Friday, May 18, 2018

Celadon — Ian Haight (Unicorn Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Celadon.  Ian Haight.  Unicorn Press.  Greenboro, North Carolina.  2017.

Unicorn Press First Book Award Winner, 2016-2017

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Ian Haight's Celadon could easily be three different books of poetry.  When Today's book of poetry read Celadon the first time it knocked us off our feet, three times.

Celadon refers to an imagined paradise, a real enough area in Korea where potters, of a certain skill, made/make fine pottery with a pale green glaze.

Haight imagines a Utopian place where the earth slows down enough for contemplation.  But Haight is nothing if not a realist, these poems come from someone who has experienced the machines of industry and commerce.  Haight knows the price paid for anyone who steps outside the lines.

Stamping Parts


I said no to summer
at the company's private
park, no to my own
lakeside trailer, tending
deer paths, picking up
garbage, and women my age
on a beach. Dad reclined in his 
re-upholstered La-Z-Boy—
the back, already sunfaded—
and looked out over the
front hill's lawn from our
living room picture window.
Ketchup stained the chest of
his long underwear—the flannel
plaid shirt, unbuttoned to near
his navel. He dragged slow on
a cigarette, flicked ashes
in a gold glass ashtray.
Behind him on the fireplace,
the hundred-year-old grandfather
clock ticked. Red leather
steel-toed work boots
slouched by the hearth's iron
candlestick. Through his wire-
framed glasses, Dad stared
at the TV, though the child-
sized Buddha statue bought at
a roadside flea market
lounged in meditation
close to the channel dials.
It's not easy for summer
help to get that job, he
said. I looked down at the
brick-brown sofa's seat
cushions, fibers unraveling
at the edges, mold-yellow
plastic exposed. The oak
coffee table's top
corners paled on the sides,
worn from soles of work-
boot scuff marks. I rested
my foot on the wear. Dreaming
of 13 dollars an hour
running steel machines
I said, But I can get
overtime in the factory.
He put his Diet Coke
on a coaster, let the air
sink out of his chest, and said,

the lifetime-old, cinder-
red brick factories,
a sign declares, "162
days since any injury."

At the rollforms, high-roofed,
empty-air spaces above 
machines as long as the building—
the machines smash steel sheets
into lengths for IBM's
office furniture panel

             Too young for steel
press work at seventeen,
with a bucket of turpentine,
I mop a conveyor line's
dribbled paint for the factory's
minimum hourly pay.

Workers do pushups
between passing parts, read
Principles of Accounting
or Gone with the Wind.

at half past midnight,
the break room filled with Penthouse
and Hustler, bathrooms busy
with washing hands; trash bins
full of paper towels.

Volunteering for overtime
means cleaning anodizing
vaults. A gas mask, if you're
a wuss, and middle-aged toothless
people, their hair near gone.
There's no union here
'cause the pay's so good.

On the first floor, men run
presses as big as houses,
drink cherry brandy between
loads, tell me their children's
names. The men say they majored
in English, and warn, Whatever
you do, don't come here
when you finish. Steve
makes sixty grand—enough
for most at our plant—but he drives
on old white Regal, rust-
holed, tansy-streaked from oxidizing
metal under the paint.

Al monitors the paint
gun lines. Every few
hours he replenishes
a hose with a full drum.
What do you do all day?
I ask. Not a damn thing.
Best job in the plant.
My eyes water from fumes;
Al doesn't wear a mask.

No cigarette packs,
so I ask, Do you smoke? No
way, the whole place'd blow
up—you can't smoke down
here. Besides, that stuff
is bad for your lungs. How
long have you been doin'
this? Fifteen years. They'll
have to drag me out.
He shows me his house, oil
pumping rig on a hill,
a tray of chessmen he's
painted with real gold.
Why do you work? I ask.
Where else is someone
going to pay me to sit
around all day? Besides,
it get me out of the house,
you know, gives me something
to do.


Today's book of poetry had to hold the reins a little tight at a couple of different points in our reading of Celadon.  One minute we were union obsessed and remembering our time on the motor-line, working for Ford in Windsor.  Then we were Buddha buddy happy in rural Korea and are negotiating our presence with the local population.  Questions arise about being  in a culture that embraces the past and the future with equal reverence.  But let me be clear, Ian Haight, is crystal.

