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Kati Mohr – Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun

Kati Mohr is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun for 2023 for the haibun:

All These Things

In front of a store in Manila, mask on. A queue. People stand six feet apart. Men with guns check everyone who wants to go inside. They send some in. They send some away. She crumples a piece of gum wrapper in her pocket, while she enters. A quick walk along the shelves, in her hand a list of several people’s requests. What does this mean? She picks, unsure. Checking her list again and again, she calls, she texts. When she leaves, her eyes are smaller. She carries everything to others’ homes. Her friends’. Her family’s, where they complain about the things she has brought, about their lives, their homes. About Corona. She texts me, and we type “hugs” and “hugging you”. She asks me to tell the universe to answer her prayers. And I do.

her foot hovers
between metro and platform
warm up-draughts

On the table: a set of magnetic tiles. Each one has a word on it. Her hands move across the surface, pushing the magnets here and there, here and there. After a while, the words shape lines. The lines build verses. Houses made of verses. A poetic map. She reads them aloud and pauses. This is how she creates sense.

Before the lockdowns, she goes to the park to smoke. To write to her friends. To smoke some more. To breathe. That’s not a contradiction. She sends a picture of her hand holding a cup of coffee. The coffee is sweet and black. She sips. Her friends send random pictures of pets and selfies. I send a picture of my garden from a thousand miles away.  A home in the rain in the park.

drips and drips
in the locked bathroom
a clouded moon

In front of her: a box of rectangular stickers with short quotes. They all begin with, “Hello, I am … .” Some people come to her little counter at the art market, read, smile and buy. Hello, I am a customer. What is not on the counter is: Hello, I am someone who listens. Hello, I am a human being. Hello, I am asking for help. I am stronger than I think. I am right by your side. I am weaker than I want to be. I am tired. I am …

Between, during lockdowns, she finds a marble. It rolls on the ground. There is a wild, white spiral inside which seems to be circling as she slowly rolls the marble between her fingers. This small, big thing. People rush by. People stop and stare. People’s voices mingle and mesh. She covers her ears to keep them from getting to her. Her fingers slowly clasp the marble. This is hers. The marble in her hand she begins to walk. Of course, this is not about a real glass marble. She knows it. I know it too. More importantly, it really is a small big thing, hope.

still water
maybe a carp deep down
taking a turn

In the middle of the pandemic, she says yes. In love. Very much so. And I wish I could have been there.

Love is: the way she insists on using her own kind of ellipsis .  . just two dots and two spaces in between. The power of two.  The impossibility of yes and no. The first thing that captivated me in her art.  Another way of surviving: she writes prose that sounds like poetry because it is. Love is the way she says yes anyway and no without doing it, the way she writes the longest and shortest sentences. They run all over the place. It is a serious creative business: a rope she feels along and away from rooftops.

rock salt mango
another sleepless night
moongazing

She writes to me that she will move out tomorrow. That she will still do the grocery shopping, put on the mask. She will still help her father feel safe in a world that threatens to be swallowed by a tasteless fog. Tomorrow, all the weight of the illness will still be there, and there will be a home. She wants a home. She wants her home. She has an idea of what her home might look like. When she looks up at the stars, she sees hope like pinpricks in the blackness of everything. The blackout poetry that she has to create herself. That there will be someone to hold her hand. That she will take more small steps, and that she will pay attention to them. She writes, “Mother, I have kwento.” And I read. This is what we do. We are making space for each other. She writes that there will be a tomorrow. That tomorrow is closer now.

It stinks. She rips a page of a book out, paints it almost entirely black. Over phrases, fragments, words.  Then she moves on to the next page. But after a while the ink becomes transparent. There is less and less of black. The page would need another round of ink to become truly dark. In the end, it is what it is. The paper can only hold so much ink before it tears. There are only a few words left that can be read well. They combine in new ways. That too is a language: Where nothing seems to be, something is.

ulan sa hardin
more than a starlit sheet
fills the cradle

kwento (Tagalog) = story
ulan sa hardin (Tagalog) = rain in the garden

 

—Kati Mohr, The Haibun Journal Issue 5.1, April 2023


Commentary from the Panel: 

The first thing that strikes the reader about “All These Things” is the way it unconsciously (and, perhaps, unintentionally) seems to echo T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Among other things, “The Wasteland” is an assemblage of voices, shifting from one speaker to another, shifting from one language to another, not in an organized choral rendering, but in urgent polyphonic cries and retorts rising from the battered ground in the terrible aftermath of World War One. In this way, “All These Things” offers an energetic collection of interwoven voices, perspectives, language, and syntax.

Set in Manila, “All These Things” presents a speaker attempting to negotiate the “wasteland” of the global Covid pandemic. The prose sections of the haibun present alternating scenarios between the speaker’s actions of caring for others with personal reflections, which are italicized, on her attempts to make sense of the pandemic. Appropriately, the skillfully constructed sentences in the alternating sections shift from ones that are short and staccato-like to others that are longer and more expansive.

The haiku that are situated in the spaces between the prose sections are particularly effective; they are robust and they contain sharp images, ones that reinforce the variety of sometimes disturbing emotions that are presented in the prose. Just as Eliot’s poem ends in futility (but finds recovered and reclamation in “The Four Quartets”), so too does “All These Things” offer a bleak picture of the Covid landscape — and the dislocation and angst that is the result. The haibun does, however, end on a positive note, “where nothing seems to be, something is.”

This Post Has One Comment

  1. An amazing piece of literature, that just like Matsuo Bashō (Narrow Road to the Interior etc…) and Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums etc…), John Dryden’s “the other harmony of prose” have said, but moreso here just how Holly Iglesias says, perhaps, using the prose poem box as a metaphor for female containment (Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry, 2004). Proposing women’s prose poetry as a form distinct from that widely touted as definitive in journals, anthologies and critical texts:

    “Iglesias believes that the shape of prose poems–a simple box–serves as a powerful metaphor for gender roles that constrain and contain women. Unlike most of their male counterparts who produce disembodied, ironic and surrealist prose poems, women write from within this genre-defiant box works that are at once lyrical and embattled, sensual and menacing.”

    I’d say this is a very important example of a haibun, that does not look out through bars in the box or even look inside, as the bars are set aside.–Alan Summers

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