘First Kiss’, tells of a riverside kiss in 1960, a tipping point out of childhood. It concludes

“I am glad to be rid of childhood. It was beige vanilla daylight. I’ve got a new Rhythm & Blues walk. It fits me like woad. I feel the night’s velvet urgency, I want to stay in the night. I don’t want days any more.

all I remember of her

the slow rhythm of the river

summer starlight”

Notice the description of how that kiss has turned daytime into “beige vanilla daylight” compared to the “night’s velvet urgency”. We’ve all known that magic of a first kiss!

The gentle interjections of the haiku allow George, in the words of poet Maggie Sawkins, to “cast an unflinching and forensic gaze “on subjects many of them complex and difficult ranging from violent prisoners, or personal bereavement, through a walk with the dog to things of exquisite beauty and mystery like the heart shape formed by mating dragonflies. It is not an easy medium. The prose and haiku have to work together, and the poetry cannot be randomly interjected, there is considerable skill in knowing where to place it and what with.

It is not often I get to review two local poets in succession. Even rarer to confront two poets of such skill. ‘The Angel’s Wound’ is a spell binding collection, a veritable advertisement for the subtlety and power of Haibun by someone who understands and has mastered it. His followers include Lucien Stryk author of the Penguin Book of Zen Poetry. Basho would be delighted to know his creation is being so lovingly continued for a different world and time.

George Marsh is a lyricist, poet, translator and author of ‘Teaching Through Poetry’ ‘The Angel’s Wound’ is published by Alba Publishing

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