Poet and Tanka

David Rice, the current Editor of Ribbons (journal of the Tanka Society of America) invited me to write an essay on the “Poet and Tanka” theme that has been featured in the journal for some time, I was honoured to be asked and the following appeared in the most recent issue (summer 2013):

Poet and Tanka

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free

                                                 —Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Michelangelo spoke of being able to see, in a block of marble, a statue, perfect in shape and form as clearly as if it stood before him and by chipping away at the stone that held the “lovely apparition” captive, he could not only unlock it, but reveal it to others as it appeared through his eyes. For me, this is very similar to the art of writing tanka. As poets, we are presented with the soapstone, the heartwood, of a particular moment, emotion or experience and by taking up the tools of our trade we endeavour to chisel away at that raw material in order to create something that will resonate with others. And yet, a tanka is capable of shape-shifting; that liberated life-form, sculpted into being, can be viewed from many angles; very much depends on the way the light falls. A good tanka, set on a dais in the Dreaming Room*, might remain obscure until that a-ha!moment when the dust sheet slips away.

I began writing poetry as a young child. William Blake, W. B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas helped me to make sense of the world. I favoured rhyming Western poetry, but my head was later turned by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I was familiar with haiku and tanka, but these were not forms I pursued. For a decade or so, during a traumatic period of my life, I didn’t write at all. Shortly before I was wooed by my second husband— and Asian short-form poetry —I took my children to The Lowry at Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. I was astonished by L. S. Lowry’s brooding seascapes and tortured self-portraits. Of course, I was familiar with the artist’s grim industrial landscapes, the scenes of matchstick men that portray a stereotypical view of industrial, working-class life in Northern England, but I was completely ignorant of Lowry’s artistic genius and talent for draughtmanship. I was never a great fan of those crowd scenes and their abstracted, stylized figures, but in retrospect, I have come to see these paintings as Lowry’s tanka; in departing from photo-realistic compositions, Lowry discovered a way of capturing the essence of a scene with a few simple brushstrokes. Not only did he evoke the smell and the din of a particular moment in time, he also highlighted the loneliness inherent to the human condition. He said that all his people were lonely; all were wrapped up in their own private sorrows; “crowds”, he said, “are the most lonely thing of all”.

and so to this

seemingly unpeopled sea:

coral factories

and the industry of gulls . . .

the whale’s spume and siren-song

(unpublished)

Many of my tanka have their roots in nature. This makes sense to me as I believe that we are not merely a part of nature, weare nature. One of the first tanka I wrote was awarded second place in the Lyrical Passion Poetry “Think Tanka” contest, 2010:

unshackled from myself

I am just

a passing thought

in the mind

of the forest

I often find that tanka written “in the field” retain the numinosity of the original experience, months, years later. I am immediately transported to a certain glade, the edge of a stream. In this way, tanka are a means of bookmarking a moment of my life. Shortly after I received the above award, I discovered Michael McClintock’s tanka and was instantly captivated. This one has remained a firm favourite:

one at a time,

I step on stones

and cross the stream—

when I’m across, the stones

go back to what they were doing

—from Meals at Midnight, MET Press, 2008

Therein lies some of the magic of tanka: the fantastic in the seemingly ordinary; the interconnectedness of all that exists. And it is my belief that all that exists lives. In the words of Dr Graham Harvey, Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University and author of Animism: Respecting the Living World (Wakefield Press, 2005):

“. . . many of our closest kin are human, while the closest kin of oaks are oaks, so we talk most easily with humans while rocks talk most easily with other rocks . . .”

—from “The Animist Manifesto”, first published in The Strange Attractor. co.uk

But the rocks and the trees, the hills and streams, will speak to us, if we care to listen. Don’t all children like to imagine that the toys in the nursery come to life when no one is looking? Tanka is the keyhole through which I peep. Blow the dust away and a moment, a memory, an emotion, is thrown into relief:

I rest my mind

with the world

there

in the stillness

of the heron’s raised foot

Notes from the Gean, September 2011

Moreover, I want to know what makes a tanka step out to drink across sun-silvered distance. Who pilots the biplane through the mists of dawn, flushing those elusive words, of softest tread, out into the open?

a flash of white—

wishing I, too

could make

spring’s heart leap,

roe deer in the thicket

Presence, 46, 2012

Writing tanka is meditation; it has become something akin to spiritual practice. It is transformative and many of the tanka I write are about transformation.

by what alchemy

is a memory made?

sunlit dust motes . . .

the cat climbs into the warmth

you left in the chair

red lights, 9:1, January 2013

It is also cathartic. Sometimes a tanka arises from a long-buried hurt, from a watershed moment, or a glint of recollection that I barely knew existed,

wishing I’d savoured

that last mouthful of childhood . . .

moments before

laughing at my reflection

in the bowl of the spoon

A Hundred Gourds, 2:1, 2012

In the sculptor’s hands, hammer and chisel may excise pain. I find few tanka as moving as this by David Terelinck:

