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Rich Youmans – Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun

Rich Youmans is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun for 2023 for the haibun:

What’s Underneath

Bianca lays out the cake just as her father is wheeled into the dining room. The orderly pats his shoulder — “Happy Birthday, Mr. Gorman” — before slipping back into the busy corridor. Bianca cuts a slice of cake, taking care to capture a creme rosette.1

1. After Mom died, I read through her diaries and found the entry about how, in her fifth month, she hung wallpaper with pink roses in my soon-to-be nursery. She had seen the ultrasound, something you refused to look at or believe. It’s going to be a boy, you insisted. She underlined that, noting how important that was for you, to have a son. That night, after too many shots of whiskey, you ripped everything down; I pictured strips of paper cowering along the baseboards. The next day Mom painted the room white. A fresh start.

in utero
her prayer mingles
with votive shadows

Bianca slides the cake onto a plate and places it before her father. Next to it she lays a thin package wrapped in blue2 foil.

2. That was your color. I still see you strutting around the house in your jeans and faded work-shirts, smelling of sawdust and nicotine. Even your eyes were blue — a cold blue whenever you looked at me. Sundays you’d watch football with the other men on our block. Sometimes they’d bring their sons and I could see it on your face, the way it darkened. Or at dinner, when Mom asked me about school, how you just ate in silence as I talked about my girlfriends — Jenny’s new sweater, the charms on Cindy’s bracelet. When you started to stab at your meat I knew to stop.

late sun
every shadow straining
to break free

His eyes narrow.3

3. I remember that look, your eyebrows lowering like storm clouds. I saw it that afternoon I tried to have a catch with Jimmy. He had been next door in his backyard, throwing himself popups. I was taking down Mom’s dresses from the clothesline. He called out to me — “Bianca, throw me a few flies” — and tossed over the ball. I tried, but my throw barely made it over the fence. That’s when you appeared, your eyes two slits. You grabbed the ball and began throwing Jimmy pitches that disappeared into his glove. Smack. Smack. His eyes lit up. So did yours.

twilight blue . . .
in the first star
a second chance

He pokes the package as if it were a wounded animal.4

4. Of course, Jimmy had to bring you that stray mutt he’d found. By then, you and he had become inseparable. He’d come over while you were tuning the Chevy, and you’d teach him how to change a spark plug. When his mother bought him a new baseball mitt, you both oiled it and wrapped it with twine, the ball a small fist in its pocket. Then he found that mutt, its matted fur the color of tar. You both washed him, gave him water. Jimmy’s mother, Mrs. Foley — Roselyn, you called her — came over later and couldn’t thank you enough. She had long red hair and a too-big laugh. One evening, after you left again for the pub, I asked Mom if Jimmy had a dad. She just shook her head real quick.

diary entry
between each line
the sound of rain

With a quick tug, Bianca tears off5 the wrapping.

5. I learned how easily things can be stripped away, that day you drove off in the moving van with Jimmy and Roselyn. After that, you were only a cramped signature on a monthly check. That’s when I started to keep a diary, just like Mom. I wrote page after page — first wondering, then pleading, then spitting hate. Every photo I could find of you I tore up. Except for that one of us on the Atlantic City boardwalk, sitting on a bench. I was three, sitting on Mom’s lap, my face looking up in wonder. You sat stiffly beside her, your hair close cropped. I wondered who took the shot — no doubt someone Mom hailed over. I kept it because of how young she looked. How she kept one hand around my waist, my palm wrapped around her raised thumb. How with her free hand she cradled your cheek. In that moment you looked like a lost boy.

waking from a dream
and yet . . .
morning moon

The light from the chandelier shimmers on a white6 box.

6. That was always Mom’s favorite color. After high school, when I worked in Mitchell’s Floral Shop, I brought home snowdrops, daisies, white roses. Anything to make her brighten. When she started to lose weight I’d buy her creme donuts from Mrs. Fillari’s bakery, where her son Matthew always slipped me an extra cruller. By then you were living upstate, although we weren’t sure where — the return addresses on the checks changed every few months. Summer evenings she and I would sit on the porch in those frayed lawn chairs that you and she had as furniture in your first apartment. Mom bundled a blanket around herself even in the height of August humidity. Sometimes we’d just stare at the sky and she’d tell me stories. Of you. How you loved to go camping with your father and grandfather when you were a boy. How they had taught you to be hard, a man, but still you sang to her at your wedding, your voice as tender as a silk ribbon. How things had been fine until she became pregnant. I’d feel my face tighten, but Mom would touch my hand. Bianca, don’t hate your father, she’d tell me, over and over. Until she couldn’t.

adding one more
stone to her cairn

Bianca touches his cheek.7 “Happy birthday, Daddy,” she says.

