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

TreeLineCoverI 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



(Photo courtesy Judy Halebsky)

“I visited Ryûshakuji Temple, better known as Yamadera or Mountain Temple. This is where Basho composed one of his more famous haiku: Such stillness, seeping into the rocks, the sound of cicadas. I’m one of many travelers visiting here and shops sell straw hats with the poem written on them.” (Photo courtesy Judy Halebsky)



(Photo by Judy Halebsky)

Dewa Sanzan (Photo by Judy Halebsky)

In the summer of 2012, on a Graves Award fellowship, I traveled to Northern Japan to visit literary locations close to the heart of Matsuo Basho’s writings. These places are called uta makura, or poem pillows, where poets over generations have written poems in dialogue not just with the landscape but with the lineage of poems previously written at the same spot. (Once the poetic associations of these places were established, poets would name these places for poetic effect even if they had not visited them.)

I followed Basho’s general route. I walked some parts of it. Others, I travelled by train covering distances in hours that Basho covered in months. I visited Ryûshakuji Temple, better known as Yamadera or Mountain Temple. This is where Basho composed one of his more famous haiku: Such stillness, seeping into the rocks, the sound of cicadas. I’m one of many travelers visiting here and shops sell straw hats with the poem written on them.

The most challenging and spectacular part of my trip was three days hiking through Dewa Sanzan or the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa. These are a series of temples up in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. I stayed in temple lodgings and hiked day by day to the mountain top temples.

Basho traveled with fellow poet, Sora, on his Narrow Road journey. They dressed as monk with walking sticks and straw hats, visited temples and towns and each made a record of their journey. Traveling monks write an inscription on their hat or walking stick, kenkon mujû dôgyô ninin, that Toshiharu Oseko translates as, “Between heaven and earth, without a fixed house to live in, traveling by two.”  The idea of ‘traveling by two’ stresses that the monk is traveling alone but accompanied by the teachings of Buddhism. When Sora leaves Basho due to illness, Basho composes a poem that references this phrase and laments their parting, “From today, I wipe off the writing on my hat with dew.”  My poem, “Walk the Line,” builds off of this haiku and interprets it through my own experience.



Walk the Line

Bend the spine of a thesaurus—
my shadow map, guide of distances, atlas of cities

if this book were a bridge I would trust my weight to it
            late bloomer, mountain azalea, dwarf pine

the letters didn’t always make words
there were years and years when they just stayed letters

            I have come to feel moss under water
            I have come to put my feet in the creek

Basho and Sora on pilgrimage
write on their hats:
no home in heaven or earth
on this path we go two together

            (monks on pilgrimage, by two we go
            the monk alone but with the dharma
            Basho alone but with Sora
            me in the library with 20,000 other fools
            and a mother who wants a postcard
            a line on a Christmas note
            a baby girl to walk
            a two-wheel bicycle, a spelling bee
            a pirouette, a finger to trace the letters across the page
the letters to make a song)

some say they fought
some say they parted in anger

after Sora stayed behind
Basho let the words by two we go
wash off his hat in the rain

at graduation, my mother, hands in the air
shouts, it’s a miracle, a miracle



A haiku engraving (Photo courtesy Judy Habelsky)

A haiku engraving (Photo courtesy Judy Habelsky)

My poetics are shaped my many traditions including both Modernist collage and Japanese literary aesthetics. I am nuancing the balance between what is explicitly written and what is revealed through the contrast of elements within the poem. Basho’s concept of a ‘scent link’ is particularly relevant to post-collage aesthetics.

Before Basho, linked verse (Renga) poets used word association or narrative to link stanzas. As Haruo Shirane explains, a scent link makes a connection through atmosphere or shared connotation rather than narrative development or temporal progression (Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho. Stanford: UP, 1998.) With a scent link, a stanza is read through the shadow of the previous stanza. This creates a disrupted narrative that opens the poem to the reader and creates a sensory, lyric experience.

Like my life of migration, these poems move between languages and borders. The poem “Stopping Between Whipped Cream and Butter” articulates a shifting perspective of place and migration as the narrator is marked as an outsider in a place she names as home. In the poem, trees are read as signs and bearers of knowledge which diminishes the separation between people and the natural world.

