Still Cutting Edge: Mark Harris’s First Book

These comments assume you have a copy of Burl (Red Moon Press, 2012) nearby. This is an intentionally “naïve” reading. It is full of good will and acts of patience with oneself and exasperation too. This naïve reading does not assume anything is already disposed of between the reader and the book at hand. Zero – while being open to the possibility that “zero” is not a mathematical point but an edge that opens on an intimate universal which remains mysterious. Hence the comic tone. Things should work out OK.

Still, a first reading of Burl, Mark Harris’s first book of haiku, raises a lot of questions. Actually, the first reading may well cause a heightened sense of alarm, conjure up a dare. Increasingly, however, I’m reminded of Claire-ah Lyu’s statement at the beginning of A Sun Within A Sun: The Power and Elegance of Poetry: “Poetry demands of those who read the constant practice of clear-sightedness, critical intelligence, and responsibility.”

In short, Burl calls for mindful reading. The poem resists our attempts to isolate it from what it says about our ethos, our deepest sense of good. This is different from resisting our attempts to find “meaning” as such; Burl is presented as a book of haiku and “meaning” is always contested in contemporary haiku, for good and bad reasons (sometimes it seems the reason is sheer cussedness). All too often mindful reading of contemporary haiku comes up short, however; mindfulness looking for love in all the wrong places.

Yet I am agreeing, after reading through this small book several times, that Burl is poetry; it has the kind of searching impact we expect from poetry even when we can’t spell out the meanings, and certainly not “the meaning” of the poems or of the book as a whole.

Still, for the most part, I won’t be calling these “units” poems or haiku at this point (later, sure); I will be calling them “texts.” This should help us discover continuity where discontinuity, created by a slew of factors (including even the look of the words on the page) threatens any accumulation of interpretive momentum.

There are a good number of general topics mentioned in the book: autism, the wild boy, Code Red, and so on – and the life of a burl is a big part of the sequence; but the relevance of the special vocabulary is never obvious, indeed nothing about the semantic contextures is obvious here. There are personal references to Laura (and it is up to the reader to not think of outstanding fictional Lauras—or . . . ) and the personal pronoun “she” is taken as a reference to this Laura. At some point we understand that Laura is the poet’s daughter, though this “fact” does not, remarkably, become a “key” to an “overall interpretation.” Or put it this way: the book does seem to be about Laura even more than it is about burls; but the intermediation of these themes is so elegantly worked out that from time to time one just has to pause and collect oneself.

There are other specific names: the tamarack larch is often named. And there is “burl.” (Looking up the word burl in a good dictionary and thinking about burls has been helpful.) If “burl” is a metaphor “for” something else – and I don’t think that’s an adequate formulation – the mindful reader will forgo the comforts of reducing burl/Laura to fit the proportionality of vehicle/tenor. The proportions of parts to whole that sway our experience in this work are those of gift: asymmetrical, dependent always on a “greater than which words can say” about the origin of the gift.

Back to the verbal scene itself: The hard words stick out because only with effort do they play roles in syntactic sense-making processes. The very first text is a sentence fragment, stacked one word per line: exits/sunlight/leaf/(or/wing) [no period].

So, this text–and since this is the first of many texts, the whole text–begins with “exits.” (A perplexing way to begin a “text”!) What exits? Sunlight? Leaf? Wing? All three? All two? (We sigh: perhaps if we read on this question will resolve itself in some way, for we do not wish to conclude that we are in the hands of a merely clever craftsman.)

The next text is alternatively displayed as a line across the page: no moon a neuron reroutes a red alert [no period]. We are in a place where the moon is not but neurons are; but that’s not enough information for us to determine where we are. And we don’t know what “reroute” means regarding a “red alert.” It is dark (no moon) and the “red” of red alert casts a weird glow, though we know we are not supposed to let it, since the phrase “red alert” is a concept and has no color. The perplexities of the first text seem to have ramified and we may be experiencing a crook in the neck.

But wait, maybe this is to be understood as about “cause”: the lack of moon causes something to happen: it causes a red alert to be rerouted. Could be!

Probably not.

Taken together, the first two texts compose a sort of scene: Darkness has fallen. Darkness has fallen in a place of leaves and wings and also in a place of neurons (nerve cells). Outside and “in” the human body (“neurons” may be more associated with the brain than with the body as a whole). And surely “darkness” means different things to these two settings. And in that dark something has happened: a red alert has been rerouted. Whatever it means, that sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? Or maybe not.

The third text looks like the second: the word for passes through a membrane [no period]. Here the level of difficulty is raised a factor: words themselves are part of the narrative. “For.” For is an important preposition: it suggests connection or at least relationship; not truly spatial, it is intensive, shows orientation or potential. “This is for you!”

And “for” is in motion, it “passes through a membrane.” Membranes are “for” passing through. So things are beginning to look up or for-ward; a slight sense of pull comes from the pages ahead.

And just here we get something, a text, whose shape reminds us of a special kind of text: three short lines, stacked, one of them followed by a pause, or ellipsis, or dash. Wait: A haiku?

“don’t say a word . . ./ a mockingbird cries/in our baby’s voice.”

What a relief: we are out of the woods . . . . And yet: we are told to “not say a word.” To keep silent? To withhold judgement? To not get excited? We are already excited to see a “form” we recognize, but then we are told to calm down. Formal matters matter, but maybe not that importantly.

Then the two-line section of the text/haiku raises more questions, even while seeming to complete a recognizable form. We are allowed to hear a mockingbird cry, which sounds like haiku, but the mockingbird is not mocking birds but “our baby’s voice.” Whose baby? What baby?

It takes effort to hear that mockingbird, and the effort is made more difficult because we don’t want to. It’s against nature, or what we think of as nature. It turns the tables. It raises too many questions, and just when we thought we had gotten some ground under our feet.

I can’t go on, I’ll go on (Beckett)… later, maybe. I can say that these opening pages are fractal-like: the whole comprises waves of compositional building up to momentary equilibrium where the haiku genre is concerned. Some readers will find this irrelevant—readers who, unlike me, don’t care about the proportions and asymmetry of the haiku model (as preserved in the early texts of Basho et. al.). These readers may think they are radical and with-it; but radical doesn’t mean much if you eradicate the form from its roots in the ethos. The ethos is nothing if it is not shared.

The ethos of haiku is ecological in the fullest and most “open” sense. The ethos of haiku involves the gift of finitude from infinity. The asymmetry of the haiku form acknowledges what skeptics seem to need to assert: the gift of thingness is not one that we can return to the giver. The giver is immensely other, like Tao, like Logos (see Zhang Longxi’s The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West).

I’m excited about the appearance of Burl because I think it sets a certain standard for mindfulness regarding haiku. In the face of deconstruction, it embraces a central “metaphor” – burl. The human is contextualized thereby, and yet remains distinctly human. There is a great deal of ecological intelligence manifest here, and put to excellent use, too, not just cleverly displayed. Indeed, Burl – I have done the analysis and would like to write about it later, but for now the promise of “fractal” will have to do – bears the signature of a “real” book, a composition with a beginning, middle and end, the end of which reaches beyond the world of the beginning. This shape of transcendence is what we expect from temporal forms: songs, movies, poems. And yes haiku.

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