Roberta Beary is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Haibun for 2022 for:
After Long Absence
the wrinkles on your face have as many different patterns as a snowflake. a snowflake falls between us signaling a change in the temperature like an avalanche brewing in the teapot. in the teapot you gave me so many Christmases ago I save the letters you wrote when you loved me. when you loved me the weather didn’t matter because every day was a rainbow made of angel wings. angel wings on the snow-covered ground form a pattern made by children. children we always meant to have.
a part of me
—Contemporary Haibun Online 18.3
Commentary from the Panel:
Written in the first person and addressed to an intimate, shadowy other, “After Long Absence” is an autobiographical prose poem where each ending becomes a new beginning. Transporting the reader in a series of temporal jumps along a vertical axis which represents the intersection of memories, the form makes effective use of gradatio, where the poet repeats at the beginning of each new sentence the last phrase of the previous one. Its trajectory segues from thought to thought like a commonly used associative neuropsychological test. The linking phrases serve to shift the narrative in novel directions through space and time, and seasonality is invoked as in renga, with wintry images beginning and closing the haibun. As the haibun advances line by line, its poetic rhythm and tone emphasize the movement from one state of being to the next. Omission of initial uppercase letters adds to this smooth flow and contributes to an incantatory mood, sustained through the rueful closing diminuendo.
In keeping with the basics of haibun as set out by Makoto Ueda in the biography Matsuo Bashō (Kodansha International Ltd, 1982), structure and language are spare and detached, allowing the haibun to expand in the reader’s imagination and leaving space for different associations. Childlike wonder is set against objective visual observation. As the narrative arc progresses from a matter-of-fact impression of an intimately known and once-beloved face viewed in a photo album, in memory or in person, abstract images based on recollections begin to surface. The tenor of the musings quickly cools between the first and second sentences, from a benign comparison of wrinkle patterns to “a snowflake” to the jarring “avalanche brewing.” Metaphor is used to convey innocence and a yearning for days as “a rainbow made of angel wings.”
The enigmatic title “After Long Absence” could refer to physical absence, the slow death of a relationship, or the fading of hope. A regretful train of thought is triggered by a photograph, or a chance meeting with someone not seen for years, or light falling at a certain angle on a too-familiar face. We discover the narrator was once passionately adored, as well as adoring, and treasures keepsakes of blissful days “when you loved me.” Old letters are squirreled away in the teapot, a gift now kept unused on a kitchen shelf. With love worn threadbare, what emerges is the poignancy of loss – a lament for children who were dearly wanted but were never born, for reasons we can only guess at.
Teapot and letters may be from a lover or partner, but this is not made explicit. Reading the haibun we assume the person addressed directly as ‛you’ throughout is, or was, the narrator’s lover or partner. The final sentence “children we always meant to have” appears to confirm this interpretation. However, other meanings may be teased out. Could the letters and teapot – the latter an odd gift coming from a sweetheart – instead be from a mother who has been parted from her child, perhaps not by choice? Perhaps ‛you’ is not the narrator’s partner or lover but refers to an estranged parent. In this reading, the haibun’s final line “children we always meant to have” becomes an accusation directed at an absent parent, mourning how life for the narrator, overshadowed by a discordant past, has veered off track to become not at all what they imagined.
All human heredity is determined by the double-stranded architecture of DNA molecules. Some seek out ancestral pedigrees and genetic matches when they desire to learn who they really are, or where they may have sprung from, especially as they get older. On the other hand, DNA maps can be disappointing when segmental gaps in lineages don’t tell the whole story. The haiku’s reference to “chart” juxtaposed with “a part of me still missing” may symbolize an unreconciled element of the narrator’s own history, or be an expression of regret about what will not appear in the future.
Whether the story is of severed familial connections or the emotional aridity of a once-ardent relationship, what emerges vividly is a sense of deep grief and unfulfilled longing. This is a complex haibun stratified with meaning which resonates well beyond its deceptively gentle, low-key telling.
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.