Tag Archives: haiku

Robert Zend – Part 12. International Affinities: Belgium (Magritte) and Japan

TITLE WITH BUSINESS CARD IMAGE AND BYLINE

Part 12. International Affinities:
Belgium (Magritte) and Japan

          Robert Zend’s international openness was remarkable, especially during a time when a broad tendency in Canadian culture was to look within Canada’s borders for inspiration in order to foster a national cultural identity. As a cosmopolitan Canadian writer and artist, Zend found affinities and friendships not only in his home countries of Hungary and Canada, but also among a writers, artists, and cultural traditions around the world.
          In the last few installments, I’ve discussed his aesthetic kinship with cultural figures in Hungary (Imre Madách, Frigyes Karinthy, and the Budapest Joke of Eastern European Jewish tradition), Canada (Marshall McLuhan, bpNichol, Robert Sward, Robert Priest, The Four Horsemen, Glenn Gould, and Norman McLaren), France (Marcel Marceau), Argentina (Jorge Luis Borges), and Italy (Giacomo Leopardi and Luigi Pirandello). In addition, after his move to Canada, Zend connected with immigrant writers and artists from Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan, and Spain, sometimes engaging in creative collaborations with them.
          The current installment, which focuses on Belgium (Magritte) and Japanese traditions (haiku and origami), will end my exploration of Zend’s international affinities.
          In the next installment, the last substantive one in this series, I’ll show Zend as a multi-media artist who not only worked in more traditional paper collages but also used such unusual materials as thumbtacks, string, toilet paper rolls, and automotive gaskets, and exploited technologies such as the typewriter and the computer to create his visual art. In addition, Zend was a self-described “inveterate doodler,” the truth of which I learned from sifting through the extensive Zend archives at the University of Toronto. From this research, I’ve culled a variety of these sketches, from casual to intricate, poignant to humorous, as well as selected a few examples from his unpublished manuscript entitled How Do Yoo Doodle?.

An Eight-Ball for Magritte

          Zend developed his own unique spin on surrealism, informed by an early interest in the fantastical in Hungary and nourished by his study of surrealism in artists such as René Magritte. Of the influence of the latter, most obvious is the portrait of Zend on the cover of Beyond Labels, designed by John Lloyd. The face of the formally-attired Zend is obscured by a large eight-ball; another eight-ball floats in the cloudy sky. The image bears a striking resemblance to Magritte’s 1964 self-portrait with signature bowler hat, Le fils de l’homme, face similarly obscured by an apple (figs. 1 and 2):
MAGRITTE AND ZEND
          Magritte’s own words bespeak the themes of concealment and unknowability in his art:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.1

In Magritte’s statement can be heard an echo of Marcel Marceau’s concern with masks and with illusion and reality, and the passage also strikes a chord with Zend’s own literary and artistic themes.
          “Climate,” for example, Zend’s prose poem dedicated to Magritte, is likely an ekphrastic poem based on any of several paintings by Magritte in which the separation between interior and exterior is either confounded or based on an illusion:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

          In the room in which I work it often rains. Sometimes the sun shines, but usually it’s twilight. Bright in one corner, dark in another, the weather can’t seem to make up its mind.
          When I can’t take much more of it, I wander outdoors. The hills are gentle, the brooks are bubbling, the trees are whispering. Then I switch on the overhead light, turn up the heat, draw up a chair, sit down in front of my desk, and begin to work — until the clock tells me it’s time to quit.2

Weather incongruously occupies the writer’s room. And this weather is personified as fickle: it “can’t seem to make up its mind.” The writer seeks relief from the vagaries of the room’s elements and light by wandering outdoors through a soothing scene that is as clichéd — babbling brooks and rolling hills — as it is illusory, instantly morphing into an ordinary interior with overhead light, desk, and clock. In going outside and then inside, the writer has crossed no literal threshold, a clue that the divisions between indoors and outdoors, fickle and pleasant weather, and fantastical and quotidian are not literal either.
          Instead, Zend renders a metapoetic image of the act of writing. The writer, disturbed by indecisive climate (perhaps a symptom of writer’s block), mentally steps outdoors into a calming, postcard-like scene, which seems just as unreal as the capricious indoors climate. The artificial banality of the landscape creates the degree of calm distraction that facilitates creative flow. But the results of that flow are not revealed, and the fashioned scenes of room and outdoors, of interior and exterior, themselves become the artifacts of writing, including the oddly mundane yet somehow apt ending: “until the clock tells me it’s time to quit.” Paradoxically, the poem’s subject (the writing of the poem) is both concealed and revealed in the act of writing.
MAGRITTE PERSONAL VALUES          Magritte’s Les Valeurs personelles (Personal Values) (fig. 3) is possibly the work that inspired Zend’s “Climate.” Like Zend’s poem, Magritte’s still life discombobulates the viewer’s sense of indoors and outdoors, and it subverts the normal utility of objects, as in the giant comb and wine glass. Magritte’s surrealism disturbs the normal context of objects (indoors becomes outdoors; small becomes gigantic), a feature of his work that informs Zend’s self-referential poem.
          Lastly, in 1971, Zend wrote in Hungarian ten brief poems each entitled “Magritte,” which Janine Zend published in the posthumous collection Versek, Kepversek (1988). As far as I know, no English translation exists of these poems.
          And this may be as good a place as any to point out that many other poems by Zend remain untranslated into English, which poses a problem for a more complete discussion of his work. A review in the Ottawa Journal of Zend’s first book of poetry, From Zero to One, praises efforts to translate and publish his poetry:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

