This week’s Sunday Poem feature is a special guest column by writer Judy Halebsky.
Judy’s second book, Tree Line, was recently published by New Issues Poetry & Prose. (Hats off to the press for producing a beautifully designed book—I see far too many poorly designed poetry collections, but this is a notable exception.)
Partly inspired by the time she spent living in Japan, Judy’s book delves into themes like ecology, translation, and migration. Tree Line is a book about language and landscape. Melding contemporary form with Japanese literary traditions, Judy uses Basho’s travel journal, a dictionary, and a geology textbook to make sense of the world.
I asked Judy to tell us more about her time in Japan and how her new collection came to be. I hope you enjoy this Gwarlingo exclusive!
Tree Line Notes
by Judy Halebsky
I began my second collection of poems in the Mansfield Studio at the MacDowell Colony. I arrived in New Hampshire thinking that I would finish my first book there, but as I’m always starting over, I began this new collection.
I worked on it for six years and when the title, Tree Line, came to me, I took it as a sign that the poems had cohered into a collection. These poems struggle to make meaning across different sign systems. I write through a process of retrieval and salvage drawing from dictionaries, field guides, grammar rules, snippets of conversation and my own journals. Weaving together these disparate sources in a collage technique, I am looking for ways that juxtaposition can reveal something underlying and previously unexpressed.
The word Tree in the title references how these poems read human experience through the natural world. Line references both the poetic line and the lineages of poets including Emily Dickinson, Li Po (also written as Li Bai), and Basho that shape and guide my work. Sections of my first book, Sky=Empty (New Issues, 2010) foregrounded formal qualities of language and the translation process. My new book builds on this work but focuses more closely on poetic lineage.
Many poems in this collection are shaped by the years that I lived in Japan and my art practice. As I read more poetry in Japanese, particularly Basho’s teachings, I became drawn to the spaces between a source text and the translation.
There are an extensive number of translations of Basho’s most famous haiku often called the “Frog Pond” haiku. My poem A Breaking Word tries to translate this haiku while also revealing the process and struggle of translation. The poem includes quotations from other translations of the poem. Part of my work is to open up points of access to Basho’s writings and also share the dynamics of moving between languages.
A Breaking Word
There’s that part
after Basho writes
old still pond
of pressing a fingerprint into wet clay
where the word ya
holds a space in the air
a cloud changes shape in the sky
make it a dash, a murmur
a breath on the inhale
this old pond
so many have tried to open
a sigh, a hum, a —
frog jumps in
sound of water says Hass
plop says Watts
kerplunk says Ginsberg
“I visited Ryûshakuji Temple, better known as Yamadera or Mountain Temple. This is where Basho composed one of his more famous haiku: Such stillness,