Tag Archives: tanka

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
silently

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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Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part 1)

Max Ryan is a poet whose ‘words sift deep into life, and are full of power and insight.’ (Judith Beveridge) Max is also renowed for his work with musician Cleis Pearce, their CD ‘White Cow’, winning several music industry awards. This Lost Shark caught up with Max recently to discuss the good things in life… poetry & music. Here is part #1 of the interview: 

Max Ryan

The importance of landscape and place is something that is evident in your work. In your first collection, Rainswayed Night, you conjure feverish images of India (The Dancer, Burning Ghat, Varanasi); the sensuality of the ocean (all night the sea) and the rain that seeps into so many of these poems. You currently split your time between the ocean and the desert. How do each of these vastly different landscapes impact on your writing?

 

Firstly the Indian poems: well, anyone who’s ventured to the sub-continent will testify that India confounds any ideas of order and predictability so maybe my India poems are an attempt at some sort of disentropy. Interestingly, ‘The Dancer’ came from something I saw on a very early trip to India: a man dancing on the ghats (steps) at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, in an almost drunken, totally self-absorbed way; his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth smeared with betel juice and he looked like he’d been up all night. I wasn’t even aware of what the actual situation was but the overall effect was an energetic jolt to my being, very strong, and I knew it would turn to a poem one day. Of course there are other benign, deeply peaceful poems about India in Rainswayed (‘A White Cow’, ‘Shepherd’s Hut, Triund’ for example).

A friend, the poet Judy Johnson, pointed out to me the strong presence in the original manuscript of water generally and it was she who suggested I call the book Rainswayed Night. The water element certainly runs through the poems but not in any defined way. In ‘The Hexham Flood’, water, in terms of the river and the dampness or pneumonia that settles on the child’s chest, is a highly malevolent, totemic force that acts as a nemesis in the child’s imagination. In the actual Rainswayed Night sequence, ‘the rain’s soft sheath’ is a source of elemental comfort and solace amidst the horror of the car accident and nightmare of the hospital. In ‘Evening Storm’, the tropical storm and rhythm of the sea-tide flows into the commingling of the two lovers. The rain in ‘rainy day paper boy’ erases all sense of time and space and merges into the boy’s early morning dream. ‘all night the sea’, which is a series of tanka, is probably the closest poem I’ve written so far in describing the place where I lay my head at night. The sound of the sea is the trigger here, a constant presence at my beach house. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) in another poem to describe just what that sound is. So the sea features in many of my poems even the new ones; sometimes, I feel, overly so. Which is where the desert comes in I guess. Yes, it is very different out there (the centre, the country around Alice Springs) and I’ve come to love the vastness and wildness of the place. Very different, dry and hard, endless, a roaring silence; it’s quite confronting in a way, humbling too somehow. So far though, beside some haiku, I’ve written very little about it (‘A White Cow’ was totally about a sort of epiphany in the desert albeit the Rajasthan one). Last time I was in Alice I was sitting in a car in the car park outside Woolies while my friend was picking up a few groceries and there was something on the radio about some sort of scientific probe on Mars, checking for water, signs of life etc. Meanwhile a group of old Aborigine women, dressed in the most colourful array of raggedy clothes, were taking in the winter sun and then an old uncle wheeled up in a chair wanting a cigarette…I was just struck by the contrast between the radio show and the scene outside, there’s probably a poem there…

But the words for the poems may not come in a direct and immediate way; the India poems, for example, were formed after a very long gestation. As it is for most poets, I suspect, the actual poem can come from many sources. Ultimately, I think, poetry is about words and some weird alchemy of sound as much as any specific experience.

 

You mention that ‘all night the sea’ is a series of tanka. You also write in the shorter, haiku form. What initially attracted you to these disciplined forms of writing?

 

Hard to say but right from when I was in my late teens, I’ve been reading books on Zen and writers like Alan Watts who had a deep understanding of the old Chinese poets and the Japanese art of haiku. There’s a favourite ku of mine by Ryokan, I’ve seen various translations, but this is it essentially:

the thief left it behind:
the moon
at the window

The first time I read this, I was blown away and I still marvel at how much Ryokan manages to say here: the overall picture is of a burglary but right at the centre is the moon, inviolate and beyond any human conniving. There’s a marvellous sense of freedom in this haiku: ‘the window’ (I’ve seen it described as ‘the open window’) turned into a portal to the unlimited and there’s an implied sympathy for the thief who misses out on the most precious thing there. So yes, I’m very drawn to the essential nature of haiku and the sense of the poet’s disappearing into the poem. I still feel very much a novice though. My friend, the poet John Bird, and I have sat together out the back of a country pub we go to near here and written haiku about the things around us…while I’m still struggling to describe a crow perched on the rickety paling fence, John will have a half dozen fully formed haiku, it just seems to come naturally.

