Lew Watts is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun for 2022 for:
Spatial Concept: Waiting
The first time I saw it was at the Tate and I was
with you for the first time you wer so young and
beautiful and your skin was perfec then when you
asked me to go with you I bough ome books from
the salvation army the kind wit ots of photos so I
didn’t come across as a some nd of dick or stupid
even recognized a few p tings before reading the
label each time I said tist’s name you’d turn and
smile even if I got wrong made me sometimes
wish I’d stitched mouth shut And then suddenly
there it was ha g alone on a white wall the beige
canvas slash I could almost hear the right arm
stabbing th dragging the blade down and across
though lat things moved on to multiple wounds
and differ t tools—bare hands, nails, chisels, even
screwdriv s by then I’d lost track of you after the
first scars appeared your way of cutting off an older
deeper p in you said I’m here lost lost you lost
old prison cell
the final tally-mark
* Spatial Concept: Waiting (1960), one of a set of paintings by Lucio
Fontana (1899–1968) in which the canvas is sliced.
NB: Online formatting may not exactly replicate the original formatting of this haibun (but we tried our best!).
Commentary from the Panel:
Upon first glance, this haibun presents a puzzle. What is intended by the interesting format, with the missing letters that create a space running diagonally across the poem? The piece describes a first date, and from the language, we surmise a heterosexual couple – she, “so young and beautiful” and he, fearing he might come across as “some kind of dick or stupid.” To impress her, he buys secondhand art books (the “kind with lots of pictures”) and prepares for their visit to the Tate. His painful thoughts about getting the artists’ names wrong make him wish he had “stitched his mouth shut.” And when viewing the slashed painting, he almost hears the blade moving across the canvas, reverberating his own internal feelings of wrongness and impulse to self-harm.
The poem pivots in the last five lines, becoming more incoherent and shifting reality, turning on the phrase “though later things moved on to multiple wounds.” Is he speaking of additional works of slashed art or is he describing violence one of them suffered, past or present? He states, “I’d lost track of you after the first scars appeared.” Whose scars? And are they real scars from wounds inflicted by another or from self-mutilation, or is he referring to the pain of a broken heart? He questions if it is her way of cutting off from him or from an older, deeper rip in herself. In the last line, her repeating words “…lost lost you lost” haunts us.
The capping haiku further shifts and blurs our sense of time. Read literally, perhaps she or he ends up in prison. Or might the cell represent the imprisonment of their own minds or bodies? This haiku embodies a sense of yugen, a depth of mysteriousness that leaves us wanting to know more. It effectively links to the prose by referencing the deep marks in the cell wall or floor, perhaps crudely dug by “different tools” or “bare hands.” Maybe the final tally-mark refers to the prisoner’s release from the suffering of incarceration or the imprisonment of an unbalanced mind, mental illness, or an obsessive unrequited love, a familiar topic from traditional renga. This mystery resounds and resonates within us, as we reflect on the ways we too might feel imprisoned by circumstances in our lives.
The closing note of attribution tells us the title refers to the name of a slashed painting by Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). An Argentine-Italian minimalist artist and theorist who founded Spatialism, he espoused the creation of a new medium that blends architecture, painting and sculpture. He used his signature gesture, holes he creates in his art, to suggest a mysterious space behind and beyond the canvas, blurring the distinction between two and three dimensionality.
The work presents interlocking pieces of another puzzle, a synthesis of literary forms—ekphrastic, fictional and concrete poetry—offering creative twists for experimentation by writers of contemporary haibun. Ekphrastic poetry, written about or inspired by visual works of art, either real or imagined, might also include how the poet is impacted by the art. And as in flash fiction, we assume a fictionalized narrative in “Spatial Concept: Waiting,” though of course it could be autobiographical. Concrete poetry includes utilizing the placement of words, letters or symbols to achieve visually graphic effects. The justified block of prose in this poem, with its left leaning white spaces shaped like a slash, replicates Fontana’s rectangular painting. The missing letters flow down the left side, just to the right of the words “stitched… slash…stabbing” and “first scars.” Our sense of unease continues to build as we steep in the disorientation that feels ever present. The intriguing form keeps us returning again and again to the poem as we attempt to decipher its disturbing undercurrents of pain and danger.
Emblematic of Fontana’s innovative aesthetic, the poem creatively blurs the boundaries between multiple forms of literary and visual expression. It makes an important contribution to the field of traditional haibun writing, expanding the form with its intertextuality, imaginative writing, distinctive narrative voice, and sabi-filled, time shifting haiku. It invites us to become participants in the work to ascertain meaning, a key component of the interactive partnership between both viewers of modern art and readers of well-crafted haiku and haibun.
At its heart, the poem is a love story, juxtaposing the Japanese aesthetic of mushin—with the slashing of the painting and the stitching and cutting of the young lovers’ bodies—contrasted with ushin—this man’s abiding love for the beautiful young woman he longs to impress. The story touches us deeply with its pathos and sadness, and bittersweet elements of mono no aware. We yearn, along with the narrator, to know if he has found her in the end, or at least found redemption in release from the bondage of his memories. That final tally-mark on his heart, and on our own, is indeed often the deepest.
Touchstone winners receive a crystal award to commemorate their selection. See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.