Saturday, May 18, 2013

Face: Sherman Alexie’s Native American haibun

In his introduction to the translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu of Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns (oku-no-hosomichi), Robert Hass describes haibun as a prose poem combined with thematically-related haiku, and he offers Basho’s book as the defining example. The last in a series of five poetic diaries, the book describes a journey that Basho took through the mountains of northern Japan, lasting nine months and covering 1,500 miles. Hass argues that it was in this volume that Basho “refined and sharpened” the haibun form. (Today, the on-line journal contemporary haibun online is dedicated to English-language haibun based on Basho’s model.)

Sherman Alexie’s poetry collection Face includes a range of different types of poems, with several that may be viewed as particularly imaginative extensions of the haibun concept, but cast in a completely different form and cultural context. A specific example is the poem “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” consisting of four prose poems, alternating with four sonnets. All of these components are thematically linked, and Alexie’s sonnets are organized like the Shakespearean model as three quatrains, with a concluding couplet, but his rhyme schemes are a novel mix of styles. Specifically, in their book Strong Measures, Phillip Dacey and David Jauss define the following sonnet types, based on their rhyme schemes:

Shakespearean sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg

Hybrid sonnet: abba cddc effe gg

Couplet sonnet: aabb ccdd eeff gg

Alexie’s sonnets – both the sonnet components of this poem and other examples in his collection – mix these styles. For example, the first sonnet in “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers” has the following rhyme scheme:

abab cddc eeff gg

while the second mixes these styles differently, as:

abba ccdd efef gg

Another poem from Face that pushes the haibun concept further is “Vilify,” a villanelle with 14 numbered footnotes. The villanelle itself is somewhat unusual in the length of its lines: the first has 23 syllables, more than twice as long as the traditional iambic pentameter’s 10 syllables. And while the use of footnotes in poems is not unprecedented, this is most commonly done in translations to provide cultural or historical context. For example, many of the translations in 100 Tang Poems, a collection of Chinese poems written between roughly 640 and 900 AD, include brief footnotes for precisely this purpose. In Alexie’s poem, however, the footnotes become an essential ingredient: the 19 lines of the villanelle itself occupy just over a page, while the footnotes go on for nine more pages, including passages of dialogue and Alexie’s commentary on everything from the history of the villanelle form to a list of the twelve U.S. Presidents who owned slaves. These prose excursions are natural for Alexie, who has also published a number of prose volumes, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This is a collection of 22 short stories that you have to love for their titles alone, which include, in addition to one with the book’s title, one called “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” and another one simply titled “A Good Story.”  (That said, the stories do live up to their titles.)

My favorite poem from Face is “Comedy Is Simply a Funny Way of Being Serious.” Here, Alexie pushes the “poem with footnotes” to new creative heights I never could have imagined before reading this example of the form. The poem itself consists of two seven-line monorhyme stanzas. In an era where free verse remains the dominant poetic style, monorhyme is unusual enough by itself: every line concludes with the same end rhyme. The poem’s footnotes are numbered and each one takes the form of a rhymed couplet. Most unusual of all, however, are the sub-footnotes: the numbered footnotes cite lettered sub-footnotes, and together these form a sonnet.

For a very long time, poets have been advised to “study the masters,” and while this is excellent advice, it does raise the question “who are the masters?” In some specific cases, there are fairly clear answers: for haiku, one of the obvious masters is Basho. For example, in his book, Matsuo Basho, Makoto Ueda argues that:

“… if one poet is to be singled out as the greatest contributor to the development of haiku literature, there will be little question about the choice: it has to be Matsuo Basho.”

Similarly, since his name is attached to one of the standard sonnet forms, Shakespeare is a clear master of this form. Where it becomes much more difficult is the identification of contemporary masters. Based on a first – but careful – reading of Face, I believe I have found in Sherman Alexie a master worthy of study.