An Abundance of Gifts PDF Print E-mail

An Abundance of Gifts, Stanley Pelter. George Mann Publications, Easton, Winchester, Hampshire SO 21 IES, U.K.  2011. 134 pp.  ISBN: 9781907640056.  £8

Reviewed by Patricia Prime


Poet, story-teller, artist, graphic artist, musician, historian, nature lover, is there nothing to which Stanley Pelter cannot turn his hand? In An Abundance of Gifts, Pelter’s sixth collection of haibun, he tells readers that the black and white illustrations are gifts drawn by his friend John Parsons, and the creative collaged and painted cover is a fifth such Graphic Design gift designed by another friend Izzy Sharpe. The book is also a gift from Pelter to members of both the British Haiku Society and others across the world who are linked to the genre.

The cover designs are an important feature of all the books, doing more than highlighting a number of the haibun titles - “nearly Medusa;”  “Canute (throne”); “3 bears – or what (choose choose choose)”; “rumours, of course” (back cover forest and floating weighing machines - two of the more visually indicative of  ‘other dimensions’) - “forest food fantasy, food like it is forever,” the emphasis on 3s, et al. They also attempt to illuminate sub-themes, as in “3 bears-or-what” and “rumours, of course,” where we see shapes of our everyday change into more evanescent modes of “reality.”

Each collection introduces a newer form or device. This collection, for instance, emphasizes “Found Haibun.” Pelter’s language has been said to be influenced by Modernist writers, primarily James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The “Found Haibun” selection indicates a wider range of influences including Angela Carter, Dylan Thomas, William Faulkner, Chaim Potok, Cormac McCarthy, B. S. Johnson, Raymond Carver and Edgar Allen Poe whose included story, “the angel of the odd,” is highlighted into a discernable “language” influence. “Learn to live, learn to die” is a scraperboard where the contrast between “life” and “death” is expressed by the extreme application of the black and white media.  Another introduction is the music haibun, (part of Grieg’s “Little Bird,” and part of a rearranged Chopin polonaise), which use the linearly read musical notes as prose equivalent, and musical instruments to “build” the haiku.

The haibun in An Abundance of Gifts are poems that matter, extraordinarily clear-sighted and tough-minded. Beneath their sometimes quiet, lucid surfaces some big and complex things are going on. They are full of challenges, having more to do with states of mind than with everyday reality. And here is the poet himself, reflecting, quietly making juxtapositions of the unalike, unfamiliar connections in poems, books and art, which expand the borders of form and meaning.  Pelter says in his Introduction, “The omission of ‘the’ and/or ‘and’ is a device used in all six collections, but more often in An Abundance of Gifts. The aural effect is subtle yet positive.”

Let us look first at the found prose and music haibun, which the poet likens to Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades.” The found haibun prose section contains 16 poems. Here we see the poet embarking not upon the known, but the unknown. Pelter says his aim is to breach the gap that separates particulars from essentials. Success is when it includes but goes beyond ordered intellect into the vitality of the inchoate mass from which it emerged. His poetry does not transmit clear or ready-made thoughts, as is the case with much contemporary haibun. Instead, he sets his words as traps or nets to catch the less well-known, or unknown parts of the world. This kind of open-endedness affects both the poet and the reader. In constructing a world of new images the poet has to structure an artistic unit that satisfies his sensibility. In essence, the poet begins using a new language, new form and imagery until he creates a world he can inhabit.

As for the reader, the ambiguities and indeterminacies in this kind of art lead him or her to actively engage in creating mental perceptions of similar innovativeness.

In “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” based on a short story by Dylan Thomas, we see the persona as a child, frightened of animals that  “Lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the / Gas meter ticked,” but who, nevertheless, ventures into the darkness to sing Christmas carols. “Gloria Ridge,” (based on B. S. Johnson’s geriatric comedy novel, “House Mother Normal”), tells the tale of a girl and her one true love, whose “hair was golden, his eyes were blue, he stood six foot two in his bare socks, the first one.”

