Whatever else he may be, Bill Owen is a consummate storyteller. This slender volume of haibun captures the reader's interest with the title piece, "small events," which compares the author's memories with a family photo album, "put together in haste, out of chronological order, too many shots of some events, too few of others." The interest never wanes, as we discover also his strong sense of what makes a book a book, following through with the theme of photo moments from the everyday sandwiched in with the historic moments we all remember. For example, who doesn't remember a landmark birthday:
November 22, 1963. From overhead, the crack of the
PA system announcing "the President is dead." He was
forty-six. In the long hallway of our high school, there is
an eerie creak of lockers opening and closing, like
little coffins. On the way home, I kick a can ahead of
me. A little boy's game I decide, kicking it into the
gutter. Sixteen. I am sixteen today. Arriving home, I
see that Momma has made my favorite cake: banana
nut with butter cream icing. The candles are on it
already, but everyone is huddled around the TV.
in black and white
Marilyn Monroe sings
happy birthday (p. 39)
Owen is also adept at handling the problem of tenses, which challenges every haibun writer. He navigates so skillfully between past and present the reader is scarcely aware of the structure, blending his/her own memories with the public events anchoring the particular within the universal, the real within the surreal. Another example we can all relate to:
Returning after years away, I walk onto the Oahu
beach. This sheltered cove is where the memorable
love scene in "From Here to Eternity" was filmed. I
had taken hundreds of SCUBA students across this
sand where famous actors had wallowed. On dives
with my buddies, we spread speared fish here. They
flapped over and over on the sand until they seemed
breaded for frying. Now even those times seem distant
as I kneel near the surf where remnants of waves wet
my trousers. This is the first time I had worn long pants
here. Removing my shirt, I tie it around my throat like
a neckerchief. The spray from the Blowhole a few yards
away wraps everything in salt mist. I crack a smile
and murmur "I love the smell of salt in the morning."
The Colonel in "Apocalypse Now" surely must have
felt the same. A moment sealed in time by the smell
of napalm incinerating all that it touched in gelatinous
globs. Like me in my fully wet pant legs, an emblazoned
I read in the newspaper that the U.S. military has
decided to stop making napalm.
the Portuguese man-of-war
shrinks into itself (p. 27)
Sensory appeal, diversity in subject matter, and a careful blending of form and content make this a good book. It is also an attractive book, with the image of a scuba diver in an underwater cave on the front cover, and snapshots from a scrap book on the back.
But the main attraction, in my opinion, is the sense of connection the poet conveys between the "small events" of ordinary experience and the parade of history we are part of. This is a book one can return to time and again, for a quick run-through or a slow browse, stirring memories--the way we return to a family photo album. I have read it several times, and each time I pick it up, I am rewarded with nuances I hadn't noticed before. It is both a good read, and a model for writers, who might like to capture their own memories in haibun.
Another stocking stuffer my family would enjoy.