The poetry of Hungarian-born Robert Zend is surreal, brilliant, and witty. Zend’s fantasies operate between the twin poles of profundity and humour. John Robert Colombo believes (and with reason) that were Zend writing in English or French, he would be recognized as one of Canada’s leading poets: “But because he writes his witty, inventive, resourceful and extremely imaginative poems in his native language, he is known only to a handful of Canadians.”3

Since that time, a good deal more of his work has been translated, and some Zend wrote in English himself. However, much still remains untranslated, including three collections that Janine Zend published after Robert’s death: Versek, képversek (1988), Hazám törve kettővel (1991), and Fából vaskarikatúrák (1993). It would be a gift to Canadian and world culture if more of his works were made available to a wider audience. The republication of out-of-print editions would be a most worthwhile project, as would a collected or selected works edition.

Japan: “The Great Spirit of a Small Nation”

          Some of Zend’s poems and visual works were influenced by Japanese poetic forms and cultural traditions, namely, haiku and origami. Among Zend’s unpublished manuscripts is a collection of haiku from the mid- to late-1960s entitled The Fourth Line. Zend states that although he is a “true admirer” of Japanese culture, he makes no claim to approaching anything “faintly similar to the perfection of the original Japanese haiku”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Besides a lot of other faults, my biggest “westernism” is that I could not eliminate my ego-centrism from my transcendental approach to existence, although I would not give up keeping on trying. . . . Consider [these poems] only as efforts to understand and appreciate through experience the great spirit of a small nation, among the big ones.4

What the haiku in The Fourth Line might lack in formal orthodoxy, Zend makes makes up for in inventiveness, including the following variations:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

  1. Riddles, puzzles which challenge the validity of the mind’s judgment of reality;
  2. moods, impressions, feelings which are lyrical expressions of my personal life;
  3. intellectual ponderings on the controversies of our space-age and social problems;
  4. Western three-liners which have nothing to do with the original concept of haiku;
  5. jokes, games, drawings, concrete experiments;
  6. philosophical statements;
  7. miscellaneous and unidentified.5

Below is a brief sample of poems from The Fourth Line:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

AFTER DEPARTURE

Like a severed arm
left on the battlefield
you still give me pain

*

A cat was meowing
I gave him milk in a plate
Now I am happy

*

SUNDAY AFTERNOON MOOD:
A POEM IN WHICH THE POET TRIES TO EXPRESS
THE EFFECT OF THE WEATHER
ON HIS MOOD

I
am
raining6

          Among Zend’s Japanese-influenced concrete experiments are works inspired by origami, including a vanishing origami sequence and a page of concrete poems that “folds” the word “origami” in various two-dimensional configurations (figs. 4 and 5):

ORIGAMI DIAGRAM + ORIGAMI CONCRETE

          In his variations on haiku and renderings of origami Zend approaches Japanese traditions with humility and admiration, yet also infuses them with a spirit of playful inventiveness that shows a range of approaches from lyrical to conceptual, and from linguistic to visual.

Next Installment — Part 13.
Gaskets, Thumbtacks, Toilet Paper Rolls . . .
and Doodles


Camille Martin

The Humble Monostich

                                                                mono / stich

        The monostich could inspire a question for poetic Trivial Pursuit: What form (other than prose poetry and vispo) has no line breaks?
        The monostich has none because it consists of a single line. In the essay collection A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, Kimiko Hahn explores this Lilliputian form, both in its literal manifestation—a poem written and intended as a monostich—and as a “found monostich,” the idea of reading a poem with an appreciation for an individual line as “a startling fragment that [has] its own integrity.”
        For the latter, Hahn gives examples of such lines to be savoured for their poetic cadence from Denise Levertov’s “A Common Ground”:

grown in grit or fine
[. . .]
new green, of coppery
[. . .]
crumpled wax paper, cartons
[. . .]
curved, green-centered, falling

