Haibun Today
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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 3, September 2011



Charles Tarlton
Oakland, California, USA

 

Memoir of an American Tanka-Prose

Upon Some Distemper of Body

In anguish of my heart replete with woes,
And wasting pains, which best my body knows,
In tossing slumbers on my wakeful bed,
Bedrenched with tears that flowed from mournful head,
Till nature had exhausted all her store,
Then eyes lay dry, disabled to weep more;
And looking up unto his throne on high,
Who sendeth help to those in misery;
He chased away those clouds and let me see
My anchor cast i' th' vale with safety.
He eased my soul of woe, my flesh of pain,
and brought me to the shore from troubled main.

— Anne Bradstreet, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650)

 

On the return leg of a transatlantic trip aboard the SS France in 1969, we hit a big storm in the north Atlantic. Half the passengers and, oddly, a third of the crew were immediately seasick. All around the ship, passengers sat with towels on their laps, and the stern deck was awash in human spew. When, at last, the storm began to let up, a string quartet appeared out of nowhere and began to play Schumann and Brahms in the ballroom, while members of the crew passed around cups of tea and soda crackers.

under blankets in the backseat
I watched
telephone poles go by
while my father
drove and sang

I kissed my first
girl on the observation
platform
of the Super Chief
between Nevada and L.A.

There is a kind of mental breakdown in which the psyche splits wide open and flows out into the cosmos like a massive cumulonimbus on a wind—rising, expanding, and thinning out to the end of the world. Everything begins and finishes in me; but, then, there is no more me, no discernible end to me.

if I was ill
or miraculously well
who would know
whether I rose up
or sank and fell

completely at sea
watching
stars come down
to touch
apples on the tree

An old theory of poetry insists on rhyme and rhythm; strange diction and syntax are needed to keep verse—odd. From the ancient Greeks, through Shakespeare, up to Wordsworth's "wish my days to be . . . bound each to each by natural piety," poetry contorts natural speech. The oddity in Mistress Anne derives from trying to reach from nature . . . all her store to those dry eyes disabled to weep more, or from let us see . . . to just safety—alas! from flesh of pain to troubled main. Rhythm in heavy boots leads the way out, and rhyming makes poetry's own sentences to convolute.

with the ablative
absolute mastered
Sister Veronica
turned on a denarius
and went out

saying penance
at the communion rail
piety failed me
I saw myself, bowing
just perfectly so

I shake in the morning & retch. Brood I do on myself naked.1 I imagine being brought to Africa in the 19th century, taken with Kurtz up some darkened river to the interior. There I suffer fever and snakebite, watching my cheap cotton pants shred, gagging on insects and reptiles until my stomach has turned to sludge. On a psychological arc high above my natural place, I am—unnatural.

under his shirt
his own heart
beat out tattoo
send the boys back!
send the boys back!

they packed
England up
and brought it with them
names, oh, yes, names
and Ten Muses


The above tanka-prose, Upon Some Distemper of Body, displays several formal features. There is a title, which it shares with an Anne Bradstreet poem, Upon Some Distemper of Body, followed by that poem itself, twelve lines of English iambic pentameter divided into six rhymed couplets, and a citation of the book from which the single poem was taken, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). Before that (although not actually present here) there was the title of the tanka-prose series from which Upon Some Distemper of Body was excerpted, that is, The Art of Interpretation. This is a sequence of ten tanka-prose, each coupled with the text of a separate short poem by a well-known American poet—Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the like. The Bradstreet text, Upon Some Distemper of Body, is here followed by four prose passages each one of which is, in turn, followed by two tanka. Even before we read any of the poetry, we know that the purpose of this tanka-prose was, in some sense, to interpret the Bradstreet poem.

Saying that, however, suggests that we will be able to find aspects of the meaning of the Bradstreet Upon Some Distemper of Body explored in the tanka-prose sequences to follow. But, even if this had been my only intention in writing my Upon Some Distemper of Body, there are further aspects of the form of the tanka-prose that operate to frustrate the strict carrying-out of such an intention. The overall tanka-prose structure is always in the process of incremental growth, both in the action of creating it and in the experience of reading it. As each prose passage or tanka (or tanka set) is added, it changes what has thus far been written (or read), so that the content or meaning of tanka-prose TP1 (the text, say, up to the end of the first prose passage) will no longer be the same after the first two tanka have been added. Now, as TP2, this extended structure's altered meaning works to call forth the second prose passage, which now arises out of all that has been written up to that point. At each subsequent stage, TP1 , TP2, TP3, etc., the exact meaning of the text changes and, hence, its influence as a generator and interpreter of further prose and tanka will be different. By the same token, the sifting meaning of whatever text has accrued at a particular point will operate to influence reading, which will itself participate in the tanka-prose's fluidity. Ironically, at each stage in the creation of the tanka-prose, the writer's desire to mean one thing rather than another by any or all the tanka and/or prose added is thwarted by the very interconnectedness of all the parts in a constantly and progressively changing context. As we read (write) the unfolding tanka-prose, what has been read and understood in a particular way is altered in its meaning by each added piece and, at the same time, our readings of what is yet to come are certain to be just as indeterminable.