7. Funny, when the hospital called, the first thing I thought of was the Atlantic City photo. Matthew and I had moved to the coast, and I was working at a motel that overlooked the bay. It was winter, and I spent most nights checking in one-hour lovers and listening to the Spanish songs of off-season families. Somehow I wasn’t surprised that I was your emergency contact. You had written a few times after Roselyn left you, a handful of crammed words about your latest job and how you hoped to see me soon. The paper always carrying the scent of nicotine. I tore up the letters just like I did all those old photos. Well, almost all. Will you come to take your father? Outside in the courtyard, someone was singing a song with my name in the chorus, and something inside me fell away. It took me a moment to realize the nurse couldn’t hear my head nodding.

storm clouds
break — every wave
spreading moonlight

Bianca lifts the lid. His eyes widen.8

8. Matthew got the same look when I told him I wanted you to live with us. After all that he did? he kept saying, over and over. I had told him everything, of course, including how the police found you in the doorway of your walkup, the left side of your face drooping like a Dali painting. And how lost you looked when I saw you in the hospital after all those years — your good blue eye tearing up, your crumpled face so weak in the last of the sun’s light. All I could think of in that moment was Mom. Her words. Her touch. Her painting those walls.

new diary
the first word’s


—Rich Youmans, MacQueen’s Quinterly Issue 19


Please note: We did our best, but the formatting of the above haibun differs slightly from the published version, in which the text of the indented footnote sections, including the subsequent haiku, is grey, with a visible border on the left margin; the haiku is also centered under the indented text.

Commentary from the Panel: 

The intriguingly plotted prose of this haibun takes the shape of an autobiography consisting of two parallel narratives which link and shift relative to each other and the accompanying haiku, interweaving past and present life events. The title is apt—physical layout reinforces on the printed page “what’s underneath.” Bolded and superscripted story elements accompanying each section are related in a detached tone from a third person point of view, a coda relating to Bianca, who is visiting her infirm father, presumably in a nursing home. The inset numbered subsections or footnotes (in greyed font in the original) are Bianca’s intimate thoughts directed as if speaking aloud to her absent father, a dialogical soliloquy relating to her childhood. These memories are poignant and regretful, hurt but not angry, except when she describes destroying all but one of her father’s letters and photos. The haibun may be entered in different ways: tracing the third person narrative coda; following Bianca’s first person soliloquy for insights into her youth; and reading the whole serially with its key internal interlinks and haiku to tease out nuances of “what’s underneath.”

The haibun’s language is coolly objective, which lends weight to a tragic play of events. The father’s harsh nature emerges from graphically descriptive passages, revealing the psychological abuse and rejection Bianca experiences as a child—”ripped everything down”; “strips of paper”; “cowering along the baseboard”; “your face, the way it darkened”; “when you started to stab at your meat I knew to stop”; “eyebrows lowering like storm clouds”; “your eyes two slits.” By contrast, portrayed sympathetically in haiku and prose, Bianca’s mother emerges gently from her daughter’s story. Telling Bianca stories of the man she married, she expresses the fervent wish her daughter will not hate the father, who sang at their wedding in a “voice as tender as a silk ribbon”—a beautiful image imbued with forgiveness. From the haiku which closes this section (6) we learn of the death of Bianca’s cherished mother.

Between sections, links relating to objects, colors and actions connect past with present. A cake decoration recalls nursery wallpaper roses, blue foil the father’s eye color, and the white gift box a mother’s love for white flowers and a repainted nursery. Each contemporary action is revealed in the light of memories, many less than happy—her father’s drunken rage, his narrowed glances at what he regards as his daughter’s shortcomings, his macho favoritism of the kid next door, even the pervasive smell of tobacco in his miserly letters. He pokes Bianca’s gift “as if it were a wounded animal.” Given his weakness after a stroke, it’s Bianca who tears off the gift wrap to reveal—what? We’re not told, and the revelation remains mysterious. Whatever it is, this gift is something the father doesn’t expect, seems suspicious of, and may not welcome. Is it that old photograph in which a small girl has a tight grip on her mother’s finger? Bianca’s childhood diary?

Haiku after each soliloquy section link and shift from the prose, deepening the haibun’s mood and direction. The earlier haiku convey hope that circumstances may change for the better. But by the fourth haiku with its “sound of rain,” the tone darkens into an inevitability of loss. The moon features in three subsequent haiku, as a symbol of change and the beginnings of acceptance—”something in me fell away.” The final haiku heralds beginnings of a new attitude. “What’s Underneath” stands out for its unique form and adds significantly to the genre. The two entwined narratives are deftly handled, allowing the story to flow easily, with the triumvirate of title, prose and haiku creating a unified whole. There’s sufficient mystery to richly repay re-reading of this winning work.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Absolutely stunning. Extended writing over three levels at such excellence is something that many of us could barely contemplate . Breathtaking and touching in its exploration of humanity.

  2. Fresh style—like a 3D layered vignette. Well crafted with an epic tale told within one haibun.

  3. Fantastic.

    A testament to the power of the form—and a textbook example of an extended haibun.

  4. Each time I read this haibun, I am overcome with its mastery of the form/emotion.

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