Tag Archives: Tanka Reviews

Migrant Moon

It’s Friday night, the moon is beginning to wane and the wind is all bluster. There will be light and I will be chasing it… but for now, settle in to a review by Patricia Prime. As always, Patricia’s review is generous in quoting from the collection – the latest release from Miriam’s Well Press, Migrant Moon by Barbara Mautone Robidoux – to give you a feel for the work. And from Patricia’s reading, it is some very fine work indeed. Read on!

Migrant Moon by Barbara Mautone Robidoux. Miriam’s Well Press. miriamswell.wordpress.com (2012) Pb. 101 pp. ISBN: 978-1-893003-15-6. Price: US$14.00 Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Migrant Moon is Barbara Mautone Robidoux’s second book of poetry. She also writes short stories and is currently working on a collection set on a reservation in northern Maine where she once lived. She now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Migrant Moon is a collection of tanka, tanka sequences and haibun. It shows the poet’s journeys through her travels, her inner and outer life and through the movement of the seasons. What we have here is superb: it’s a collection that doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Also, seeing the genres together increases one’s awareness that Robidoux’s poetry comprises various strands and feels like a unified body of work.

Robidoux’s use of language can be vivid, but self-explanatory, as in the haibun “Migration”, which is quoted in full:

Three bottle nose dolphins circle the harbor off Nantucket
Island. It is a cold December day and they should be out to sea on
winter migration south. No one knows why they have come into the
harbor. An old woman stands alone on the shore. She watches
and listens.

“they have come for me”
she tells
no one

Yet she also delights in writing simply, but at the same time effectively, as in the first verse of the tanka sequence, “Moonwashed”:

This moon washed town
October snow softens
cold cobblestone streets –
Was the sea
really once here?

Robidoux is often concise, yet even when she’s more expansive, as in the haibun, she is never wordy. She is a skilled raconteur – I would recommend the extraordinary haibun “November” in particular. Here is the first paragraph and following haiku:

In those days we wore red in the woods. Red woolen jackets
and caps over layers of thermal underwear and flannel shirts. I
had a favourite pair of wool pants which my mother kept in her
cedar chest until hunting season. My mother never hunted. Her job
was to preserve and cook the meat after the kill. But even though I
was a girl she allowed me to go out with the men to hunt. I believe
she felt it was an important way for me to learn about the
sacredness of life.

leaves rustle in wind
a doe enters the meadow

Robidoux has a good ear and eye. Her interest in her surroundings is most evident in the archeology of these haibun, both the literal archeology of the landscape and the mythological and folklore archeology of their people. The haibun “Stupa” takes us back into the poorest surroundings:

On the south side, the poor side, the immigrant-laden, gangster-
ridden, bean burrito and Tres XXX’s-riddled side of an otherwise
fancy art mecca in the west, a small group of Tibetan Buddhists
built a stupa. It is a golden pearl in a desert of empty-pocketed
sand. Trailer homes surround it.

“Ceremony for Letting Go” is a more domestic poem, calling on the poet’s love for an old cat who is “tired, very, very tired”, to present a multi-layered picture of the devotion one can feel for a pet. It contains the following haiku:

my elderly cat
losing weight day after day
I miss her already

In “Arroyo” Robidoux is a careful chronicler of the hidden history of a small village in the mountains of northern New Mexico:

It is summer evening and the desert heat has not descended
into night. Cholla cactus still hold their bloom. A veteran recently
home from the war in Iraq leaves his shiny red Mustang running
when he goes into the bar to buy a six pack of Budweiser. He has
used all of his severance pay to buy the car and he calls it “Baby.”

The selection of tanka takes us from “spring snows/ three feet deep” to “after tsunami”:

spring snows three feet deep
deer yard out in the orchard
patiently waiting –
frozen apples
fall one by one

after tsunami
funerals held in the streets
four purple irises
with tea leaves scattered
to honor the dead

Several things have accompanied Robidoux on this poetic journey: mysteriousness, musicality, humour, surprises, gracefulness and heart. How these elements work their way into the tanka is a delight for the reader to explore, as see in, as see in this tanka:

our chief is laid out
at the community center
killed on black ice;
asleep in the next room
you dream your own death song

The musicality of the tanka catches the reader’s imagination. The words and phrases have infectious rhythms and harmonies that are always linked to Robidoux’s experiences, as we see in the following tanka:

full winter moon
at Chaco Canyon
light bathes the badlands –
you refuse to remember
our first night together

Her choice of words transforms mundane things into things that exude poetry. As the magic kicks in, you absorb the music, the nostalgia and the narrative:

in the desert sand
poems found
under a full moon –
our long shadows
against the red canyon wall

The second thing that captures the reader is the way the tanka are saturated with humour:

wind down from Denver
blows neighbor’s mailbox open
yesterday’s letter
delivered airmail
to my address

Intimate details glimmer like gems throughout the tanka, but sometimes the tanka tilt into mystery with what the poet holds back:

after thirty years
I cut my long hair
and left you –
fog lifts
with the outgoing tide

There are many poems to love in this book – poems that favour language, narrative and nature as well as music, mystery and adventure. Robidoux has written some remarkable haibun and tanka that can stand as good examples of both genres. You need to linger and let her words wash over you as you accumulate their subtle delights.

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D’ames et d’ailes / of souls and wings, Janick Belleau (reviewed by Patricia Prime)

I recently published several reviews by Patricia Prime as part of the Street/Life issue of Stylus Poetry Journal. So when Patricia asked if I would post this review I of course said yes. Patricia is undoubtedly one of my favourite reviewers as her reviews always have such a generous selection of poetry. Enjoy!