I trace the outline

of your mastectomy scar

the raw edge

of making love again

for the first time

—from Casting Shadows, Alexandria, Cedar Press, 2011

Often, a tanka, whether it is destined to be read or not, is my only confidante:

unable

to whisper it in your ear

shell-like

in the depths of night

a tanka hears my sadness

Simply Haiku, Autumn 2011

But tanka is also celebration. It is the summer breeze that awakens the dancer in the Standing Stone. It is the lover’s kiss:

from another world

a hint of patchouli . . .

you’re back

from your dawn meditation

warming your hands in my dream

Gusts, Spring/Summer 2012

I have come a long way since writing my first tanka in 2010. I was fortunate to serve on the editorial team for Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, (Volume 4, 2011), and in December of the same year I was invited by Jeffrey Woodward to become Tanka Prose editor for Haibun Today. On January 1st 2013, I founded Skylarka UK tanka journal for English-language tanka in all its forms.

And so, the day begins with a fresh block of marble. Whether it is an angel, a demon, or a ghost I see, I will begin to carve in the hope I might set him free.

_________________________

* “Dreaming Room” an essay by Denis M. Garrison first published in Modern English Tanka (Spring 2007), and available to read online at: http://www.themetpress.com/dengary/essays/dreamingroom.html

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976)

that flock of words

 

the whitethroat’s song

and petals of blackthorn

falling as they bloom…

we can’t help but find

the courage to love

 

~

 

I can see no one

for miles on these wind-roamed moors

yet, these breaths

of incense, secondhand…

another’s rite, or refuge

 

both from Eucalypt 12, 2012

 

~

 

a blood-red petal

in the cleats of your boot

am I the armful

of long-stemmed roses

you once gathered to your heart?

 

Moonbathing, a journal of women’s tanka   issue 6, spring/summer 2012

 

~

a flash of white —

wishing I, too

could make

spring’s heart leap,

roe deer in the thicket

 

Presence 46, June 2012

 

~

 

from the dead wood

of the lightning-split oak

a butterfly…

all that we’ve been through

yet you don’t read my poems

 

Ribbons 8:1

 

~

 

in which life

will I find the ink

for that flock

of words

crossing the sunset

 

Ribbons  8:1 Tanka Cafe, “Horizons”, spring/summer 2012

 

skin and bone

beneath a thin grey blanket

my life waits

huddled on a gurney

outside your hospital room

 

Ribbons, volume 7, no 3, Fall 2011

 

~

 

Dad’s personal effects

his coat still smelling of rain…

in the inside pocket

closest to his heart

my sister’s photograph

 

Ribbons, volume 7, no 3, Fall 2011

 

I was delighted to learn that the second poem(above) was ‘The Back Cover’ choice for this issue of Ribbons, The Tanka Society of America journal, edited by Dave Bacharach.

 

 

 

beyond this vanishing

 

 

in a cold blue sky

ripples of robin song–

each note takes me

deeper into loving you,

losing you

 

~

white roses

and fresh linen

neatly folded

even her letter

smells like home

 

Take Five Best Contemporary Tanka, volume 3, 2010

~

a hawk moth

passes the window —

I am haunted

by the ghosts of lives

I might have lived

 

Take Five Best Contemporary Tanka, volume 3, 2010

~

I thought you taught me

all I needed to know

about silence…

waxing with the moon

magnolia blooms

 

Bottle Rockets no 25 2011

~

edges blurred

the seasons of my heart…

today the willow

sheds yellow leaves

on yesterday’s perfect snow

 

Bottle Rockets no 25 2011

~

the sky so clear

I can see for miles…

I look hard

for your future

as they wash your blood

 

Ribbons, volume 7, number 2, summer 2011

~

morning rain

mist of breath on the lush shoots

of spring flowers…

time will have me be

no more and no less

 

Red Lights, volume 7, number 2, 2011

~

by candlelight

watching incense twist and curl

as shadow…

the double helix uncoils,

this illness passed down the line

 

Red Lights, volume 7, number 2, 2011

~

this is mother

the red beak-spot tells the chick —

so often now

imprinted on my mind

the face of a stranger

 

Red Lights, volume 7, number 2

~

Four haiku for Svetlana:

ten thousand leaves
whisper in the shale…
ebbing moon

 ~

the egret preens
as if to reach its heart. . .
autumn rain

~

red maple leaf…
still holding her heart
up to the sun

~

beyond
this vanishing. . .
the godwit’s light

 

~

 

at first light

a busker on the corner

of my dreams…

with each burst of bird song

one silver coin in her hat

RIBBONS  Volume 7, no 1, Spring 2011

~

just passing

you place no flowers

only a kiss

from lips to fingers

to the face of a stone

RIBBONS Volume 7, no 1, Spring 2011

~

seeing with my hands…

I follow the silk-smooth grain

of the years

what is water bloom

to my fingertips?

~

sultry blue

the hum of words

in the reeds

on the wings of swallows

a poet’s dreams

~

Monet fills

the canvas of my day…

laburnum

in full bloom,

these eyes blurred with tears

~

tilde

the stillness paints

a lapwing ~

nothing stirs

but its crest

~

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