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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 3, September 2017
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Tony Beyer
New Plymouth, New Zealand


Review of Goodbye by Roger Jones

Roger Jones, Goodbye, Snapshot Press eBook, UK, 2017.

From its origins in mediaeval Japanese court diaries, to the more haiku-specific context of Bashō’s great travel sketches and Issa’s Buddhist journal, the haibun as we know it now has always been a non-fiction genre, principally autobiographical. Recently, Australian author Marietta McGregor has expanded the scope of contemporary haibun by making excellent use of its documentary potential. Her "Souviens-toi," which appears online in Otoliths 45, Southern, Autumn 2017, combines photographs, prose and one-line verses to exhibit and reflect upon the abandoned French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, where 637 inhabitants were massacred by Nazi soldiers in June 1944.

Roger Jones’s work in Goodbye places him firmly in the autobiographical category – so successfully, in fact, that the book might be described as a state-of-the-art achievement. His fifteen texts, each combining prose paragraphs with a concluding three-line haiku, are disciplined in form and generous in content. Often alternating viewpoints from childhood to the perspective of maturity, he places the reader in occasionally very familiar territory, but always with the surprise of fresh insight. In the first haibun, "Old Man," this shift of angle provides an opportunity for typically self-deprecating humour:

“Old Man?” – I’d never thought of my father as old.

Forty years ago, and Dad a decade younger than I am now.

The second haibun in Goodbye is worth quoting in full because it demonstrates many of the finer qualities of Jones’s approach, from its scary title, to the expert linkage with the concluding lines.

Alzheimer’s

I’m starting to understand: the mother I grew up with isn’t here now—only the stranger who stands by the ringing phone and cannot remember what she is supposed to do with it.

clinging to the pine bough
but gone as well—
cicada

That harsh sounding, medical term “Alzheimer’s” has become part of our everyday vocabulary but still seems alien and frightening, especially in a family setting. In my grandmother’s time, our older relations simply became “a bit vague”. Roger Jones restores some of this sense of normality. The deficits of advanced age are among the conditions of our natural heritage, long preceding telephones and other modern era phenomena. This text focuses our attention on the deeper context of presence and absence, particularly in the case of a loved one. His conclusion with the image of the cicada husk (notice how "husk" is not actually used) is an acute example of Jones’s linkage: human life restored to its place in the natural cycle.

Continuing through the book we gain an awareness of how much of it is just plain good writing. Among the travel pieces, "Early Memory: Davenport, Iowa, 1961" and "Leaving Paradise" remember unwilling childhood migrations. These words, like others elsewhere, give the impression of having come a long way before reaching print, which is one of Jones’s strengths as a writer – he has taken time to strip away extraneous material and highlight the essence of the details he presents. There is very little that does not resonate profoundly on several levels:

… and stop for a fill-up and a snack in Daggett, California (pop. 200). ("Leaving Paradise")

I love the slightly acrid whiff of nitrogen fertilizer, the hummingbird feeders and martin houses along the back aisle. ("Garden Haibun")

These references are obviously deeply personal but are equally redolent of the real world where the reader also belongs.

"Goodbye," the title haibun, is another multi-layered performance, overlapping childhood and adult perceptions via a powerful yet credible dream scenario. It is very beautiful and reminds us of how much we remain ourselves in the face of many changes life may appear to bring. This is Jones’s speaking persona at its most intimate, both honest and trustworthy, yet also honestly vulnerable. Another writer can only feel admiration, and some envy.

Throughout Goodbye, Jones pays tribute to the flexibility and versatility of the haibun genre. His concerns range through dislocation, work and retirement, illness, marriage, ageing, and the deaths of close or remote associates. He is also aware of the straightforward delight of being alive.

Discussing haibun, reviewers sometimes emphasise the summative impact of the verse and prose contrast, without acknowledging the quality of the prose itself. Jones’s prose is as honed and specific as his well-tuned verse lines.

Regarding awkward, even controversial topics, the sentences are hesitant, spiky, groping towards clarity of expression. Details accumulate and augment one another:

Everything looks withered, dry, heat-stressed, droopy. As the climate heats up, experts warn of more radical droughts, higher heat, stormier storms to come ... ("Global Warming")

Then there’s this unpunctuated, almost onomatopoeic sentence that does what it says and says what it does, which is one of the many pleasures of Jones’s confident, integrated style:

Soon the park staff will furl up the long heavy canvas slide down which thousands of children all summer have skittered down a thin skin of water and shot off limbs akimbo into the green river. ("Late August, City Pool")

In sum, a fair review of Goodbye should probably just reproduce it in full, without further comment. Convention, of course, doesn’t allow that sort of approach. It’s good, though, to hear the author’s voice one more time, with its crisp, invariably accurate linkage, so much a characteristic of his control and accomplishment when dealing with challenging subject matter, as here from the fifteenth and final text, "Late Night Fireplace":

Mom and Dad died about a month apart—first him, then her …

shifting log—
two sparks tangle
up the chimney flue

If someone asked me what it is I expect of haibun at its best, I’d have to say, this is it. Snapshot Press, with a commendable international openness, has produced many fine, small books of this kind, exactly the right size for their contents. This one currently exists as an eBook. Readers could encourage it and others into hard copy by their support through the publisher’s website. The press has an eclectic catalogue, consistent in its standard and worth thoughtful attention.

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