Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2


Remarks on Twisty Chunks

Twisty Chunks was the first solo (or dokugin) renku I attempted to write. By the late 1980s I collaborated on haikai no renga with several fellow writers and studied its form, mainly through Dr. Earl Miner’s works and various translations of Japanese renku. When I began the solo project I knew that Japanese renku relied on remarkably complex rules. In English my friends and I had worked out a simple version of renku that employed several rules, such as moon and flower stanzas and its three-part structure. But I had to learn how difficult it would be to maintain the essential nature of the renku in a solo renku, what Miner termed disjunction; no three stanzas may be read together without some disruption or change of season, character, subject, mood, etc. As Hiroaki Sato wrote, “Two consecutive stanzas must make sense, but three may not.” (Japanese Woman Poets 529)

Serial disjunction as an organizing principle may be found in another discipline, screenplay writing. Usually for constructing a single scene, one is told: start as close to the end as possible and always write a new beat in each scene for some character(s) or object(s). The relentless forward movement of film, and its myriad rich technical transitions (for instance, cuts; jumpcut, matchcut, smashcut, etc.), also mandates the dramatic need to introduce continually some new emotion, fact, perspective, image and so forth.

As an intensely visual artist, I consequently thought of renku as a home movie, because of its immersion in daily life. Japanese renku started as “a parlor game for multiple participants” (Sato 529) and for me that emphasized its communal aspect, as if a film production company in your midst were constructing a movie from the shared glimpses of day-to-day experiences.

When I examined a famous renku by Basho and friends, such as “At A Tub of Ashes”, I recognized that some of each stanza’s principles and/or transitions could be described with screenplay stage direction vocabulary.   Two screenplay terms I will use that might not be familiar are these:  uninflected images are what anyone might see/experience, as opposed to an inflected image, where a certain person or group sees/experiences this.  These are Odagiri and Miner’s translations from The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat (270-271) 


Stanza 1: Opens with a tracking shot up from tub up to a vista as one sound effect fades away and another starts.   Outside.  Day.   Uninflected image.


At the tub of ashes

dripping sounds yield to stillness

as crickets chirp


2. A tracking shot from tub into a sleeping chamber subsides into crickets chirping outside the window as a voice-over tells us about a sleeper there.  Movement from outside to inside with overheard narrator.  From day to evening.  An inflected image occurs when the narrator looking at the room remarks on the sleeper’s habits. 


At the tub of ashes

dripping sounds yield to stillness

          as crickets chirp

in his lamp the oil grows low

and autumn brings him early sleep


3. The voice-over now is heard over a medium shot of the sleeper, his chamber and window with the moon in it, a very composed scene.  Movement from inside to outside the room.  Evening to night.  Shifts from an inflected image to an uninflected image: no narrator because anyone would notice that new matting has been put down.


in his lamp the oil grows low

and autumn brings him early sleep

          the floor matting

freshly laid out in the chamber

          shines in the moonlight


The brevity of each frame/stanza/line matches its cinematic parallel to frames of a film.  That same simplicity and brevity also connects to the renku’s many styles and principles of construction and transitions.  Over the years such film principles became a helpful aid for my testing and revision of stanzas. 

Alas, I also discovered that a solo renku rapidly drives its writer right up against any limitations of one’s perceptual and linguistic habits. 

Having partners makes writing a renku easier. 

Through renku writing in general my awareness grew about how my ways of speech, perception and construction were restrictive and habitual.  For a solo renku my variations in scene conception came up short again and again and again, as my stanzas’ movements of perception were cast in similar molds over and over. 

As a fiction writer I thought the renku was marvelous, really great practice for sharpening the art of transitions and transitional thinking, even while at the same time I repeatedly despaired over at my own self-inflicted limitations.  Time after time I created a new stanza with high elation only to see later that this stanza really duplicated a previous stanza via some shared essential element, grammar or visual logic.

Consequently Twisty Chunkstook over two and a half years to write its thirty-six stanzas. Truly, as the old saw says, I abandoned this poem rather than finished it.  And even now passages give rise to mild resignation, seeing their inadequacies in construction, perception and art.

As a document for a long passage of my time in California, Twisty Chunks still charms me, though the associations and information are largely so personal and so time limited that they resist my commentary.  Nostalgia and deep pleasure returns as I recall some of the seminal moments for particular images. Here’s one example.


          large piece of driftwood

on a fence post grows eyes,

          a red throat, flies away


This moment occurred on Point Reyes peninsula during one of its remarkable drifting misty ocean fogs at August’s end.  A split second of driving around a coastal curve bordered by fence posts, barbed wire and green pastures rolling away from the road contained these two events: that instantaneous perceptual shift from Oh, this to No, that: first a driftwood shape, then a turkey buzzard taking flight.  This nanosecond of complex perceptions seems to me a quintessential haikai no renga moment.     

So many more stanzas arouse thirty years of Californian memories and pleasurable emotions long-lived but no longer available for my commentary in the usual way that my renku writing friends and I now employ.

So, recently when I tried to write a commentary for Twisty Chunks’ individual stanzas, I failed.  For particular passages the starting points for relationships between the incidents (such as autumn firewood cutting or summer haze/smog) seem fugitive when I consider an audience’s responses.  I know that these incidents are seasonal but perhaps most readers cannot, because they don’t live in that part of California.  One must write such commentary while the brainpan griddle is hot.

Let any new readers find or form their own running commentary as they read it.          


Keith Kumasen Abbott, January 2009

Related items in this issue of Simply Haiku: "Twisty Chunks," a solo Kasen by Keith Kumasen Abbott.


Copyright 2009: Simply Haiku