One last general comment before we turn to the tanka-prose itself. In general, we understand by juxtaposing the familiar and the unfamiliar, drawing over from the former onto the latter things that will make the unfamiliar seem more familiar. This is the principle operating, of course, at the heart of metaphor—helping us to understand the this-ness of a that, when the this is something we already know. In the long run, the account of the origins of a tanka-prose presented here (the this) will necessarily aim to explicate as far as possible the poem by Anne Bradstreet (the that); her poem is the tenor (what's unfamiliar) and the tanka-prose the vehicle (the familiar, meant here to explicate the fuller meaning of the poem).2

 

Narrative of a tanka-prose

What does the very generally-described theoretical point of view above contribute to our understanding of the writing experience, that thread of purpose guiding composition from start to finish? To try to answer this question, the remainder of this short essay will present the rudiments of a "memoir," an account of Upon Some Distemper of the Body's emergence through this alembic of changed meanings, to try to demonstrate just how the meaning is presented and then changed as the structure progresses, the assortment of meanings piling up before it.

The elements of the first stage of our problem are 1) the resources discoverable in the Bradstreet poem, 2) their connection, at the outset, to the first prose element, and 3) the unearthing of the two tanka that follow as if they had somehow all along been contained in what had preceded them.

Upon Some Distemper of the Body could be called a lament, to begin with, about both the psychological (or spiritual) malady and the physical illness that have rendered the narrator exhausted and demoralized. At this point, she turns her inward eyes to God, and, in her imagination, He answers positively. Her ordeal poetically becomes a storm at sea, and she is rescued and brought to safe harbor. Crudely, what we have here is suffering transformed metaphorically by means of a voyage that ends up well.

Casting about for parallels in my own experience, I remembered a sea voyage (a literal one) with at least the possibility of danger, but the relation between tenor and vehicle in my metaphor was the reverse of Bradstreet's—she attributed aspects of a voyage to her personal suffering, while I meant to tackle both voyage and suffering on the same poetical page, as it were. Where God intervened to bring her to safety, the shipboard string quartet brought suffering here to an end. All this amounts, I hope, to a parallel on another plane.

My father, who drives the car through the darkness until light, while I sleep and daydream safely in the back seat, replaces Bradstreet's godly protector, in the first tanka. In the second tanka, travel (in this case the train) is made to do further work as a symbol of life, a place, in this case, where a boy's crucial experience takes place.

 

Extending beyond the first forms

The tanka-prose goes on from there, however, stretching (but hopefully still preserving) the connection between Bradstreet and my own versifying even farther. The next prose section is this.

There is a kind of mental breakdown when the self splits wide open and flows out into the cosmos like a massive cumulonimbus on a wind, rising, expanding, and thinning out to the end of the world. Everything begins and finishes in me; but there is no more me, no discernible end to me.

Here the focus shifts away from disturbances of the body and onto that other half of Bradstreet's lament, the illness of the self, and a classic mental symptom is roughly described. It is at the same time another kind of travel, space travel of a sort, and by reflecting back to the beginning text and to Bradstreet's suffering, it raises the question whether her lament really described physical sickness or was itself a kind of dream or hallucination. She, we might say, had become the very clouds that God has chased away.

In the first tanka, someone muses whether anyone else can ever know our inward state of mind; know whether we are, in that sense, ill or well. It could be Bradstreet later in the day, questioning last night's dream of her "anchor cast i' th' vale with safety," having been brought "to the shore from troubled main." The second tanka mixes mental confusion with ocean travel again—"completely at sea" being a way of suggesting "all at sea," which we can define as "a state of confusion and disorder"—the coming together of stars and apples in the tree blurring, perhaps, the line between heaven and earth.

 

We arrive at the heart of the overall tanka-prose

Bradstreet's old-fashioned poem is written in heroic couplets, and the tanka-prose stops here in the third prose section to lament the singsong influences of traditional rhythm and rhyme in poetry. In the larger context of American poetry (as represented in The Art of Interpretation by the ten foundational poems I chose) Bradstreet's is virtually the only one so formally constrained. And constrained is exactly the word meant here, as the prose passage argues that adherence to formalities—in itself— determines word choice and sentence structures, leading to a weakening of communication as awkward sentences end in rhymes that force less than optimal word choices, leaving the reader to wonder what really could have been meant.

