The art of haiku is never far from my mind, so it is always a joy to discover a new collection that has been released. Steven Carter’s latest book After Blossom Viewing: Zen parables with Haiku was released by Alba publishing in May this year, so when Patricia Prime offered me the chance to publish her review of the collection, I of course said yes.
After Blossom Viewing: Zen Parables with Haiku by Steven Carter. Uxbridge, Alba Publishing. (2012) p.b. 36 pp. RRP: US$10. UK£7.00 / €8.00. ISBN 978-0-9551254-7-8. Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Steven Carter is a linguistic virtuoso; his work encompassing haiku, tanka, haibun and now his latest offering – Zen parables. Carter’s work is often self-referential, based on his experiences, travel and nature, but the viewpoint in this new book is different, distinctive, disarming in some way.
The set-up is straightforward enough, featuring in twenty-six parables either a Zen Master and his novice or a group of novices, or a monk narrating a fable. What’s notable about them is that they’re almost all narrated in a one-on-one conversation. It’s a remarkable feat: dramatic, sometimes humourous, often very wise. There are moments of comedy, sombre moments of fasting and hunger, revelatory moments, as when a jolly monk tells the story of a cruel emperor in “The Unhappy Emperor”, which ends on a suitably merry note:
“Tell me the secret of happiness,” he thundered, “or I shall have you beheaded.”
“There are two secrets to happiness,” the man said, “The first is being summoned to such a grand palace as this, to see the towers, the coats of arms, the torches – “
“What is the second secret?” the emperor cut him off gruffly.
“The second secret is not being beheaded by the emperor,” replied the man.
Cloud Mountain –
seen through a ruby
All the personae are vulnerable to shock and change: the circle of novices in “The Meadow”, one of whom announces that he has no illusions, only to be advised that everything is an illusion. There’s the Zen Master in “The Message” who tells a story from the outside world about a man who receives a letter from his lover only to discover there is no letter inside the envelope, but “the man keeps the envelope very carefully.” A once worldly monk in “Of Love” shares a parable concerning a man sitting beside the sea when a single drop of water lands on his hand and he believes “that the entire sea was contained in that drop. . .
The plain, effective language of “The Monks”, a humourous parable of two monks, allusion and image deal with the theme of comfort in the likeness of their shiny bald heads:
Two bald monks sit down at a table. Pointing to his shiny pate, one says, “On me it looks good.” The other agrees, “On you it looks good.” Both are comforted.
knitted brow of clouds –
seeking a horizon
the summer moon.
In contrast, in “Three Birds” he describes a lay monk remembering a fable about a yellow bird and two sparrows:
A yellow bird flew onto a branch next to two sparrows.
“A canary!” the first sparrow said.
“All canaries aren’t yellow, my friend,” the yellow bird said.
“An all yellow birds aren’t canaries, my friend,” the second sparrow said.
“So I am content to be a yellow bird.”
There’s enjoyment in nature and the countryside is evoked in many of the parables, as we see in “Last Day of the Sixth Month”:
Sitting in a bamboo garden outside the Fukushima Temple, two Zen monks wax philosophical.
“We don’t agree on much, my friend,” observes one, “but you will agree that there are things in life that do not change, that they are, I mean to say, immortal?”
“And will you agree that the immortal things of this world cannot bestow immortality?”
“Yes, my friend. That’s why they are immortal!”
yesterday’s birdsong –
a different branch
The landscape is beautifully evoked in both the prose and the haiku: “a tree bowing over the steam”, “a grove of poplars”, “mountain shadows”, “the summer moon and “a spreading bayan”. But Carter’s focus is on personal landscapes, the parables he is recounting and their effect both on the novices and the readers of the parables.
Towards the end the book, and perhaps where we see the duality of prose and poem at its best, is the long parable “Near Kyoto” in which Carter uses his poetic skill to ensure that this story crucial to an understanding of parables is neither forgotten nor mythologised by telling it in controlled language. The voices speak plain English: “You know, my friend, doing things right makes one happy. You ought to try it.” Yet the man who did get things wrong prefers to ignore his talkative friend and replies: “But I am happy, my friend; happy as the proverbial mollusk!”
Funny and poignant, tender and wise, the author’s virtuosity impresses. The book contains much fine writing and some positive endings to his tales.