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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 2, June 2013

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Brian Zimmer
St. Louis, Missouri, USA


On “Fortuna” by Charles Tarlton

It is the poet’s function to see, remember, and recreate experience. However, art, like everything else, is under the jurisdiction of “Fortuna” being mostly outside the control of the artist. The title of Charles Tarlton’s tanka-prose, “Fortuna,” along with its two opening epigrams give us to understand the subject the poet means to investigate: the extent to which our lives are more often determined by “destiny” than will.

The beautiful first tanka embraces classic tanka imagery but robs it of the usual (English) sentimentality attached to it. Instead, it is employed to delineate the poet’s very real and daunting challenge:

new plum blossoms
tempt the artist's
brush, his poor palette
pictures a memory
under the cold snow

The past makes a sudden demand on the present, a link in the chain of causation that will not be ignored. The use of enjambment between the second and third lines reveals how psychological forces beyond his control undermine the artist’s intent. He knows that to succumb to temptation will likely result in a hackneyed poem marked by inauthenticity. The integrity of his art will not permit him to overlook the hidden complexity that makes the very appearance of blossoms a necessity.

art reveals
only what it means
to conceal
weight, boulders, and iron
girders tipping the scales

From its lyrical opening and subtle rhyme, the tanka surprises with its turn towards a solely image-driven conclusion:

weight, boulders, and iron
girders tipping the scales

Tasked with addressing reality and giving it imaginative coherence, the poet’s seeking of connections and associations results in a sense of unity. Such subjective unity often feels transcendent though comprised of that which really appears and can be known: girders tipping the scales.

This is a particularly interesting tanka for its caesura rendering malleable the density and heft of its imagery. Substance is revealed as more fragile than function would suggest. Again, we have the art of seeing “deep down things.”i

stones then being brought
are wedged
under the house
some lean into the work
some fly away

The aesthetic pleasures of things are not something super-added but inherent in the materials of which they are comprised. There is something seemingly haphazard in the process, something achieved by trial and error even if ultimately inevitable. “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”ii

This tanka asks us to look, to become aware of intrinsic value, of the truly weight-bearing. It is all so blindingly obvious and close: “No ideas but in things.”iii Satisfaction rises from a sense of recognition that that feels like revelation.

The prose and tanka that follow clarify any confusion. Not everything works out to the “good” as Pauline doctrine would have it. Morality has no purchase here. We are actors unable to predict endings and outcomes, the script seemingly written as we proceed “ad lib.” To track all the variables is not an experience available to us. “The moment comes filled with possibilities—from here to just about anywhere.” The randomness of what Epicurus called “swerve” can be neither predicted nor anticipated

“It is true that the son of a lion roars like as a lion.”iv Tokimune comes to understand his victories as a combination of personal strength and the vagaries of circumstance. “The road ahead forks infinitely, digression on digression, like the veins in my forearm or rain down a windowpane.” In his case things turn out advantageously due to a combination of strategy and the weather!

twice the enemy
routed by kamikaze
sad drowned Armadas
Tokimune
whistled at his luck

The next tanka suggests another possibility, one born of misplaced confidence in Fate conferring preferential advantage. On the heels of triumph, our horseman in his unchecked exhilaration, blinds himself to the signs that Fortuna has just changed her mind regarding him:

and rode up on a pale horse
too broad a grin
he couldn't see
backwards or exactly where
the road turned

In the final phase of Tarlton’s meditation, we encounter the poet’s subtle avoidance in drawing definitive conclusions. He makes no claim save to say: this is how things appear, not as conventional wisdom or religious faith would have them, but simply as they do.

The tanka-prose closes with two apposite poems. The first springs from a visceral hope and fear in the face of uncertainty. Its bald simplicity intensifies our sense of danger and risk, its “pause” perhaps more taxing than any possible outcome.

In response to his assistant’s quoting of a reassuring scripture involving ultimate justice, the wizard adds a coterie of contradictory characters and vices also worthy of blessing:

But the mighty are as vulnerable," the wizard added. "We never say blessed are the powerful, the pernicious, and the warlike, but not because they don't need it.”

in the moment
of action
the heart pauses
awaiting
unknown outcomes

The last tanka depicts the play of the building blocks of existence itself. It reads as a subtle exhortation to detachment, the only honest strategy left us. Such detachment frees from the pride of an exaggerated sense of personal agency though not (as Schopenhauer argued) from personal responsibility or its consequences.

The poem’s simple metric and on-rhyme combine to present us with a kind of charm, a mnemonic recalling Fortuna’s double-edged sword of Fate and Myopia. It is by this sword that she both knights and has her way with us. Like all witchcraft, the hour to come will generally undo the spell’s illusory power, but until that hour, we take our comfort (and pleasure) where we can.

we cannot discern
molecules
at the speed of light
their antics happen
out of sight




Notes

i Hopkins, Gerard Manley, “God’s Grandeur” (poem).

ii Psalm 127:1, KJV.

iii Williams, William Carlos, from Paterson, Book One. New Directions Books, New York, NY; Revised Edition Prepared by Christopher MacGowan. 1992.

iv Zen Master Bukko to Tokimune. “Hōjō Tokimune”, Wikipedia.


Fortuna

States that rise unexpectedly, then, like all other things in nature which are born and grow rapidly, cannot have their foundations and relations with other states fixed in such a way that the first storm will not overthrow them; unless, as is said, those who unexpectedly become princes are men of so much ability that they know they have to be prepared at once to hold that which fortune has thrown into their laps, and that those foundations, which others have laid before they became princes, they must lay afterwards.

Machiavelli, The Prince

Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall.
He who is proud is not so for long.

Heike monogatari

new plum blossoms
tempt the artist's
brush, his poor palette
pictures a memory
under the cold snow

art reveals
only what it means
to conceal
weight, boulders, and iron
girders tipping the scales

stones then being brought
are wedged
under the house
some lean into the work
some fly away

The moment comes filled with possibilities—from here to just about anywhere. It all depends. Before this or that dream can come true, the sky opens—love, disease, war, winning raffle tickets, random possibility directs the world's forces. The road ahead forks infinitely, digression on digression, like the veins in my forearm or rain down the windowpane.

twice the enemy
routed by kamikaze
sad drowned Armadas
Tokimune
whistled at his luck

and rode up on a pale horse
too broad a grin
he couldn't see
backwards or exactly where
the road turned

"This is how the lowly view the mighty," the wizard's assistant said. "They are just temporary, you know? and blessed are the poor in spirit, the righteous, and the peacemakers. They will eventually inherit it all."

"But the mighty are as vulnerable," the wizard added. "We never say blessed are the powerful, the pernicious, and the warlike, but not because they don't need it."

in the moment
of action
the heart pauses
awaiting
unknown outcomes

we cannot discern
molecules
at the speed of light
their antics happen
out of sight

Author’s Note: Kamikaze means "divine wind" in Japanese and was used, of course, in connection with Japanese suicide bomber pilots in WWII. A much earlier use referred to the typhoons in 1274 and 1281 that turned back invading Mongolian ships during the reign of Hōjō Tokimune (1268-1284).

First published in Haibun Today V5, N3 (September 2011).

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