NARROW ROADS NORTH: NINE HAIBUN
NARROW ROADS NORTH: NINE HAIBUN
Old Quebec City.
Late morning nearing noon.
Fifty per cent chance of rain.
No screens, just windows open out on the sidewalk, the stone street. Each door invites me in. I step through the liminal space as if it is a cover of a book, a door to another country. Bookstores and bars and restaurants. Pulling pages, I eat the French Canadian text, the tastes foreign and familiar to my dull Midwest palate. Local sheep brie and imported Languedoc wine. Two glasses at the table, one of water, one of red wine. Hear the song of the servers: footfalls, cutlery, glass and plate, menu pages turning. Observe the citizenry in stasis and motion on the street. A panting mutt pulls an old man wearing a tight jacket and blue jeans with frayed cuffs down the sidewalk. The unemployed and the homeless share cigarettes and stories on the benches outside the locked Cathedral. A young woman in a tartan plaid miniskirt and short pink hair leans toward her reflection in a store window, applies candy red lipstick. Crescent pastries from the Jewish bakery are planetary bodies reconciling with my translating tongue, an accent I acquire, both thrilling and alienating. Watch me as I lift my hand from the table, hold it out over the sidewalk: I’m both there and here, I’m a half moon waning and waxing, I’m a sidewalk puddle in which two sparrows splash, a flurry of spray blurring into one bird.
The Pier Dreams Itself a Bridge
Crosby Lake, Westport, Ontario.
No loons on the lake today. I was awakened at early light to intermittent rain. No ravens in the cedars, though their raspy, guttural caw was the foregrounded soundtrack of the now drizzly early evening red sun hovering over the horizon. The lake is calm, the air still. Waves lap and pop against the rock near the pier. Across the lake, the sky grows a darker blue with the weight of sagging gray clouds. A slight breeze shuffles leaves. Soon the rainy night will deal me a hand of lightning, thunder, rumble, and echoes. The old metal and wood pier, boatless and companionless, is a crooked finger pointing to the last match flame of sunlight.
Saint-Brigitte de Laval
to Ill d’Orleans
to Old Town Quebec City.
Suitcase, suitcase, computer bag, backpack, laundry bag, snack bag: my wife and I are the twin engines of our luggage train. From the deciduous and evergreen forests of Saint-Brigitte de Laval and the Provincial Park in the north, after a day of rain where we read in the log cabin bed and ate breakfast overlooking a foggy valley, our rental car winds down the twisting tributary back road that flows onto the highway, part of a stream of SUVs, tourist busses, pick-ups and delivery trucks, of wheeled humanity in common motions as we ride the moveable blue confluence back toward the city.
Crossing the Saint Lawrence River on a small bridge to Ill d’Orleans, we drive the perimeter in the cloudy drizzle, stop for coffee at a shop that won’t have coffee until the high tourist season. We turn down then turn around on dead-end island lanes, look across acres of vineyards of heritage stone homes turned into wineries. After climbing a three-story wooden observation tower we look at hills and low mountains that could be beached sea creatures graying range by range as they fade into the distance.
Back across the bridge, we shipwreck ourselves on the rock island of Quebec’s old walled City, washed ashore on the Rue des Ursulines, our rental car a small craft docked in a cul-de-sac. Once tied to the wharf of Au Petite Hotel, we navigate the rivulets of Rues, arriving down by the old port, rows of turn-of-the-nineteenth century store fronts filled with vintage clothing, ceramics, a kayak store. We eat in a gray stone restaurant small as a ship captain’s cabin. A salt scent of fish stew. Bread still warm from an oven. Steamed mussels soft as the shallot butter we dip them in. Sautéed apples with dark blood sausages that keep their ingredients secret. The swift current of the local vin rouge flows from bottle to glass to mouth, washes over tongues too astonished to speak.
Au Petite Hotel,
Rue de L’Ursulines, Old Quebec City.
Intermittent sun. Intermittent clouds.
Under the stern bleak hands of the Ursuline Sisters I learned to read, write, diagram a sentence, add to the simple nouns and verbs the compound, the complex, the difference between nonsense and nuance. Language rushed toward me as if it had sought me a lifetime. I rowed a blue-black copy book with my sharpened pencil-of-an-oar, and off I pushed in search of each new island, isthmus, peninsula, continent. Ideas rushed toward me as if they were pirates and I some saltwater sailor, pockets bulging with doubloons and penny candy. My knuckles got cracked walking the ruler’s thin plank. Frowning faces of nuns were white chevrons in a moonless night sky. Loss, pain, mercy. The Ursulines erased me, reformed me through confession, poetry as praxis. A child’s knees on a hard floor, as if praying. White promises of better behavior chalked on square blackboards, impossible and improbable black holes into which I dove, unable to tread water. Writing an apologetic sentence one hundred times. Blank paper white as a novitiate’s wimple. Ink is my dark habit. Pick up your pen, writer, and script your rounded mercies.
Water Coming Together
Gite du Nord Bed and Breakfast
Saint-Brigitte de Laval, rural Quebec.
Rain, fog, mist, drizzle.
The nearest ridge emerges from the mountain background as the drizzle decreases. A disembodied rock point presses into the foreground. Behind the thick fog, the mountain sleeps like a blue Buddha surrounded by a meditation of evergreens and birches. Thunder breaks and the rain dances on the log home’s cedar shake roof, then sings as it rides the downspout to the puddled yard. Outside the window, birch leaves tremble as raindrops land, roll, fall. If I walked down to the river, I’d be soaked to the skin before I got there, wet as a fish just tossed up on a stone bank. I feel equal parts mountain, fog, rain and river. The swelling river cascades loudly over boulder and rock, rushing into the Rivier Saint-Brigitte, joining the Saint Lawrence, until it merges in the rain and mist with the salty Atlantic sea.