The first tanka then ricochets off that prose; the formalities of Bradstreet's poetry suggest the idea of school, elementary and high school. In my experience, these were exactly the places where poetry was made indigestible, where we were required to memorize unintelligible swaths of dum-te-dum, where English copses crowded out the arroyos of my California childhood. The tanka goes on to suggest the irrelevance of such "rigid" classroom experiences, and the idea is reinforced by reference to the denarius, an ancient Roman coin, and its lack of "currency." The second tanka, on a less oblique angle, is still unforgiving, suggesting that piety might be only a pose, Bradstreet's pious agonies included.

saying penance
at the communion rail
piety failed me
I saw myself, bowing
just perfectly so

The idea of an artificial formality invites us to go behind Bradstreet's meters and rhymes to search out what she might have, in a freer form, been able to say.

 

The tenth muse

Bradstreet's poem appeared in a volume entitled, The Tenth Muse, Lately Spring Up in America. The "tenth muse" represented the Greek poetess Sappho, a symbol perhaps of the difficulty of being a woman poet in Colonial New England. The title's exact phrasing, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, also announces a kind of subtle mutiny, a veiled defiance. Women poets were then and would continue to be few and far between.

The opening phrases of the next prose passage are by John Berryman from his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, directing the reader back to Bradstreet's illness as expressed in the foundational poem. The prose then suggests a connection between the situation of American frontier women (or, perhaps, more broadly, the English in America) and the world of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness—the clash between civilized sensibility and the cruel simplicities of the wilderness. The prose passage reminds us of the danger that the façade of civilization is so easily torn down. Bradstreet, it is saying, was seeking solace in religion and in her formal verse. God arrives to save her from her sick bed on the wings of perfect iambic pentameters.

In the next tanka, the hardships and danger of the American frontier are enlarged to include barbarisms of a more general sort, here, particularly, the universal practice of sending children to fight wars that grownups have started. The tanka ironically demands that we bring the boys back from the theaters of war, from Iraq, from Afghanistan, even as a military drumbeat stirs our own emotions:

under his shirt
his own heart
beat out tattoo
send the boys back!
send the boys back!

The second tanka reverts to what, in reality, would be, in Bradstreet's world, the only practical course available—the effort to recreate a European civilization in the Colonies, reaching from poetry to the memories embodied in English names.

they packed
England up
and brought it with them
names, oh, yes, names
and Ten Muses

 

Conclusions

Upon Some Distemper of the Body describes the drama of emotional and physical agony and wills (or, perhaps, just wishes for) a God-sent deliverance in the wilderness; the whole of the tanka-prose that is encompassed here by that title finds other life expressions that might combine with Bradstreet's words under a broader more inclusive common denominator like, for instance, "life of the soul as a cosmic pilgrimage." The salient terms in Bradstreet's poem—anguish, body, pains, illness, sleeplessness, tears, exhaustion—meet and resolve themselves in the idea of God and her rescue from dangerous seas.

Across the larger tanka-prose these terms find rephrasing in new contexts—the terms of voyage are enlarged to steamships, trains, automobiles, and that further vehicle of transport, the formal poem. The symptoms of mental illness, a possible reading of Bradstreet's poem, suggest yet another voyage or travel, the sort suggested by the work of R.D. Laing, in which the schizophrenic process is a voyage of initiation, a transcendental experience of the loss of the Ego.3 Healing, in this connection, means coming through, incorporating all mental experience under a new and larger category. In modern parlance, we might turn to such a term as self-actualizing or speak of finding oneself to indicate the goal of the journey, but, whatever we determine to be the underlying commonality, it involves a generalized coming to healthy and peaceful terms with life.

How can we describe this tanka-prose's overall common denominator? We have a poem on mental and physical rehabilitation via God, a trip aboard a French liner in a storm finally brought to calm seas, hints of schizophrenia, the "pathology" of traditional English verse, and a paragraph comparing 17th century New England living conditions to some heart of darkness. Can we catch even a glimpse of a dimension that might encompass them all; and what if we then add the problem of the eight tanka nibbling at our heels?

These eight individual tanka pick, as it were, at the skin of the overall work, adjusting the range of meanings, pushing the collected implications into new corners, sometimes saying over again in a more condensed poetic way what was more clumsily expressed in the prose, freely associating the one form with the images of the other, and trying to provide internal punctuation to control whatever music might have arisen. In the end, in connection with the overall title of the full 10 pieces, The Art of Interpretation, the overall tanka-and-prose does turn out to be a kind of critical exegesis of the foundation text by Bradstreet. Not limiting itself merely to explication of her verse on its own terms, not just paraphrasing what she had already said so well, the overall point is to illuminate less than obvious levels and directions of meaning in her poem and drag them into our own orbit. The job is to make it a poem reflecting ideas and experiences Bradstreet herself could never have had or even imagined, rewriting Upon Some Distemper of Body as a poem for our own time.


Notes

1. John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, #27 (1956).

2. See I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) for the first statement of the ideas of tenor and vehicle as aspects of the working of metaphor.

3. See R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967), The Self and Others (1961), and The Divided Self (1960, 1965).

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