I write to the concept of a dream-scape making leaps that transcend time and reality. Dream-speech departs from literal description to explore sensory experience.  In this space, the poems transcend socially accepted identities and make room for more robust expressions of human experience.



Stopping Between Whipped Cream and Butter

Abby at eleven is taller than me, rounder than me
has more freckles and knows everything

she can tell the difference between twenty and twenty-one
twenty-one-year-olds are cranky
she says and puckers up her face

pine trees live for hundreds of years
so they carry more scars

            a confession
            an orchid
            a hot air balloon

pine: to waste away through grief

birch: a tree with paper-thin bark

when I go home Warren says you have a wicked bad
American accent

there are all kinds of ways to fail

            a piecrust
            a snowflake

spring melt  June thaw
how to unbend   unscar

the birch tree
slightly wounded
is growing toward the sun



New Year’s Eve I put moss and sand and pebbles in a round glass jar

—to Yuka, after March 11, 2011

Now I see how pictures work
how a painter plants a garden
how houses in the redwoods get no direct sunlight
how streets in Tokyo carve through friendships
how failures lean up one against another
how they put pressure on the fault lines
how earthquakes cause storms underwater that come to land
as waves
how water is not soft and shape-changing
how water can lift cars and take down buildings
how upstream is about which direction I am facing
how I am just strong enough
to paddle with the current
to wait for the echo when I call your name




From the darkness and the fireflies, he calls me—
mapless, unguided, nightwalker

pulling night from clear blue day to that heavy blue
when there’s still a little light in the sky
and the trees are dark against it

I am hiding in those trees
on a branch in the sway with the wind
not holding on so much as balancing

he calls me the night traveler
the angel breather
he calls me the one who has not come home



Out of the Gate

I have breathed into too many balloons

put my fingers in so many cakes

had my body scanned with fingerprints

written out my dreams in lines of the night

traced words into storm clouds

mixed water with mint and bourbon

made a bed from spidering vines

worn a wreath of grass cuttings, a raft of stickseed

there’s a snail who thinks he’s climbing Mount Fuji

the racetrack is filled with stars



Space, Gap, Interval, Distance

I have spent too many days counting
butter or cream cheese
4 or 6 or 8
how to piece in the hours like a layer cake

Lorca and your olive fields
Ginsberg and your mountain dream
I have been a paper doll
not thinking of the rain

            間 ma
            written as the sun
            coming through the gate

as what we leave open
between us
so the spirits    when they come
will have a place to land


The day we drove from the coast back to Sacramento

the sun fell in broad strokes as we leaned into the curve
you were looking at me and I caught your eyes

wish I could have known it then
to mark that feeling in ink
as a stamp
a letter
something I could send in the mail
that would come out of the envelope
just as it had gone in —

carefully written
bled into
and only half parted with



About Judy Halebsky

(Photo courtesy Judy Habelsky)

(Photo courtesy Judy Habelsky)

Judy Halebsky is the author of the poetry collections Sky=Empty and Tree Line. Her honors include fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center as well as the Poets-Under-Forty award from Sixteen Rivers Press.

Born and raised in the Maritimes of Canada, she studied at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. After graduation, she moved to California to study poetry at Mills College. On fellowships from the Japanese Ministry of Culture (MEXT), she studied in Japan for five years. At the Kanazawa College of Art, she trained calligraphy and sculpture. In Tokyo, she studied Noh theatre and Butoh dance.  She translates the work of Tokyo poet Yuka Tsukagoshi. She has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California, Davis and publishes articles on theatre and dance.

In the Bay Area, she works collaboratively with artists on various performance-based texts. She was featured in Naked Truth: real. stories. live. and the Poetry World Series at the Mill Valley Public Library. Her passions include the Moth, walking as a day-long activity and knitting. She co-chairs the Department of Literature & Language at Dominican University of California. She lives in Oakland with her nature guide, geologist Chris Lewis.

To learn more about Judy and her work, please visit her website.



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All poems © Judy Halebsky. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Tree Line (New Issues Poetry & Prose) and were reprinted with permission from the author.