Haight's poems are all aimed at understanding the social construct around human behaviour.  What people do in their efforts to get through a day.  Haight looks at the reconciliations we make with ourselves at the end of the day — the stories we tell ourselves to tie up the loose ends of our lives.  

This is one of those times when Today's book of poetry feels that we lack the skills to adequately express the pleasure we had reading Celadon.  We were certainly engaged from page one, Celadon
compels the reader with pace, from the factory floor to the rice fields, Haight's straight forward narration is always rich with the right detail.

All Haight is looking for is a safe place to land.  Like most of us, his search is for peace, for all, a reasonable world, a secure life, no unreasonable ask.

Peacock Meditation at a Thai Nunnery

     A rusted iron cage has a sterile sand floor covered with fern
seeds. Inside, a peacock half-spreads fronds of wispy tail feathers as
big as its cage, promenading.
     Chanting mantras, a nun bows to a gold-leaf wooden Buddha
statue, bows to a white granite pool. She walks into the pool as if it
has no temperature, stops when water touches her vulva—bows and
prays. She whirls in water, shifts her mudra hands, glides from lotus
meditation to flat on her back, the wideness of soles of her feet and
toes white—prays to Buddhas of ten directions. Arms extended,
she floats vertical over the pool's rock rim. She rises, bows to the statue,
walks to a far off house.
      In the shade of trees, dogs saunter behind monks of the temple.
The peacocks sit silent in their cages.


Haight isn't shy about bringing in some reinforcements, he pin points moments in time using keys like Penthouse Magazine to grab you by the nose.  But what he's really after is calling out the Gods of Industry who don't care who they crawl over in the name of progress.  The Gods of Industry who breath greenbucks and bury the evidence of the misdeeds in caves.

Celadon is highly polished, with a beautiful green glaze over it all.  Over the death of Detroit with its empty factories and empty homes and nary a dream in sight.  Over the gravel and mud of rural Korea, Japan and Tibet.  Haight is swinging a big broom but he's awfully sweet with the details.  Haight remains devoted, he is constantly misadventuring himself towards some bigger truth.

At Otter Creek, Florida

She said she wanted
to talk about love.
We hold hands and walk.
The tusk of a baor, half-
sunk in humus, gray
below an acacia's shade.
A manx once pawed
our bedroom window
beneath a full moon.
Vapors mist near lobes
of calyx. Loam sinks
under our steps.
Like leopards caged
in a cement summer zoo,
we pant. Growling moans
through mimosa,
Jaguarundis eat cardinals.
A spring-fed pool floats
mayla petals; we disrobe
and dive, dissolving
under specks of light.


To say that Today's book of poetry enjoyed frolicking through Celadon just doesn't cut it.  Whatever tools Haight employed, Today's book of poetry was hook, line and sinker.  Ian Haight says it all quietly and without ado.

You don't see the punch coming at all.

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Ian Haight

IAN HAIGHT was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, and with T’ae-yong Ho, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Ho and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim—listed as a 2013 Notable Book in Translation by World Literature Today and finalist for the American Literary Translators Association’s Lucien Stryk Prize. He is the recipient of Ninth Letter’s Literature in Translation prize and five translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. His poems, translations, essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, and Writer’s Chronicle, among other publications.

“Ian Haight writes wisdom-in-verse. He understands the mise en abyme of the abyss within the abyss within the mind, and he knows how to make meaning of it all. The poems of Celadon move fluidly from the spiritual to the commonplace to the vulgar. We encounter blue-collar workers and Korean Buddhist proverbs, Aristophanes and military pilots, Isaac Asimov and an assortment of human failures—and in Haight&rsuqo;s deft poetry, these marvelously varied elements form a coherent and utterly human whole. This volume marks the emergence of a new and remarkable talent.”
     —OKLA ELLIOTT, Judge, 2016-2017 Unicorn Press First Book Competition

“The large amount of geographical territory that is covered in this collection is distinctive and one of its great strengths. Ian’s work in these poems shows an attentive kindness . . . and the poems do not risk appropriation or indulge in privileged guilt.”
     —JULIANA SPAHR, author of Well Then There Now

"Magnolia & Lotus" by Hyesm
translated by Ian Haight & Tae-Young Ho
Video: Brad Havens



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