Jane Fraser

NWR Issue 103

Bog Cotton

I have two copies of Bog Cotton. Its not quite the case that it’s so good I bought it twice. The second copy came with this reviewing commission. The first to come into my possession is signed by the author. It was bought at the end of a joint workshop he ran with another virtuoso of the haiku story form, Lynne Rees, at the Dylan Thomas Centre at the end of 2012. Together they extolled the literary possibilities of the genre – which, with its roots in Japan and despite a couple of decades of pioneering by Jones and others in the field, still finds itself somewhat at the margins of English literature.

At that time I was a novice to the haibun as I still call it; even skeptical as to its merits. Boy, was I proved wrong. I left that session smitten with both the literary form and the man, whose spirit infused the workshop and the work I was to read for the first time in this collection.

Jones’ life is bared in a self-deprecating and unpretentious way in these haiku stories and haiku. You’ll feel his wry wit, intelligence, above all his spirituality. Here is a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously and who, despite knowing there is a ‘black reef ahead’, is firm in his belief that ‘in the rigging the wind is singing’.

Bog Cotton is easily accessible to reading from cover to cover. Or indeed for dipping in and out of the seven sections. Each offers carefully crafted haibun (let’s call this prose akin to the short story form interspersed with carefully placed and carefully crafted haiku) around particular themes, starting with Black Comedy and ending with The Grave and the Constant, with five in between dealing with place both physical and psychological. There are themes that revolve around the landscape, the Welsh language, historical roots and physical fixes. And there are themes about where we find ourselves on life’s journey: in love, in lust, lonely, sad, sick, euphoric or facing death. Each of the sections is concluded with a selection of free-standing haiku, seventy-seven in all, which might be short in line, but last long in the mind.

By revealing himself to his readers, Jones enables us to reveal ourselves to ourselves and in so doing, understand what it is to be human. Some haibun and haiku will perhaps resonate longer than others because the shared experience is closer. For me such an example was a memory of a past Christmas spent alone:

Pulling the cracker
my left hand and my right hand
enjoy Christmas together

And also times spent on a urology ward when I was at my lowest but could see the funny side through the darkness:

Urine catheter
her Gucci handbag
a rich Sauternes

Throughout Bog Cotton, Jones shows his skill with language to illuminate the small and make it universal. He has a keen ear for dialogue and a keen eye for situation. Although I enjoyed the self-standing haiku at the end of every section, I feel they could have been allowed more space on the page to breathe. But that is just nit-picking with a designer’s eye. I do know the pressure to fill white space. For me, like a good marriage, the strength of Jones’ work is the haiku story: the sum of its two parts – the concrete haiku images dove-tailing purposefully with the main thrust of the narrative to allow time for reflection. Together, they enable the reader to say: Yes, I can relate to that. I am like that. We are all like that.

The title of the book is taken from the final haiku story, ‘Bog Cotton’: you will probably never read anything which more beautifully describes the fragility of life and the questions we ask as we journey towards death.

This is Welsh poet Jones’ sixth title, following on the heels of The Stone Leeks and The Parsley Bed and I am certainly looking forward to the next.

Jane Fraser writes for New Welsh Review online.

Buy this book at gwales.com


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