A four-page haibun, “Name Dropping etc.” (based on the “Sunday Times – 02/03/08 – News Review”), is divided into sections. The first section describes the posh restaurant Nobu, in Mayfair: “The service was amateur and diabolical, the food varied from too spicy to eat to just plain lousy.”  The second section focuses on the screening of a film for a deaf audience in Sydney, Australia, of  “The Queen,”  which turns into something of a comedy with its malapropisms. Next is a dinner offered in compensation after a “fat cat dropped through a restaurant roof” onto a diner’s back. “Talking heads” details the job (in his own words) of Jeremy Paxman, a television presenter: “’The producer pokes me with a stick and gives me a sheet of paper. I go down to the studio and read the paper. Afterwards they give me my medication and I go home.’” Then there’s a piece about Prince Harry. “Cracking the mystery of the universe” focuses on the Hedron Collider near Geneva. The last section tells us about the recent death of Squadron Leader “Hawkeye” Lee, a Hurricane pilot “who shot down five enemy aircraft over France in 1940 before being forced to bale out.” The collective juxtaposed imagery is one unattainable by more orthodox means.

Another four-page haibun, “The Passion of New Eve,” (based on Angela Carter’s novel of the same name which is set in the US civil war), the narrative is surprising and challenging.  Descriptive language is used in relation to landscape and to the relationships entwined within the prose. It is, in a sense, mythological, with its allusions to Leda and the swan; at other times, dramatic, violent and surreal:

THE ROAD. When I can drive no more I huddle in the back of the car. Uneasily dream. Am in a frenzy, a hurry. Do not know I speed towards the enigma I had left behind. Do not know I cannot stop. Morning. Ground white with hoar frost. A crimson sun rises over plains that roll as far as the pale hem of the sky.

Then there is “The Road” (from the novel by Cormac McCarthy), a tale about camping in the woods at night:

grey drum rattle
in a mired landscape
a flash of yellow

They camped that night in the woods on a ridge over-looking the broad piedmont plain where it stretched away to the south. He built a cookfire against a rock and they ate the last of the morels and a can of spinach.

All is not as it seems, however, as next morning the persona sees  “A haze of fire that stretched for miles.”

The found haibun prose, “A Serious Talk” (based on a Raymond Carver story in his collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”), is about an estranged husband who visits his ex-wife and children on Christmas Day, but the poem begins on the day after Christmas:

VERA’S car was there, no others, and Burt gave thanks for that. He pulled over into the drive and stopped beside the pie he’d dropped the night before. It was still there, the aluminum pan upside down, a halo of pumpkin filling on the pavement. It was the day after Christmas

festive day plus 1
pools of glistening ice
slow to melt

In these found haibun we can explore how the stories allow for different readings and different interpretations of events. The narratives sometimes rely on the technique of delayed decoding to create a sense of mystery and strangeness. Because of the complexities of the plot structure, the atmosphere of mystery and intrigue is likely to be more prominent on a first reading. A second reading, however, not only allows a greater appreciation of the writer’s skill, but also makes it easier to appreciate the humour of the text and notice more closely the light-hearted passages, which relieve the sense of sadness that seems to accompany many of these pieces.

Let us now take a look at some of the other haibun. In “alphabet (from where come most distractions)”, Pelter uses multi-typefaces and surreal images in order to convey a different form of meaning. “Collage,” a haibun 4 pages in length, with divisions into 8 parts, is multi-layered by the use of typeface, fonts and spacing. “dysfunctional cormorant” is a more traditional haibun, although it contains no capitals and ends with a section on MORALS. Here is the first haiku and its following paragraph:

cloned mushroom
pockmarked with holes
razor sharp thistles

                        she starts off same as others. different from shags but not from sisters or
brothers. for a time none notice anything unusual, (which assumes they are    
genetically wired to notice quirks within their own species, which i doubt), even if           
they are, reasons for apparent blindness are simple. it starts inside.


“just out of season” is a haibun containing three paragraphs and three haiku about a walk along the bay. It’s a beautiful rendition of natural phenomenon. The last line of the first haiku, “just out of season,” is repeated as a refrain:

flight of gulls
first hint of something fleeting
just out of season

                        Leave white cottage behind. Already a threatening Bay starts to heave.Green sweep turns crab dusty browns into mottled greys, like it is a map of headstones splattered with dull graffiti etched into incoherent patterns just able to move from this to that pirated shipwreck, from one ruptured mist to a moon’s halo. High colours fail to infiltrate. Ragged cloud-like shapes drift, spread lower into just a row of cottages. Nothing stirs until that undercurrent beat of music waking. Just out of season.