A single line within Levertov’s poem becomes an imagined monostich, suspended in its own time and space.
        Hahn points out that whereas imagery appeals to the visual imagination, cadence involves the ear attuned to the pitch and rhythm of a group of words, and she recounts that in her evolution as a poet she gradually became aware of the qualities of poetic cadence while considering such found monostiches within longer poems.
        Barbara Guest comes to mind as another poet who often sculpts her lines with a stand-alone quality, such as the following from Quilts:

where footsteps tremble on quicksand squiggly
[. . .]
third time white like autumn squash
[. . .]
minnows on muslin

        One of my works-in-progress contains a section of short poems, “R is the Artichoke of Rose.” I skimmed through it looking for monostiches, certain that there’d be a handful, but was surprised to find only one. The majority are between two and six lines. I’d forgotten that most of the ultra-short poems that were originally written as one line have since been revised into lineated poems.
        Why have I avoided the monostich, even in the case of a “flash poem” consisting of two words? I think it is because my ear—and mind—have become attuned to the argument of the sonnet. Although many of the poems in my Sonnets are far from traditional, I can see that the idea of the argument or even simply the development of an idea attracted me to that ancient form. The “if” and “then” structure had its appeal, and if the argument of a sonnet turned out to be illogical or open-ended, then that could become part of the movement of thought, the disruption of the proposition-conclusion folded into the scheme, observing itself in the act of giving the mental slip.
        My lone monostich in “R is the Artichoke of Rose” is a parody of a famous line by Emily Dickinson:

I heard a Leafblower—when I died—

If the monostich has an argument, it’s necessarily more subtle, even if it’s on the scale of subject-predicate, clause-clause, or a pithy dialogue with a predecessor.
        Below are some more true monostiches, memorable not only because their brevity makes them so easy to remember. Here’s one from Craig Dworkin’s aptly-named Motes:

WILTED TULIPS

split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew

The delicate tongue-twister of staccato plosives creates a striking image developing the title: the poetic miniature satisfies both ear and eye.
        In John Ashbery’s “37 Haiku,” each unfurls on a single line, and again, these monostiches turn on striking images, as in these two:

Night occurs dimmer each time with the pieces
        of light smaller and squarer

A blue anchor grains of grit in a tall sky sewing

In the second monostich, the final word, “sewing,” subtly echoes Lautréamont’s famous description of beauty as “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” That statement, which became a sort of anthem for surrealists, speaks of the mysterious charm that ensues from the dialogue among disparate images. Perhaps the chance encounter involves some stitching together of such images, and Ashbery’s allusion nicely suggests the marriage of anchor and sandy grit in the sky, which might be reflected in “tall” or oceanic water.
        Many of Ron Padgett’s monostiches in “To Francis Sauf Que” exemplify his signature humour. I almost bypassed the one below, but it grew on me. (I’m finding that the effectiveness of some of the more successful monostiches increases exponentially with the thoughts they generate.)

Now I love you again because of these roosters.

Padgett’s fragment appears to be lifted from a narrative; the absence of context gives the line a twist of absurdity. But it also seems to offer a goofy explanation for the mysterious force that compels one person to be attracted to another, in this case perhaps in an on-again-off-again relationship: I’m not sure exactly why I love you again (the speaker seems to say), but these roosters are as good a reason as any. The line has the qualities of both a dramatic assertion and an aphorism.
        I don’t think the poem would work as well as a couplet:

Now I love you again
because of these roosters.

The separation of the abstraction (love) from the image (roosters) drains the poem of its humour. It’s funny and poignant precisely because of its seamless, matter-of-fact, droll delivery. The line break is overkill.
        Almost none of the more impressive one-liners survives exclusively on abstraction. In the example by Padgett, “love” is paired with a vivid image, “roosters,” which also serves as a kind of punch line to the enigma of love.
        A few years ago, issues of Peter O’Toole: A Magazine of One-Line Poems began to surface in Toronto, published by Stuart Ross. It’s the only magazine I know of that specialized in the monostich. Here’s one by Clarice Eckford that nicely captures a particular type of tedium:

WAITING FOR THE BUS

knee-deep in cement

And Dani Couture’s ear- and eye-fest:

Freezer unfrozen, slabs relax in the november electric heat.

        And Stuart Ross’s deadpan deflation of vainglory, perhaps describing the imagined triumph of a poet arriving in town for a reading versus the mundane reality:

AND THEY SHALL GREET US WITH ROSES

The cheeseburger broke out of the plastic bag.

        Steve Venright’s contributions hinge on spoonerisms:

With his long reach he pulled out the wrong leech.

        And Joel Dailey offers a sardonic take on adjusting to the end times:

CELL PHONE BITCH SLAP

The end of the world may require some lifestyle changes

        Lastly, one of my own from the magazine:

dead saints dream of the enshrined relics of their flight

        At least some of the monostiches above that have titles could arguably be called distiches. But such an argument might be putting too fine a point on the matter. Why shouldn’t monostiches be entitled to titles?
        Anyway, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m not in the mood to split hairs. So here’s a parting monostich for everyone who’s read to the end:

Happy New Year!


Camille Martin