Taos, New Mexico, USA
On Amelia Fielden's Mint Tea from a Copper Pot & other tanka tales
Mint Tea From A Copper Pot & other tanka tales by Amelia Fielden. Port Adelaide, Australia: Ginninderra Press, 2013. Paperback, 107 pp. $20 USD. Available from Amelia Fielden, firstname.lastname@example.org. ISBN 978-1-74027-804-1.
Amelia Fielden is a widely known Australian poet and translator of Japanese literature. Although her latest book is subtitled "tanka tales," it is closest to what would be termed a nikki (diary or memoir). The collection, as she states in the preface, is "in a kind of rough chronological order," and borrows its title from one of the pieces. She covers a broad range of subjects such as childhood, adolescence love, marriage, grandchildren, travels to Japan and other countries.
One of Fielden's earliest memories is set in her native Australia. In "First Magpie," she raises an existential question for humankind—the difference between solitude and loneliness:
Family facts locate this memory somewhere in my third year of life.
Harnessed into a wooden high chair I am sitting alone in a sunny kitchen.
On the high chair tray is a half-eaten banana, and my white stuffed dog, Pongo.
Soft music is coming from the radio.
satisfied for now
not lonely . . . on the sill
a magpie chortles (12)
The separation of single sentences into paragraphs heightens the images as she relates everything that satisfies her senses: warmth of the sun, food, a stuffed dog and music. The subjective tone of the tanka contrasts nicely with the objective prose. Although the child does not need anything more, the magpie seals her idyllic world with its arrival. This comfortable moment in childhood moved me, as it evoked my own first childhood memory.
Another tanka prose worth mentioning is "Daisy Chains." Here, the author weaves together various scenes that elucidate the use of this title. Just as daises are linked in a chain, the lush palette ("pinky-mauve," "crimson," "scarlet") blends well with the additional colours in the tanka ("snow-white," "clear blue," and "sunlit").
On closer examination, the myriad tiny daisies embroidering this lawn are not all white: some have petals tipped with pinky-mauve; others are entirely crimson.
The children are doing handstands, while their dog rolls over in summer exuberance.
Below a scarlet azalea hedge, the ground slopes down to the still water.
a floating snow-white cone
in clear blue sky
beyond the sunlit bay
another life beckons (58)
The full appreciation of "Daisy Chains" hinges upon knowing the larger context of the book; the children appear to be Fielden's grandchildren that live in North America and the reference to "another life beckons" is the writer's home in Australia. In assessing the merit of a poem, one should not have to rely upon information that is not immediately evident to the reader. If some elements are missing, the totality of the piece is diminished.
Although the above tanka prose and a few other pieces attract the reader's attention with their descriptive details, the majority of this memoir tends to fall flat. The writer's most powerful tool, engaging the senses, is rarely applied. In "My First and Only Miai," while something is conveyed about the Japanese culture of the 1960s, the writing is bogged down in too much telling and nothing remains for the reader's imagination. Study for example, this paragraph:
Now, as a serious student of Japanese language and society, I was well aware of the meaning of miai, the 'seeing meeting' which was the first stage in the modern version of a Japanese arranged marriage. I had read that, through a nakodo, a 'go-between', parents exchanged extensive dossiers on sons and daughters deemed ripe for marriage. If and when agreement was reached within the families that the principals concerned were willing to 'have a look at each other', a meeting was arranged. This meeting—normally held on neutral territory such as the lobby of a Western-style hotel, or in a high-class restaurant, was orchestrated by the go-between (customarily a friend, neighbour or relative of one of the parties) and attended also by the four parents and the two young people. The prospective bride and groom, flanked by parents, exchanged a few formal remarks and then kept their heads down, while the elders discussed whatever was deemed appropriate. Later, both sides would report back—usually by telephone—to the go-between, as to whether they wished to proceed with a further meeting. And so on . . . (21)
The prose, six pages long, continues in a similar vein and the two tanka, toward the end, offer little poetic relief.
Occasionally, singular pieces surface in this collection. One that personally stands out for me is "Please, Sir, I want some more." This is an abridged version of a diary, kept by Fielden while in Ube, Japan. It begins with a preface of three expository paragraphs. Then tanka are introduced but, before each tanka or pair of tanka, Fielden employs brief headnotes that are purely descriptive; these headnotes are set in italics in the book. Here is an excerpt:
inside the Sorinji; the kokoro pond at the temple
||across the water
|of kimono clad ladies
|| a floating brocade cloak
||of bright leaves
|their tea ceremony master,
||lined with gold black silver
|the tightness of tradition
||by undulating carp (42)
The "floating brocade cloak" of the second tanka neatly echoes the "kimono clad ladies" of the first tanka. One might also see a parallel between "the tightness of tradition" and the "brocade," which is a tightly woven fabric. The tanka create a complementary relation, which is skillfully done.
Although Fielden deftly links minutiae here and there in the memoir, her ready reliance on excessive exposition does not allow the reader to understand her much beyond the mere events of her life.