Matamata, Waikato, New Zealand
On her tanka prose “The Taste on My Tongue”
At the age of 21, and long before I wrote creatively or knew anything about haiku, I spent six months living and working in Japan with a group of girls equally foreign to the environment in which we found ourselves. This led to some fast friendships and many wild times exploring the people and parts of Japan that came our way.
For nearly a decade now I have been coming back to the project of writing down my experiences of those times in Japan, but hadn’t quite settled on the form it should take. I began with an autobiographical novel, writing one enjoyable chapter. However, in the end my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t continue. Then another attempt began as a memoir though, as before, only a small amount made it to the page.
Then as haiku, tanka, haibun, and finally tanka prose became the mainstay of my writing world, I realised these poetic forms from the Motherland would be the perfect way to express and explore the fullness of my Japan journey.
So I started by reviewing what I’d written previously, proceeding to work new tanka into the mix to create that full-bodied flavour I wanted a reading audience to be drawn into. The prose portion of “The Taste on My Tongue” is the true story of one of my adventures in Japan. It’s a time I will always remember; in fact can see in my mind’s eye as I take myself back there right now . . .
“I held my breath as the piercing needle came down and the boy’s tongue curled around it, surprised at the assault.”
Many very memorable portions of my travels are to do with food, as well as with falling in love with “the Italian I met in Japan.” I ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten anywhere in the world, and a lot of it with the man mentioned. But I’m not talking about Japanese food. For me it was Israeli, Chinese, Korean and Italian cuisine that I delighted in time and again between McDonalds and those “doorstep slices of white bread, with the Marmite I brought from home.” As the second tanka sums up, “imitation is something they do well here.”
I was easily drawn to the connection between my tongue piercing and my taste journey, and through that this tanka prose was born. The whole mouth, lips and tongue especially, are the highlight throughout. This focus coupled with the nipple piercing scene brings a sensual element to the poem as a whole, ending with the final love tanka.
Gerry Jacobson wrote to me after the piece first came out, saying “Love your tanka-story in Skylark—the highlight of the issue for me.” Then later added, “I love the twist in that last tanka, brilliant.”
"The Taste on My Tongue" is one of two tanka prose that I’ve written and had published on my life and work in Japan. I hope to one day fill a book with them as I’m enthusiastic about the process of combining prose and short-form poetry. To capture and marry thought, feeling, emotion, taste, touch, memory, and more. For now I’ll leave the last word to Cristian Mocanu (Romania) who wrote:
Kirsten Cliff's tanka (and/or kyoka) prose "The Taste on My Tongue" is one of the most innovative and intriguing pieces of writing in this genre that I've read recently. Due to the requirement of brevity, I will only highlight two elements that caught my attention: First, a particular kind of synaesthesia: here the two senses which associate are taste and pain; the description of various "shades” of pain is very poignant, even when it is oblique or toned down; a very new and, I would say, refreshing approach that makes use of the "shyness" which is in the DNA of Japanese forms of poetry to open up new ways of communicating even the unpleasant or the abhorrent—but so profoundly and universally human-pain. The second point I'd like to make relates to the last kyoka. Besides being innovative even formally, with lines 1 and 3 expressing immediate, tangible reality, 2 and 4 subjective thoughts—it is the kyoka of the modern, moving and globalised world: where you can meet anybody anywhere, taste anything, anywhere, and the constant challenge is to position yourself spiritually, culturally, psychologically etc. so as not to lose yourself. While I personally am a "traditionalist" in preserving the "forms" (e.g. onji, kigo etc.) I have always applauded the use of those ancient forms to express modern realities, modern beauty, even modern angst; which Kirsten Cliff does so wonderfully here.
The Taste on My Tongue
I'd travelled by train to the well-known Harajuku purely for the piercing experience. Tongue piercing, that is. Or a nipple, if you were game and your tongue was already adorned. Sitting upstairs in the studio, I could hear the sounds rising from the busy streets below. Markets overflowed with people and wares. The city had a good vibe. It was a place for the young and trendy. And pierced.
of white bread, with the Marmite
I brought from home—
morning sun strains
through curtains never opened
I was the next in line and watched with interest: a Japanese boy sitting in a raised chair, his tongue protruding with an X marking the spot. A large cork was positioned under his tongue and held firmly in place ready for the thick needle to puncture it. I held my breath as the piercing needle came down and the boy’s tongue curled around it, surprised at the assault. A blur of hands, then a shiny gold bar was poking out from the boy’s mouth as he paid and tried to say arigato.
with a cinnamon stick—
imitation is something
they do well here
Five minutes later I was awkwardly announcing, “It didn’t hurt as much as having my nose done.” The friend I'd come with was lying on a high bed having Xs drawn on her left nipple. Her lengthy black hair looked scruffy against the white pillow. I seemed to be leaning over her in protection, and couldn’t help but watch as her areola changed from a smooth yielding circle into its tight brown peak. This was a welcome distraction from my own discomfort. That is, until I had to avert my eyes from the sharp needle penetrating it.
a quick bite to eat
at the noodle bar—
from pictures, we both order
the same meal every time
My tongue didn’t hurt much, but it sure was a strange sensation. Imagine someone’s forearm stuffed in your mouth: the fist pushed hard against your palate and the elbow jutting down forcefully into the soft base of your mouth. Not much room left for your swollen tongue, so enlarged that your teeth have now firmly sunken into the sides. How was I going to eat?
first sip of grappa
sometimes love burns
last sip of grappa—
but he's still on my lips,
the Italian I met in Japan
First published in Skylark Tanka Journal 1:1 (Summer 2013)