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Patricia Prime Reviews The Hidden Berkeley by Steven Carter

Again, I am privileged to publish this review by one the world’s keenest haiku minds, Patricia Prime. This time she reviews one of the prolific Steven Carter’s latest collections.

Hidden Berkeley

The Hidden Berkeley by Steven Carter. India: Cyberwit. (2012). Pb, 70 pp. ISBN: 978-81-8253-322-6. RRP: US$15. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Steven Carter’s work as a haiku and haibun poet has appeared regularly over the past year, and may therefore be familiar to readers both in the USA and elsewhere. The variety of haibun in The Hidden Berkeley is engaging. Over 30 haibun, a Prologue and Epilogue range across Carter’s life from the age of eighteen when he was a college freshman to his departure from Berkeley in 1967.

Carter’s collection of haibun, which vary in length from one to two pages, spans several years. The autobiographical sketches include vivid moments of encounters with the world, life-changing events, his love life and engagement with people that shaped him.

Shared worlds, physical, spiritual and cultural events inhabit this collection. Thus, in “From the Bottom of a Well”, a poem in memory of a “Foggy summer afternoon sitting on the rickety back porch”, the poet remembers the incidents of his Berkeley years and life with his mother and brother:

That Christmas we don’t buy a tree. My mom is too tired, I too     depressed, my teen-age brother too indifferent, to clean up the house.

Reading the poem on the page, the words are transmitted through the imagination and the reader’s own memories into a silent cadence that in turn shape the images. It is very easy to identify with many of Carter’s experiences and his various attempts to come to terms with his feelings as he tries to find his place in the world.

The poet’s work is clearly informed by his physical terrain, a fact that shows itself through not only the subject matter – childhood, youth and love are recurring themes – but frequently in the way the haibun appear on the page, inhabiting space in which the haiku shine through as a kind of coda. The joining of the prose and haiku works well in most of the haibun. Carter’s characteristic style being story followed by one haiku. The following haibun, “Fall ‘63” is quoted in full:

To my impoverished and callow twenty-year old sensibility, Marcia, the     willowy teen-ager next door on Hearst, is like water on a table-top; fun your     finger through it and it leaves no trace of where it was. Every night, at the     agreed-upon time, she flashes her bedroom light twice and, as I look on from     my kitchen window, bares her beautiful breasts to me.

my Plato falls open –
is a beggar

These are haibun which reward concentrated reading, and the cumulative effect is to offer deep insight into the poet’s life. Carter is attentive, his eye and ear are intensely tuned, so that story and haiku are partners. Girlfriends, funerals, and his grandmother: the images are vivid. Elsewhere it is friends, his brother, and a policeman that captures our attention. In “Far Side” he is “Returning to Berkeley from a carefree year in the Young People’s Republic of San Diego.” Alone, he experiences a bout of neurasthenia and rolls around in bed in pain, before taking the bus too his evening’s shift at the library. This poem is like a mark of the young man’s determination and fortitude against all odds. In “Rain” the two brothers are living with their grandmother when the repossession man comes to remove their TV. “’Sorry,’ the repossession man shrugs, turning off Walter Cronkite and unplugging the TV, ‘just doing my job.’”

One of Carter’s best haibun is “Mt Everest of kegs”, in which the two brothers fight. Their mother despairs of them and comes to the conclusion that there is no hope for either of them:

Discouraged with the lifestyles of both her sons, but especially of Allan, my mother confided in me shortly before her death that the best my brother could hope for was a career in the army.

In 1989 he was appointed to the Solana County Municipal Court Bench by the governor of California.

what might’ve been
the landlord’s
young Norwegian wife

The sense of the personal voice that rings with an awareness of life’s complexities and sadness, a world of ambiguities and sheer joy is perfectly heard in Carter’s haibun.  His voice sings of individualism in both form and content and it welcomes the reader in a manner that is both traditional in the use of image and form and new in its fresh magnanimity. In “Elevator out of service” the year is 1965, the poet has moved to the Berkeley Hotel in order to bring up his grades –

but also to forget what had happened in August, when Kim, the San Diego girl I wanted to marry, pulled the plug on our relationship. Drowning my sorrows in schoolwork, I figured, would kill two birds with one stone. I was half-right . . .

What is evident from this volume is how often Carter’s haibun concentrate on the big issues of existence: life and death, love and hope. These poems are strongly influenced by the particular timbre of the language, formed by the contours of the landscape and the life-rhythm of modern-day America. That said, they are crowded with impressions of light and darkness, summer and winter months: an existential searching for identity and context. The intensity of many of these haibun grows out of their truth, their reality. Moments are preserved, and the trigger of memory is released. Place, people and events weave a dance through haibun that evoke a beauty and power, treading a path through a life that is full of sadness, joy, wonderment and hope.

The overall attraction in these haibun is Carter’s trust in his reader to make sense of the disparate narrations he embarks on, the little chunks of history and geography in many of his haibun, and after a while one arrives at a familiarity with the man writing and the circumstances which permit him to record important events in his life. As the haibun “Morning Twilight” indicates Carter succeeds more often than not in holding our attention when he shows us into a room a writer’s mind inhabits:

When I was young, like all kids I expected adults to walk the straight and narrow and the world to be a more or less place. Then, one by one, my idols crumbled, as they must: my grandmother’s jolly grocer on the corner of Addison and Grant in Berkeley, who always sat me on the counter and sang a song in Italian, went to jail for tax evasion; the director of one of my foster homes, whom I’d begun to consider a second mother, went to jail for embezzlement; my grandmother herself, it turns out, played the ponies and     financed her gambling habit by stealing from my step-grandfather; and so on. These revelations were shattering once upon a time, but now I accept them, having learned in late middle age that forgiveness at a distance is a privilege, if not a luxury.

moonset &
the terror of

The Hidden Berkeley is replete with images, ideas and stories of the making of a man – of ordering and disrupting order, of the complex relationships between families, friends, colleagues, as well as with the placement of each within the history of one man. Throughout the book Carter works with a multiplicity of stories and draws the reader into associative ideas, bringing the reader to an ample understanding of the complex historical, cultural and philosophical foundations of his life. What might be poetic sketches from life becomes another field of composition: life as an artwork. The poet’s life compressed into this book unfolds ideas both minute and complex.   The collection contains fine examples of individual haibun and it also forms a cohesive whole as an autobiography. Carter presents an interesting way for haibun to be expanded from travel writing, or journal writing to a diary of awakening maturity.

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