                       “like it ease a strange of roome to view” describes an incomplete room in language which foreshadows the plight of sisters who seem to be prisoners in this awful place:

                        Another sister is seen through a gloom of shadow. One eye presses against a keyhole. she has a clear view of a robuste, foam-lathered horse rampaging around a muddy compounde. Excited, rearing front legs thrash air like whirring locusts. A layer of texture diminishes. Palomino, in a steame bath of frenzy, becomes a vigorous chalke line on a man-made hill.

The haibun “nearly Medusa” has its origins in myth. Here the Medusa-like woman is portrayed as a film star and a symbol of the unconscious. As Pelter explains, “the writhing snake hair an equivalence of nodules growing on internal organs."

hiss of snakes

others turned to stone
by her eyes of fire

            Have no idea why she forms such a large part of my other life, but there she is, an everyday feature of an unreal event to which we all bear witness. Have no  idea where it comes from or how to hold back its intrusions.

“perspectives” contains 7 perspectives, in which the poet follows “Glen Catacol to flat stones,” where he lies on a rock observing “endless sea spray,” and seeks to “try for a semblance of sense. how to tie one bit to another. Was any one perspective more expressive?”

In the lengthy haibun “private view,” the poet is visiting the National Portrait Gallery. He very neatly captures the ambience of the exhibition, its patrons and models. Finally, he meets the artist, who
              With a turn of head, says quietly, “To Stanley, the live one.” Blinded by flashlights, feel calm of his kiss on a rose-heightened left cheek.

complete artist
an abundance of gifts
given sideways

“shadows and souls” is a short haibun. It focuses on the fleeting shapes one sometimes sees out of the corner of the eye. As the poet says, in the first line, “At first I fought for his shadow, believing it to be a soul because then I believed in souls . . .” But the shadow “resents being mistaken for a soul.” The haibun ends with the beautiful natural imagery of a weeping fig:

            When a moon ripens smells add shadowy dimensions. If these are from weeping figs little we can do will dry their leaves, even if they sway, even if they overlap plentifully.

soul of nettle soup
deep red of early berries

into wet shadows

“3 bears-or-what!” concentrates on loss of personal control, understanding and identity. It also focuses on the historical meanings, and its applications, attached to the number 3.

3 identical leaves
those same 3 evergreens
move in unison

                        Suddenly everything speeds up. Screen hit by 3s followed by threesomes  ofchoosechoosechoose. faster faster faster they come like machine gun fire fire fire. All shapes sizes, fonts. Italics chase bold larger point sizes different typefaces unfamiliar images.  Always a strong urgency. Always imperative of choose choose choose.

The final haibun “Where do the pictures of 7 female ice skaters go?” follows 7 girls to an ice-skating rink. They change from their day clothes into ice-skating uniforms, where

            Moving elliptically, pieces of asexual material glide motion into mock snow glass  
            bubbles. Here are no nighttime pictures.

This is a remarkable volume for its clarity and embrace of life, in its articulation of making and maker, and in its unmuddled transport of mind into language. An Abundance of Gifts is a vital, wholly original work of art. In these haibun, it’s the way in which correspondences fit together that generates the beauty and deeply felt intelligence of the whole. The intermingling of comedy and tragedy, and the various interpretive options that the haibun offer, may strike some readers as forced and out of place. Others will read them as a metaphor for regeneration and the persistence of family and community ties, and as an affirmation of the fact that in haibun as in life there is both comedy and tragedy.  When we return to the haibun, for a second reading, we finally realize their importance: they speak of narrative strands, permutations and variations, and in so doing they paint a picture. They warn the reader that this will be a collection made up of fragments which have been arranged in a certain manner, but which could equally be rearranged in order to produce different versions of the stories. The reader’s pleasure lies in tying and untying the difficult knots of this rich and complex book.



Patricia Prime is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Takahe and Stylus, one ofthe editors of theTake Five Anthologies 2009 & 2010 and isassistant editor of Haibun Today. She has interviewed various poets and editors and currently has poems appearing in the World Poetry Anthology 2010 (Mongolia).