For those, like me, who are unfamiliar with haibun, Colin Will’s The Book of Ways looks initially like dense prose poetry. At the start of the book, however, Will provides an illuminating explanation of the form without prescribing interpretations. The advantages of haibun seem to be its ability to balance conversational, observational and autobiographical prose with the imagist precision of haiku. The Book of Ways perfectly demonstrates the complementary aspects of these elements. Will has worked in several capacities at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, and at various points throughout the collection he expands on the association of gardens with poetic composition in Japanese literary culture.
The poet’s interest in nature extends beyond the garden, however. As the collection’s title suggests, and as is typical of haibun, The Book of Ways journeys into both the urban and rural landscapes of Scotland, France, Japan and Tibet, to name a few. It also takes journeys of many kinds – through the human life-cycle; along the paths traced by falling leaves; back to a time when wild boar populated British forests, and deep into “metamorphic belt[s] of schists and quartzes”.
In all these travels, Will is alert to his own position as a cosmopolitan Scot “on the loose in foreign cities”, and pokes fun at the fine line between tourism and cultural appropriation.
The sense of Will-the-man is strong in this collection, and the poems are unified by a singular and distinctive voice. He occasionally adopts a self-consciously curmudgeonly persona, paying homage to T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”. He indulges a love of Scotch whisky; he complains about the “Stalinist central-planning mindset of East-Lothian’s planners”; he admits, after a “bottle of local red”, “I get depressed when I think about some of the things going on in the world”. Indeed, the most compelling journey this collection makes is into Will’s own alleged physical decrepitude. In one of the several ekphrastic poems in the collection, he remembers a trip to the Rembrandt gallery in the Hermitage museum:
I prefer to see his self-portraits hung chronologically, so
you can see the progression from brash, confident youth to
frightened and questioning old man. The fear hits him when
the money goes, and his family starts dying – it’s all there in that
touchingly lumpish face, with the hurt and hunger in his eyes.
Overweight, afraid of crowds, and anticipating the loss of his mother, Will’s identification with Rembrandt is clearly profound. His “arthritic knees” become the symbol of a growing political and philosophical malaise for which Zen practice and French wine provide occasional spiritual remedy. But for Will, the most effective challenge to inequality, xenophobia, totalitarianism, and the prejudice-reinforcing “red-tops”, must surely come from poetry.
The poet is alert to the fragility of the human body in its journey on the metaphorical “way”. “[L]ittle bunches of plastic-wrapped flowers along the road” – memorializing the dead cyclists and motorists who make appearances throughout the collection – are a literal manifestation of the fact that some “don’t make it to the end”. He is evidently grateful that he has so far remained on the road, hence his revelry in the “Gerontion” persona, and the certain jubilance, joyfulness, and tendency towards humour that surface throughout.
Despite occasional qualms at his evidently privileged position as a well-travelled and well-educated Hawthornden Fellowship recipient, I appreciate Will’s candour in this collection. And as a younger reader I learn a lot from it. His vocabulary (much of which would not be out of place in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks) and his field of cultural reference are extensive. He offers an emotional spectrum that has been expanded and deepened by experience. Just as Japan’s “pink heart” is glimpsed inside its “ancient granite rocks”, so Will exposes to us his own personal habits, fears, and vulnerabilities, whilst at the same time sharing the botanist’s eye for nature at its most minute.