Commentary from the Panel:
We live in a war-torn world. Some might even fear that we are on the brink of a third world war with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Sean O’Connor’s remarkable book of haibun, The God of Bones, serves as both a painful reminder of this fact as well as a witness standing vigil for the survival of humanity. O’Connor strives to offer hope and reconciliation in the face of traumas, whether they are international or domestic.
What separates this book from other books of haibun is its broad scope. There is a reporter’s tone to many of the haibun that read almost like persona pieces in which O’Connor is writing from the point of view of a citizen, a soldier, or a survivor of some horrific act.
O’Connor is extremely knowledgeable about the literary origins of haiku and haibun. A Japanese speaker, he has noted in an interview that the early development of the haibun form by Matsuo Bashō in the writing of his classic novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North: “The haiku drive the haibun from the beginning. They are primary and the prose is secondary.”
Just as the world acts as the context for O’Connor’s prose, his prose is the context for the poems contained in each haibun. With this in mind, one can appreciate the added emotional resonance that his prose gives to each of his haiku.
O’Connor’s attention to each word choice contributes to the flow of each sentence revealing an experienced hand. The God of Bones is a departure from the often-seen autobiographical haibun. O’Connor’s approach highlights the fact that haibun is no different in its goal as any literary form—which is to deliver an emotional connection to the reader. It is exactly this expanded scope that makes The God of Bones stand out.
In O’Connor’s retelling of various trials and tribulations in five sections, he offers us something good in return for our attention to stories of death, violence, power, and war. In the haibun “On Target,” we follow a group of journalists staying the night in a cramped hotel, listening to artillery shelling targets in the night. A concept that is central to the work is artfully revealed in this piece—how do we deal with darkness persisting in our society—how do we deal with it time and time again? Should we expect any less darkness as our 21st-century ages? An unnamed narrator muses that “we are so used to deciding when to turn off electric lights and to choosing when we are in darkness, that we seem to imagine that darkness is something we control, that it is as artificial as the electric light itself. And how much else in our lives do we falsely believe we can control?” This thought occurs to the narrator against the backdrop of him learning the shelling of targets is being committed and timed in a highly concentrated, calculated way so that the targets all explode at once, causing a bigger bang, causing more damage, causing more darkness. Many of the haibun work in allegorical ways in order to comment on our modern society. O’Connor would like to see us catch ourselves in each minute, suggesting that we must recalibrate each minute, that the world starts over each minute, as the big bang happens again in the story, the narrator sees anew, if only for an instant. O’Connor wants us to see we are made up of instances and will have to rely on our own inner light when there is none.
For example, in the haibun entitled “Something Good,” one woman attempts to come to terms with sexual assault at the hands of her father. Her task is to empty the family’s home after a lifetime of his hoarding. Again, the reader is given the painful back story but there is always the salvation of perception.
a hundred shiny spoons
in every one of them
this winter moon
O’Connor gives us the haunting ‘God of Bones’ as a character in this collection to help us understand ourselves at this international time of peril. In a series of five pieces titled sequentially, O’Connor gives voice to this entity that advises the reader along his challenging journey through these haibun. The ‘God of Bones’ conducts purification rituals by grinding bones, displaying them, or painting them. Interestingly, each of these five pieces reveals that the ‘God of Bones’ is an old character who appears to have been beside humanity throughout the ages, perhaps the ‘God of Bones’ even learned some of its rituals from our ancient ancestors. All of this is to say that there is a higher order at work, an all-knowing presence that is beyond all recognizable religions. But it is the poet who gets the last word.
The last haibun in the collection is titled “Perfection,” which is a reminder of The Noble Eightfold Path, a Buddhist teaching aimed at reaching the end of suffering. Through “right understanding, right thought, right speech” . . . O’Connor offers his readers no easy solutions to his subject matter. Instead, he offers acceptance. The impermanence of all things is indeed a belief in the spirit of haiku. O’Connor reminds us that suffering is also impermanent, as illustrated in the haibun “Soft”:
“By the banks of the Miljacka…” is a refrain befitting an ode that begins each of the three paragraphs of the haibun. The battle scene is horrific. The details reflect the urgency and danger. And yet, the capping haiku offers respite as fleeting as the most simple of sounds and movement as a sign that there is a way out of all this suffering:
midday heat . . .
with death in all directions
soft the sound of water
O’Connor repeatedly speaks in the first person in many of his haibun from the point of view of a refugee, a citizen soldier, or a survivor. Because we are all survivors, for the most part, witnessing the bomb raids in Bakhmut or the recent mass poisonings in Iran. The God of Bones is a reporter’s journal and a poet’s prescription for survival. And how exactly does one survive these atrocities? Through the rituals of living which O’Connor so poignantly reimagines.”
See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.