Tanka are different again; the five lines allow for a more expansive description and generally more subjective and personal voice. (It’s a great vehicle for the theme of lost love or recalling times past). I write quite a few tanka and submit fairly regularly to Eucalypt, the Australian tanka journal edited by Bev George. I’m also part of the Cloud Catchers, a local ginko group. We get together every season (the Oz ones) and have a haiku walk, usually about three quarters of an hour before we regroup and share our haiku.

I’d say the influence of these forms definitely affects my writing in free verse.  In an important way, the hard clear image, unlike polemic or high blown linguistics, doesn’t lie. I’ve made it almost some kind of credo to avoid the use of abstractions and airy figures of speech. Probably I’ve been too dogmatic about this but overall there’s something undeniable about a good image. Bob Dylan’s method of ‘chains of flashing images’ is a compelling one.

 

‘Chains of flashing images’ was a phrase coined by Allen Ginsberg to describe Dylan’s writing style. Throughout the last five decades, Dylan has been a touchstone for many poets and I know he is someone that has influenced your life and work. What is it about Dylan’s work that continues to mesmerise? 

 

Well I’ve written one poem, outlaws, largely influenced by Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s his least verbal album but I’ve tried to capture the atmosphere of that work, the overall sense of inevitable tragedy in the outlaw story echoes the fate of the lovers. Even the music becomes part of that:

harmonica swirls as we sink to the floor, wound
in guitars’ quicksilver chords. maracas
swish to the silk of your dress
as i follow you up the stairs.

Saw Dylan the first time he came here in 1966… Rushcutters Bay Stadium in Sydney, still a functioning boxing ring (fortunately we didn’t have to put up with the revolving stage they’d used for the Beatles less than two years before: you’d get one song full-frontal then they’d crank the stage another 30 degrees round til three songs later it all came your way again), the audience for Bob wasn’t so big. I’ve never really forgotten it: Dylan and what was (minus the drummer) The Band; snarling, surreal, wildly eclectic grooves, lots of it from Blonde On Blonde which I don’t think had even come out yet. I’d never heard anything like it… I’d never seen human beings that looked like that! Cuban heels and strange Confederate style suits from some Civil War of their own…Dylan with his floaty, Little Richard bouffant, pale and on fire. Just made me aware of the power of words and music as incantation…something prophetic and uncanny the way he brought it all together. From there I discovered Rimbaud, Verlaine…the declamatory quality of Walt Whitman and the lyricism of Tennyson you could hear it all in Dylan.

I’ve never had any problem with seeing singer-songwriters as bards in their own right. When I went to study English literature at Newcastle Uni I felt lucky to find a department where the Romantics were given great respect with the implied acknowlegement of the importance of the lyrical in poetry. One of our lecturers was the late Norm Talbot who was described by Gwen Harwood as Australia’s greatest living poet. He wrote an article in poetry australia called ‘The Stranger Songs’ (I dug it up) where he declared that something was indeed happening Mr Jones:

The lyrics of many pop songs…are considerably better, more craftsmanslike and more interesting than the work of the Established, the Serious, the Bright Young, and the Promising poets. This is uncommon.

I remember Norm asserting at some discussion of popular song that the Tambourine Man was none other than the Muse. Not to say Norm was some Dylan sychophant or anything (he was probably more interested in Keats and Blake and Emily Dickinson) but he could hear the poetry when it was there. All sounds a bit post-modern now but it was inspiring at the time to see the important place of song in poetry, like putting the lyre back into lyrical.

But yes, Dylan’s been a big influence, even as a medium to the work of other poets. I’m also a huge admirer of Ray Davies (the Kinks), love his vision of the lives of ordinary people:

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night

Going back to Dylan, I’m inspired by the narrative leaps of some of his songs such as Tangled Up In Blue and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Poetry and song are a brilliant medium for telling a story, shifting through time and space in a way that nothing else can and Dylan’s a master of this. Also Dylan’s way (mentioned in Chronicles) of leaning into the song on the odd beats is something I’m probably unconsciously influenced by in my work with such musicians as Cleis Pearce. Without the formal structure and rhythmic cycles of a conventional song, you’re thrown into a highly spontaneous interplay of the voice and the musical surge. I feel blessed to be able to collaborate with such a deeply intuitive, sensitive player as Cleis.

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