Entrance to the Interior
Le Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier, Quebec.
Mix of clouds with brief sun.
You leave the walled city, the old town, cross the river where you’re caught in the marsh of expanding suburbs, the current of the highway, northward to the Park. Despite maps & GPS, you find the route confusing, miss the connection from 165 to 4 to 175 from where you’ll access the turquoise lakes and hiking trails. Following the Park’s east border along the highway, toward Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean, you realize you’ve too far north, missed your turn, so you turn around, go south, returning past cinder roads and dirt roads until you find the Park entrance.
You enjoy the riverside picnic which tastes better by the water, the scent of evergreens, the sound of a small creek. Up and down a well marked trail you hike, hear birds and the buzz of mosquitoes that inhabit the lush and shady forest. The wide and shallow creek sings over the round stones and the waterfall is its chorus. You walk briskly to avoid the hover of aggressive mosquitoes attracted by your sweat. Branches scratch your arms as you follow the wooded trail back toward the river bridge.
You return to the highway, in quest of the B&B at the end of a road someplace between the Park and the city. But your GPS cuts out. But your cellphone will not pick up a signal. But the night is coming. You feel like merchants and peasants fleeing from an attack on a nineteenth-century city, moving uncertainly with the flow of exiles who trust in the rumors of a safe direction to take, of taken villages spoken of as if real by people who’ve never been there. What else is there to trust except half a tank of gas in the rental car, a bottle of water, two croissants and some butter cheese?
Chateau des Tourelles,
Rue St-Jean, Old City, Quebec.
Morning. Sunny. Light Breeze.
A sky like a blue lake without ripples. Mountains to the north as if sea rocks, small islands, the backs of whales rising to blow, to breathe. One lone jet in the sky is a gray metal rowboat, a risen silver koi, seen then gone. Buildings and houses, apartments and offices, the river’s bridges and the cathedral: any one seems to be shoals or sandbars, or a sharp-edged coral reef. The still night-cool wind washes my sun-warmed neck. I inhale. My wife joins me, sits next to me, her legs tucked under, her hair wrapped by the wind around her face and shoulders as in drawings of mermaids. I exhale. Croissants and coffee with whitecaps of cream make breakfast as perfect a marriage as a two-person kayak.
QC Lesage Airport to Philadelphia to CAK.
A door, a home, a return to the known. The nostalgia for odd objects that prompt memories. I’ve read of dogs, lost or left behind, that trot for days to be discovered sitting on the porch with its locked door, waiting.
A door closing. The liminal space at which the homing pigeon turns in its flight. The arc of return. The dream of re-arrival. The final repeating chorus of songs of possibility fading to white noise.
A door opening. Travel’s end is the closure of a stimulating and unfamiliarity exotic call. The spines of books cracking and spreading wide like doors, like old friends. The beds that holds our scents and shadows and shapes, holding us as we release ourselves from the moveable blue as we approach the familiarity of sleep, embracing the stasis. The dog on the porch, sitting, wagging its tail. Its owner opening the door, body stopping its motion as if turning into a stature, a mouth wide open in astonishment.
The Blue Door
The border crossing yesterday was Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario. On voyager’s way to Westport in the Rideau Lakes area, to my wife’s family cottage on Crosby Lake. There were lines of cars and lines of trucks, border guards at crossing gates, Navy blue US passports given and returned. Yet for those who work on one side of the Detroit River and live on another it is more figurative: special passes for zooming SUV’s, cars, and pickups; tunnels go under to transverse the border above.
Entering this other country, the one I imagined as young boy watching sunsets along Lake Erie’s north coast of Ohio, pleases me. Stopped in the line of cars at the border, I consider patriotism, expatriation, repatriation. My early patriarchal family members left Germany after rebellions failed, emigrated to a new country on a new continent in pursuit of what felt right for their right livelihood. They closed a door, opened another, stepped through, a flight from what wasn’t to what was possible.
If the seat of my car were a seat on an airplane, I’d be looking out through the small window and picturing streets of well maintained houses, homes, perhaps my new northern home, one that holds the dream of a country I could love back. I’d look down at the lighted design grid of a city with its business center, urban main streets, highways, the landing runways at the airport rising up to catch us as we fall from the sky, and as the wheels scuff the tarmac, I’d jolt. Would I be awake, or merely dreaming? I imagine a porch light dim as bottled milk, a kitchen nightlight like the first blink of the flame when the candlewick catches. I imagine myself outside, nose to the window glass, a voyeur looking in at the table where I write.
About this work, Robert said: Matsuo Bashō invented the haibun—this small prose poem-like form—so he could write about his travels. In 2016, when I was in Ontario and Quebec, I hand-wrote daily haibun in my pocket notebook. Unlike Bashō’s ending in a haiku, I used syntactic triads so that, for example, “The Pier Dreams Itself a Bridge” ends with a pier that is “boatless,” “companionless,” and “a finger,” while at the end of “River Crossing,” the wine flows “from bottle to glass to mouth.”
Robert Miltner’s nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, Pithead Chapel, Eastern Iowa Review, Panoply, Midway Journal, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Buried Letter, Terrene, and Great Lakes Review. His collection of short fiction is And Your Bird Can Sing (Bottom Dog Press, 2014) and his books of prose poetry are Hotel Utopia (New Rivers Press, 2011) and Orpheus & Echo (Etruscan Press, forthcoming in 2019). Miltner is professor of English at Kent State University Stark and is on the faculty of the NEOMFA.