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A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Commentary: on Glenn Coats’ haibun, ‘Turntable Junction’


By Ray Rasmussen


In the few years since he began writing haibun, Glenn Coats has become one of our best and most prolific writers1. So when I received his newly released collection of haibun and haiku, Snow on the Lake2, I read it with high expectations and wasn’t let down. However, this is not a review of Coats’ book. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on one haibun, “Turntable Junction,” 3 his memory of one of those most difficult of human experiences – betrayal and unrequited love.

As an editor of a haibun journal, many submissions I receive employ a surprise ending, that is, a story unfolds that deliberately has been made oblique so it’s not until we read the last passages or haiku that we come to understand the story. This practice, if done well, fits with the suggestion by Billy Collins, past Poet Laureate of the United States, that readers crave "a mixture of clarity and mysteriousness."4

In “Turntable Junction,” Coats finds that mix of clarity and mysteriousness in masterly fashion. His haibun is a play that unfolds bit-by-bit in five acts.

In Act 1, he provides a few details about a fishing excursion:

I have no idea as we wade into the river. Our heads bow as we thread salmon eggs onto golden hooks. The distance grows between us as we toss our lines upstream and let the baits bounce along the bottom. You never say a word.

Yes, here’s mysteriousness. I’m not sure whom ‘we’ refers to – probably a male fishing buddy – and I’m intrigued by what it is that he has “no idea” about. Added in are hints of something amiss: “The distance grows between us” and “You never say a word.” While it’s neither unusual for fishermen to move apart in pursuit of their prey, nor for men to remain silent while so engaged, Coats’ careful placement of these phrases create a signal to the reader that a problem is surfacing.

Act 2 provides further hints to an unfolding drama. What is it that he fails to see in the other’s face? And a few more intriguing hints. This other seems so anxious to get away that his car kicks up gravel – a sound that grates on the nerves.

I do not see it in your face when I say, “See you in the morning.” Your car kicks up gravel as you pull out of the drive.

Acts 3 takes us a step further without yet fully revealing what is going on. Two friends, one perhaps a girlfriend and the other the fishing buddy make excuses for not attending a dance. It seems that no one is going, not even our protagonist.

The dance is Saturday. I call Mary first and she says not this weekend—too much homework. Next, I try you and you are too tired. I say that I am not going either—not by myself.

My assumption is that since Mary is his girlfriend, he doesn’t want to take another girl to the dance. Instead he asks his fishing buddy to accompany him.

Act 4 is the denouement. When our protagonist shows up, girlfriend and pal are there, together. It’s in this penultimate paragraph that Coats’ prose becomes particularly poignant and poetic:

I do go to the dance—alone. And there you both are, out on the dance floor with the disco ball breaking your faces into pieces. The band drowns out all the voices and silences the tapping of shoes.

Mary, the object of his affection, and his unnamed fishing buddy have betrayed him. They both lied about not attending the dance and they’ve withheld the fact that they’re in a relationship.

And Act 4 finishes with this emotionally loaded line:

“I am the last one to know.”

At times in our lives, we must all have felt the sting of being “the last to know” about something important in our family and friendship circles. Recently, a woman friend lamented that she didn’t mind so much finding out that her husband had been seeing another woman for some time, but more that she had been the last to know.

The humiliation of such an experience runs deep and leads to Act 5, the haiku.

barbed wire
a memory too sharp
to touch

As the images in the haiku suggest, the pain of betrayal can be likened to being enclosed in barbed wire and to bring the memory to consciousness is akin to being stabbed by a barb.

Of course, every play has a title. Many writers don’t treat titles as much more than something to set the stage for the prose and poem. However, a haibun’s title is increasingly considered to be as important as prose and haiku. As Robert Beary, Haibun Editor of Modern Haiku has aptly put it:

In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun’s title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.5

Coats’ title, “Turntable Junction” is at once descriptive and metaphoric. While it may be the place name of a dance hall, the interesting question is what does it signify? At it’s simplest level, the dance may have used a turntable and records for the music. But why “Junction?” Coats may be suggesting that betrayal forms a significant junction in life. In the future, it will be harder to trust male and female friends. And at such a juncture, the kind where everyone else knows and thus there is loss of face, one path might be to withdraw from the social community.

Turntables can also be looked at as more than just signaling a dance setting. Turntables spin, as must have our protagonist when he realized what has occurred, when the disco ball broke their faces into pieces, when the band drowned out all sound. And over time a record becomes worn, the sound scratchy, but the song is still there beneath the noise, an old record playing over and over, music that destroys sleep.

In closing, as an editor, I’ve too often read submissions that are oblique to the point of creating a headache in trying to figure them out. Some readers like puzzles at this level; I don’t. I like to read something that flows reasonably well and that doesn’t involve too much head scratching. In this vein, Collins has warned that while on one end of the spectrum, poems that are perfectly clear are "a little flat," on the other end, “too much mystery can render a poem inscrutable”.6 Coats’ haibun is not guilty of being either flat or too mysterious, and in that sense it succeeded well both in drawing this reader in and in creating a work that reminds us of our own human foibles.

Having read the collection and found enjoyment in the variety of subjects and in the many quality haibun, I can highly recommend it.

Turntable Junction

I have no idea as we wade into the river. Our heads bow as we thread salmon eggs onto golden hooks. The distance grows between us as we toss our lines upstream and let the baits bounce along the bottom. You never say a word.

I do not see it in your face when I say, “See you in the morning.” Your car kicks up gravel as you pull out of the drive.

The dance is Saturday. I call Mary first and she says not this weekend—too much homework. Next, I try you and you are too tired. I say that I am not going either—not by myself.

I do go to the dance—alone. And there you both are, out on the dance floor with the disco ball breaking your faces into pieces. The band drowns out all the voices and silences the tapping of shoes. I am the last one to know.

barbed wire
a memory too sharp
to touch




1 Glenn Coats began writing haiku in the mid 90s and haibun only since 2009. With numerous haiku published in a variety of online and print journals, A New Resonance 6 (Red Moon Press, 2009) included Coats as one of the “emerging voices in English-language haiku.” Given his many haibun published since 2009, were there an announcement about 'emerging voices in English-language haibun' Coat’s voice would certainly be among them.

2Glenn G. Coats, Snow on the Lake: Haibun and Haiku, Pineola Publishing, 2013, p. 56.

3Glenn G. Coats, “Turntable Junction,” in Snow on the Lake, p.62; first published in Frogpond 35.2, summer 2012.

4"Collins Values Approachable Poetry, Not Pretension," Transcript of an Interview, NPR Books Website, April 06, 2011 1:00 PM, taken from the Internet on December 8, 2013. Collins Interiew

5Roberta Beary, in “The Lost Weekend,” Frogpond, Volume 34:3 2011.

6Collins, op. cit.



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