Auckland, New Zealand
On Giselle May’s Cicada Chant
Cicada Chant: Collected Haibun and Tanka Prose by Giselle Maya. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2016. RRP: $17 US or Euros. Pb, 77pp. ISBN 978-1-936848-60-7.
The beautifully crafted and presented Cicada Chant by Giselle Maya is a collection of haibun and tanka prose by a writer who resides in Provence. The poems are on the whole gentle, intimate works that creep up on you and then take you by surprise. They are not showy in any way, nor do they rely on cleverness of language or style—rather their intelligence resides in quietness that you feel takes their quality from Maya’s deep love of nature, of her garden and of the changing seasons of the countryside in which she lives.
Part haibun, part tanka prose, and always occupying the literary area between the two, Cicada Chant contains poems which often infuse the past with the present, the themes of nature and human nature, with accurate descriptions. The cohesive raison d’etre that these poems promulgate is that stories of a simply lived life in beautiful surroundings are relevant today because they give us pause in our bustling city lives. Take, for example, the first haibun. “Seasons in Provence” which takes the reader “past the small Roman town of Apt” to a medieval village. The countryside is captured in the simplicity of the prose:
A white island of stone houses, shiplike the eglise, sunlit, surrounded by fields, orchards and vinyards. To the South stretches the Luberon Mountains, a long leopard in repose.
each hour the blue mountain ripples in light and shade
The collection continually marvels at the wonders of nature and humanity. In “Guarding Sheep,” for example, we are told that
the people of this mountain village gather for weddings and funerals
this is the time when everyone puts aside daily tasks to meet with those one has known all one’s life
I have been friends with the shepherdess who had rarely left the village all her life she guarded her sheep and cared for others
The tanka prose “A cherry orchard” begins with two tanka about the vanished orchard where “the owner a neighbour of mine out of the blue decided because ‘ca rapporte rien’ ‘it does not pay’ to cut all the trees, about fifty of them.” Always, it is Maya’s eye for small details which enables her work to resound in the reader’s imagination, as the following example from “An Elegant Green Gourd” exemplifies:
I had just harvested a green smooth gourd of the type tea masters in Japan carve into elegant flower containers. It was tied by its vine to a wooden ceiling rafter, slowly drying.
The majority of the poems work very well, with frequently lyrical autobiographical notes, as in “First strawberry”:
my friend was not back yet at his stone cabin where we were to meet so i wandered along his fields and called his name.
Maya maps out her environment in poems like “Survival” and “Finding and tending the land,” while in “A stone chapel” she turns her eye to an abandoned chapel where: “One day I found a yellow-housed snail perched on the keyhole of the huge wooden door.” One of her poems, “Lovely Anise,” is perhaps the most emotionally moving poem in the collection. The poem begins with a tanka:
in the mailbox
a letter written on a fig leaf
I read it out
to one who smiles
with half closed eyes
As we read on, we realise that Anise is a cat:
I saw you walking down the trail among summer grasses and was struck by your stately gait, your grace and magic markings. I sat up in the neighbor’s almond tree, the one he used to love to paint. I could not move.
Occasionally, like Paul Klee, Maya takes her lines for a walk and we sense that they are surprising and right, the images beautifully realized. The poet is a close observer of the world around her. She is frequently seen in her garden, where there is a variety of fruit and flowers. In “predominantly daisies,” she is accompanied by her cat and they meet with another cat called Zozo:
Anise freezes, hisses softly, Zozo walks ahead, drops onto the earth path and for a long time rolls over in sheer delight showing his underside.
“A child’s garden” is aptly worded, with no need for nor use of elaborate ‘poetic’ embellishment prose. It begins: “Long before I was six years old, my father had a garden. He gave me my own small plot of earth where he had made a sandbox for me to play.” The poem comes full circle with the poet finding her own plot of land:
And now, half a century later, I have searched for and found my own garden plot in another land, with a different earth, a spring, old fruit trees, vegetables and flowers I planted, in remembrance of that first garden I have visited countless times in my dreams.
trace the herb garden’s
“Wild boars enchanted” seems a particularly strong example of tanka prose:
Next morning, when walking to my garden in the valley below our village, I met a hunter with his dogs who said that roaming boars had damaged a field near my spring.
a maze of cracks
riddles the earth
green fields pale
into burnt sienna
In “Le lizard vert,” as in many of the poems, Maya relies on line breaks rather than punctuation to convey the relationship between phrases and clauses, and this creates a loose, fragmented feeling. Sometimes this openness works in tandem with surprising and colourful lexical shifts to create a kaleidoscopic effect:
on an early February morning I walked the trail that leads
to my garden veered off the path to a ruined stone cabanon
it was a vivid green in withered grass that made me stop
But the structure and variety of ideas doesn’t always create enough momentum to carry one over or through the places where punctuation might be. The syntactical value of the line break has an odd effect on the rhythm and sense of the lines and, as a consequence, is not fully controlled. Still, there’s an alertness to the unpredictable in this—a feeling of play and risk that makes it enjoyable reading.
The shorter pieces are humorous, detailed and united in their drive to notice and record unique moments. The choices of setting and event are at times intimate, or even confessional, because the narration is so intensely orientated to the world in which the poet lives—there’s no retreat to easy emoting or affirmation of identity. This creates a remarkable tension between surface and depth, as suggested in the description of Basho in “For the love of Basho”:
His indigo-dyed straw sandals, his brushes and papers carried over high mountain passes, struck speechless at the sight of Matsushima, his horse eating wildflowers by the roadside, perseverance in slowly sculpting his poem tale.
In “A House in Provence,” the narrator writes about her search for a new home: “In 1994, after a year-long search, I found an old stone house in a mountain village in Provence.” “Sewing on a button” and “Cattail stalks” revert to the unpunctuated, thoughtful and personal. The final poem, “Landart,” is composed of short paragraphs. The poetry has a momentum and turns corners to find its own destination along the way. The flow of words seems natural and direct as the lines surge on. The poem ends:
geometrical areas of brilliant green—winter wheat sown in fall growing taller all winter long
then there are the birds, the birds up early singing their hearts out
shadows of daylilies
the cairns made by wanderers
The collection abounds in personal stories, more than can be covered in a review. The poems are sometimes mysterious, at other time full of humour, twists and turns. This collection taps the life of the poet, the nooks and crannies of nature and human nature, but there is also light and recesses of joy and delight where the world is rediscovered with the natural sagacity of the poet.