A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Jianqing Zheng’s new book of poems, winner of the 2019 Gerald Cable Book Award, is a collection of haibun, a Japanese literary form first used by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century that combines prose and haiku juxtaposed to provide a fresh “way of looking” at an event, a scene, a character, an anecdote, a sort of “double vision.” The form is inherently reflective, meditative, while being descriptive in brief but vivid prose and incorporates elements of autobiography, essay, flash fiction/nonfiction. The accompanying haiku may be seen as a subtle commentary or summation of the prose passage.  A Way of Looking is divided into four sections, “On the Road,” “Farewell,” “Momentary Stay” and “Forever,” which feels almost like the cycle of seasons, so that the reader has a sense of coming “full circle,” experiencing the writing, which indeed has many seasonal referents.
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Just as Bashō’s haibun were originally travel accounts from his various journeys, so many of Zheng’s are the same, as is evident from the title of the first section. In many of these, Zheng, who lives in Mississippi, drives around the Deep South region in search of the places where famous bluesmen performed.  As he writes in “Weekend Drive, 1998”:
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After landing a university job in the Mississippi Delta, I fell in love with photographing blues sites for my research. One Saturday I went to grab shots in Moorhead where W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues” immortalized the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo Delta railroads.

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            juke joint blues
            a sluggish creek crosses
            through town
            by a lean-to shack
            blooming wisteria
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He drives on to Inverness, hometown of Little Milton, another bluesman, looking for Arcola. He gets lost, asks directions from various people, one of whom suggests Zheng, who looks a little bewildered by the instructions, follow him in his truck, until he finally finds the fork to Arcola.  He rolls down his window and thanks the man. “Oh, brother, the back road wasn’t that hard to find.” In “Birds of Passage” he is driving to the airport in Memphis, just before dawn. “We cross the Yazoo River Bridge, pass Baptist Town where the bluesman Robert Johnson died of poison,” eventually passing Avalon, “where the blues marker for Mississippi John Hurt looms above the roadside high weeds.”   As day starts to break, he slows down, “to catch this gorgeous flight:

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            crack of dawn
            thousands of snow geese
            honk off the fields”
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His travels take him to Helena, Arkansas, New Orleans, Tokyo, Wuhan and Canton, China, where the protagonist of the haibun encounters

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            a rooster’s crow
            headstone
            of a Chinese railroad builder
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The haibun in the “Farewell” section are more third-person sketches and anecdotes than personal reflections or reminiscences. They are all located in China. “Mediation in Changsha, China,” “Moon Festival,”  “Home,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” an amusing anecdote about a man named Seng whose snoring disturbs his wife, are some of the titles. The accompanying haiku to this latter reads: “spring equinox— / a cat’s nocturnal yowl / in the front yard.” The title is a sly reference to the popular belief that the romance in a marriage dies with sustained familiarity. You can feel the wife’s frustration!  There’s even a haibun called “Responses” that recalls an inane song in praise of Chairman Mao that he was forced to sing during the Cultural Revolution. The selection ends with the humorous haiku:

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            riverside hip hop
            even the water
            starts twerking

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“Fish Debate,” another haibun from this second section, has a very Taoist point-of-view. Two ancient Chinese philosophers, Zhuang Zi and Hui Si, walk by a river and see fish. Zhuang Zi (known also in literature as Chuang Tzu) thinks they look happy, but Hui Si says it’s not possible to know if fish are happy. Zhuang Zi replies, “You are not me; how do you know I don’t know the fish are happy?” This is so much like the other famous Taoist about Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. The accompanying haiku reads:
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which came first,
the hen or the egg? –
endless rain

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The “Momentary Stay” section brings us back to Mississippi. “Night in the Mississippi Delta,” “Road to Vicksburg,” “The Bayou by the Home in the Woods” are some of the titles of haibun that take us to specific scenes. In “Road to Vicksburg” the narrator sees a dead armadillo in the road and, momentarily distracted, nearly collides with an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.

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by the blues highway
to casino
a wreathed cross tilts in wind

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In “Delta Wind,” Zheng writes with an almost Kerouac-like flair, “the wind rises like the saddest blues blown from a sax in a lean-to juke joint.” The accompanying haiku reads:

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autumn night
a freight train chugging
across the Yazoo

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A Way of Looking is dedicated to the memory of Don and Nell George. The final section, “Forever,” includes several tender haibun written in their memory. The Georges welcomed Zheng to Hattiesburg, Mississippi when he came to the United States from China as a young man, and he feels a great love for them, a sadness at their death, but the haibun express an enduring connection that itself reflects back on the section title.
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Many of Zheng’s haibun include more than one verse passage. Many of the haiku contain seasonal references, and this is true of the three included in “Eulogy,” written in memory of Don George. The first reads:

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            summer visit –
            in the town where
            I was born
            I’m asked
            where I’m from
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The second follows the reflection, “He taught me to pronounce a word in English, how to mow the grass, and more importantly, how to be a man in my life.” The verse that follows reads:

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            spring morning
            mom and dad chat
            over coffee
            memory an aroma
            of old times
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Finally, after thanking both Don and Nell for their kindness and guidance, he concludes the haibun:

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            autumn dusk
            an empty recliner
            in the den
            a lonely cat
            at the window
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The section and the book end with a short haibun called “Waiting for spring” that sums up not only the section but Zheng’s overarching philosophy as well:
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When life stops clicking, body – a mass of elements – can be turned to ashes, used as fertilizer for flowerbeds.
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                        autumn dusk
                        a worn-out jacket
                        on a peg
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Jianqing Zheng’s A Way of Looking alters the reader’s own vision, providing a view of reality that’s more peaceful, more benevolent, more thoughtful.
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You can find the book here: A Way of Looking
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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