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Matthew Caretti – Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun

Matthew Caretti is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun for 2023 for the haibun:

Deep Water Port

barbed-wire fence
winter stars hung out
for the night

A ripple of harbor lights becomes some recurring dream. Moving aft and fore on this floating world, I seek to unfind my sea legs. Enter the pub. Longshoremen long off duty unloading still. With another dark n’ stormy, the barkeep serves up an attitude. Especially for the one who keeps on about the waterspout and how all the fish just landed in his boat. She turns to seamen mansplaining the supermoon. Shrugs. Asks if I’d like one for the road.

night fog
the joss sticks
refuse my fire

The morning comes too soon. I look again. No ship on the horizon. A frigatebird edges instead a slow scissoring of the sky. I wade into the shallows. Allow salt and sea to scrub me clean. Sun dry on the shore. Washed up beside me like a drowned rat, a drowned rat. Blown out of the palms during last night’s storm or a stowaway escaped from one of the ships at anchor. I bury it in the sand. Climb the hill above the port. A stevedore sets down in the sprawling dockside maze the last container from a freighter already smoking at its stacks.

off-island news
a crease of sailors
along the fence

Back down the path to the spot where sea poison trees drop intricate blossoms into brackish waters. The fire coral below hasn’t bleached itself. I worry the change. Above these coral skeletons, I will a rainbow to bend back to the rising sea. To offer up some sort of treasure. Ever more the link and shift of dolosse counter the erosion along the coastal road. In the distance, a boy skips atop the seawall. Higher and higher. Sea monsters edging ever closer. Licking at his heels.

morning moon
among the whitecaps
a shark’s fin


—Matthew Caretti, The Haibun Journal Issue 5.1, April 2023

Commentary from the Panel: 

With each reading, this poem slyly unfolds darker nuances in prose and haiku, taking it places well removed from more traditional travel-oriented haibun. The first-person narration is matter-of-fact, objective, almost journalistic in its use of concrete imagery. Terse clipped sentence fragments are interposed between full sentences, moving the story along and reinforcing its underlying tension. Each haiku extends the prose without repeating it, using strong visual images as in “winter stars hung out” on a wire fence.

The action appears to take place in and around a shipping harbor on an island, perhaps somewhere in the Caribbean. Not a big city, its shore lights reflect in water and stars shine through the ubiquitous barbed-wire surrounding a container port. Mise-en-scène establishes a tropical setting through specifics of the environment—seabird, sea poison trees, fire coral. But these named elements of the natural world belie any thought of a paradise. Frigate or man-o-war birds are kleptoparasites, stealing other birds’ food and occasionally, young. Beach apple or sea poison trees bear sweet fruit and scented flowers, but every part contains potent toxins. Stinging fire coral survives poor water conditions after hurricane damage, only to blanket the reef in solid plates, potentially choking out other life. The symbolism is redolent of impending dangers.

The story arc covers one night through morning of the next day. We infer the new arrival seeking “to unfind my sea legs” is an experienced sailor—not a stevedore, but a visitor familiar with this port or places like it from earlier association and acute observation. Perhaps a solo boat or yacht skipper who’s been at sea for a while or a regular casual traveller attuned to the surroundings. The tone of the opening stanza is drily laconic, with a twist of humor. Longshoremen “unload” onto mates. The bartender serves up “attitude” to loquacious customers. The seamen gab about weather oddities and a supermoon with attendant king tides. The cocktail mentioned, a “dark n’ stormy,” is ironically foreboding. Later, the narrator tries to light incense traditionally burned at temples for good fortune or to appease vexed gods. We feel building uneasiness through the choice of language in this second haiku. Damp, the sticks “refuse” to catch—another storm is imminent.

In the second stanza the setting is a sunny morning beach, an almost ritualistic cleansing after the previous night’s pub session and storm. But the fresh scene is again unsettled, this time by a dead rat, most likely an escapee from a moored ship (rats leaving a sinking ship?). The second haiku returns us to the close-knit world of old salts perpetually on alert to the moods of the sea, hungry for outside news, concerned about the growing frequency of storms and their effect on livelihoods. The haiku effectively conjures the visual: its “crease of sailors / along the fence” an effective refrain to the first haiku.

The closing stanza’s tone is somber and reflective. The narrator has come back down the town’s hill to a reality of inadequate concrete erosion barriers along a vital road link—a strong visual here with the “link and shift of dolosse.” A young boy, carefree and unknowing, skips along the seawall. There’s a brief wishful moment of hope for something wondrous to happen, some miracle to stem the rising sea. But the haibun does not end on an optimistic note. The reference to ‘sea monsters edging ever closer’ and the closing haiku’s cruising shark foreshadow what may lie in wait for the skipping boy’s world. Climate change heralds more damaging tropical storms and rising sea levels which threaten in the boy’s lifetime to devour his home and future. Prose, haiku, and title combine in this fine haibun to subtly convey a topical and sobering environmental message about our changing planet and what’s to come.

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