D’ames et d’ailes / of souls and wings, Janick Belleau. Les Editions du tanka francophone, 3257 boulevard du Souvenir #201, Laval, QC, Canada. 2010. 151 pp. US$20. ISBN 978-2-9810770-5-9. www.revue-tanka-francophone.com

To buy/order the book please visit Janick Belleau’s bilingual web site www.janickbelleau.ca

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

With the publication of D’ames et d’ailes /of soul and wings, this is the first time in nearly half a century that a French speaking woman poet has offered a collection of tanka in English. The book is introduced by the author with a HERstory of tanka since its creation. Claudia Coutu Radmore revised the tanka in English and Maxianne Berger translated Janick Belleau’s essay into English.

Janick Belleau’s essay “Tanka by Women Since the 9th Century,” translated from French by Maxianne Berger, is a useful introduction to the background of women tanka poets both geographically and poetically. Belleau begins her essay with an overview of tanka as it first appeared in 8th century Japan, and then discusses modern Japanese and French tanka by women poets.

Although tanka was at its peak during the Heian-kyo era (794-1185), it is still considered the jewel of Japanese poetry. For purposes of this brief historical overview, we will look at two principal periods for tanka.

The first period is that of ancient Japan, specifically the eras of Heian-kyo and Kamakura (1185-1335). In considering this period, we will acquaint ourselves with five Heian-kyo poetesses (Ono no Komachi, Michitsuna’s Mother, Sei Shonagon, Murasaki Shikibu, and Izumi Shikibu), and greet a single Kamakura poetess (Abutsu-ni).

The second period will propel us into the 20th century, starting with modern Japan, and then France.

After reading Belleau’s wonderful essay, the next striking aspect of this book for me is the cover with its photograph of a Japanese figurine and headless winged sculpture together with the title in Japanese calligraphy in a side column.

Belleau’s 91 tanka are beautifully presented two per page, with the English translation on the left-hand page and the French original on the facing page. The collection is divided into six sections entitled “Between Culture and Nature,” “Burning Fire – for A. F.,” “Walking toward Winter,” “Roots – for my father,” Solitary” and “The Last Sleep.” Each section is divided by a black and white photo.

The focus of the tanka is on the poet’s personal experiences and the accompanying joys and sorrows; a life’s journey similar to that of many women poets. At a wider cultural level, she depicts the society and its traditions in which she lives.

The poet’s intense clarity of images and events and fluidity of pace pull readers away from their external daily existence into a new, illuminated world. Here we witness the beauty of shared joys; of anguish, of insight and perception. The influence of music, birdsong and nature on the poet is one of the topics of the first section “Between Culture and Nature”:

fresh morning
winged seeds flutter about
stabat mater
the voice of Emmy Kirkby rises
time suspended

by the lake
the loon’s song
high-pitched –
a thought for the castrato
Farinelli, his destiny

Love, part of the cycle of life, is a feature of the tanka in the second section “Burning Fire – for A. F.”:

from afar
ornamental grasses
sway in the breeze –
it reminds me of your embrace
light and vigorous

champagne and
breakfast in bed –
like a laser beam
your tongue on my body
music to my ears

It would be easy to sentimentalize such events, but the frankness of the poet’s voice brings the beauty of her memories to the surface. And there is much that provokes happiness in this section: memories of a pedal boat, rain on an attic roof, a bike ride, the crescent moon, but Bellau also brings sadness into her poems:

after weeping
the sky and I reach composure –
a long-stemmed flower
like your hair
bends in the wind

There are mixed emotions in several of the tanka in the section “Walking toward Winter,” where the poet contemplates the time she now has to herself in retirement:

hazy first light of April
mixed feelings –
in retirement
more or less free time
bicycles going by slowly

and there are moments of deep affection for a friend which bring the rest of the world to a stop:

ping pong
helium balloon
over the flames –
the laughter of two friends
their childhood regained

The shorter section, “Roots – for my father,” concerns Belleau’s response to her father’s illness:

a goldfinch
shreds a bagel –
her tubercular father
how he ruined his health
on the docks

and her participation in the lives of others” the virgin couple, the woman crying over her baby abandoned “half a century ago,“ tears for her father, and seeing the likeness of herself to her mother in a mirror:

end of fall
the maple defoliating
I too –
if I could see my mother again
my mirror in twenty years

Memorable for me are the tanka in “Solitary”: succinct poems about the pleasures of being alone:

pedal boat
on the water lily lake
a ballet of insects
I let myself be carried
into their silent world

November night
preparing a steam bath
to forget the time –
the house empty of echoes
except those of the past

These tanka employ a lyrical and semantic structure as they consider the nature and purpose of the solitary life.

In the section entitled “The Beyond” the tanka return to the cycle of life in a more generalized fashion. Certainly Belleau maintains her ability to amaze with her unique vision of life’s journey. The simplicity of this vision is seen in such tanka as

cicadas song –
seated cross-legged
reflective: should she
bury herself in a convent
or die quietly

The final tanka in this section demonstrate the depth of Belleau’s writing ability – her progression into the images of famous Japanese women tanka poets is extraordinary:

mist on the mountain –
Ono no Komachi
her well of beauty
I feel tears flowing
despite myself

Lady Izumi
close beside a weeping tree
her tomb –
quietly giant ants
busy under my feet

Belleau’s tanka are of a consistent quality encompassing, beauty, strength, sensuality and wisdom.


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