Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 4, December 2011

Tish Davis
Dublin, Ohio, USA

On Atlas Poetica’s “25 Tanka Prose” and Atlas Poetica 9


Atlas Poetica Special Feature, July 2011, "25 Tanka Prose" edited by Bob Lucky. Available online.

Atlas Poetica: A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka, Number 9, Summer 2011. Edited by M. Kei. Perryville, Maryland: Keibooks, 2011. 8 ½ x 11, perfect bound, 83 pp. IBSN: 978-0615513614. Available $12.95 from Amazon or Create Space . Also available online.

Atlas Poetica continues to offer readers, who are serious about tanka, a diverse selection of tanka, tanka in its variant forms, such as tanka prose, and critical materials in the form of articles, essays, interviews, and reviews.

This past summer, Atlas Poetica promoted tanka prose with the release of a Special Feature, "25 Tanka Prose," edited by Bob Lucky. Only one work per writer was permitted allowing Lucky to select the best out of submissions from both experienced and inexperienced writers of the genre. Atlas Poetica 9, edited by M. Kei, soon followed with an offering of 20 more tanka prose and a spotlight on Claire Everett's interview with Jeffrey Woodward, the doyen of tanka prose. Readers now have back-to-back opportunities to enjoy, study, and dissect over 45 poems, a dissection made even easier by the content and references cited in the Woodward interview.

Woodward's interview, "Tanka Prose, Tanka Tradition," introduces readers to the roots of tanka prose beginning with commentary and examples from its Heian Period infancy when it was not uncommon for the prose portion of a work to be prefatory in nature and serve as a framing device for the tanka that followed. However, Woodward also informs readers that sophisticated exceptions can be found, most notably in the eighth century Manyōshū. "An Excursion to Matsura River," by Ōtomo no Tabito, is one such work and Woodward encourages tanka poets and editors to study it for its artistry. These historical references and examples serve as a foundation for understanding contemporary tanka prose in English and Woodward connects the dots by fast-forwarding to the 21st century via commentary and citation of works from distinguished poets such as Michael McClintock, Ingrid Kunschke, and Bob Lucky.

The tanka tradition of poets exchanging poems, in call-and-response fashion, illustrates tanka's native affinity for integration and sequencing. Repeating elements, amplifying the main motif, and linking two or more tanka in a sequence are some of the techniques available to writers. Out of the works reviewed, roughly two thirds contained multiple tanka, however, out of that grouping only 6 poets incorporated a sequence. I find these statistics interesting since many of the writers are also strong tanka poets, but as readers will learn from the interview, tanka prose in English "was virtually subterranean until its emergence upon a firm footing in 2007" (69).

Mary Mageau is one of the poets who incorporated a sequence. She concluded "Picasso, 'Girl before a Mirror,' 1932," with two tanka (33). This is a very strong ekphrastic work about a beautiful young girl gazing at her reflection in a large oval mirror. The prose is one long and fluid sentence, almost a brushstroke in itself. The two tanka that conclude the work resonate with the prose repeating the gaze in the mirror while at the same time revealing a darker reality:

looking back
from the depths
of the mirror
the image of
an old woman

hard angular features
framed in somber colour
a reminder
that death devours
all lovely things

Gary LeBel's "Trestle" (32) is one of my favorites. LeBel chose a verse envelope (tanka, prose, tanka) for this poem about a man, assumed to be the author, reflecting upon his youth. The writer opens with a tanka that sets the mood:

Along the way
they flare up behind my shoulder
all the little fires I started
and left behind
to smolder. . .

There's a wholesome simplicity in LeBel's prose. LeBel's ability to control the prose allows it to be personal for the writer, but not overpowering for the reader. This allows the reader to enter the work and to enjoy it on multiple levels, both as the writer intended and in the context of events and the memories of one's own life:

I make my way through their neighborhood to a small footbridge over the tracks. From there the trestle flaunts its looming black towers from another century, its riveted iron arches spanning the broad Tennessee like a line of inchworms (32).

Most of the works in the two editions are abbreviated memoirs or confessional anecdotes. In the Special Feature, Anne Benjamin contributes "Renovation," a piece about renovating her father-in-law's house, neglected after his death. Benjamin's prose is plain but precise:

We are renovating his father's house, neglected for years since the old man's death. His father, my father-in-law, was a particular man, a brilliant doctor and exacting parent (Tanka Prose #3).

I appreciate Benjamin's prose and her harmonious alternation of prose and verse. Her skillful use of texture and inanimate objects within the tanka enable her to share observations and project feelings that might have otherwise become diluted if explicitly expressed:

at the gatepost
awaiting restoration
a crouching lion
the guardian's claws
now weathered away

Belinda Broughton's "Talking to Another Artist" is also in the Special Feature. It contains about one hundred words of prose and concludes with one tanka. Her prose is bold and direct. The piece is about an artist whose creativity is stale. The artist's works, presumably created during the winter, now seem sterile and artificial. While I did have difficulty interpreting her first sentence and felt that the direct statement about the artist not loving her work could have been cut, her overall technique was effective. This poet shapes the mood and the artist's mental state by asking questions and by animating many of the objects in her prose. The artist's portraits have "turned into chess pieces and have taken to answering questions." "They are storefront dummies in conversation with neon" (Tanka Prose #10).

Broughton's choice of a successful prose technique that worked with her theme enabled her to create an effective tension. She closes with this tanka:

the dirty studio window
spring's urgency
a twitter of wrens
amongst bright new leaves

Charles Tarlton's "Florentine Studies," also in the Special Feature, is witty and sophisticated. The work contains about 450 words of prose and five tanka. Tarlton writes a mini-travelogue about a professor who finds himself "in Florence for two weeks with no responsibilities at all" (Tanka Prose #20) after a planned viewing of Machiavelli's letters and manuscripts was canceled. The professor's revised plans, made while sitting at a café in front of Michelangelo's David, include attending one of Machiavelli's plays, visiting a local rosticceria, and watching fireworks on San Giovanni's Feast Day.

Tarlton's prose recollections are expository. He peppers his prose and tanka with a bit of Italian and by doing so offers both ear and tongue a variation and the work a change in pace.

I particularly enjoyed the short tanka sequence occurring after a recap of the professor's conversation with an Italian biology professor that he'd met while attending Machiavelli's play Mandragola. One can surmise that the visiting professor's scholastic aptitude overwhelmed the Italian biology professor.

Cesare Borgia
once butchered enemies
at a banquet—
later at dinner
I look for a corner table

a child of fortuna
Borgia tried to ride the wind
over mountains
not even Machiavelli's favorite
was lighter than air

Tarlton's work is layered due to references to history, art, and literature, but he has a light touch and it doesn't "feel" academic. His tanka are somewhat terse, as opposed to the more fluid and lyrical style of classical tanka, but they suit the author's voice in the context of this piece. It is also worth noting that "Florentine Studies" is one of a very few works in the editions reviewed with a prose conclusion. In this piece, Tarlton skillfully and successfully leaves the reader smiling.

Marilyn Hazelton utilizes documentary-like prose in "Red Marble" as readers tour Spain's El Escorial. Written in an alternating prose and verse format, the five paragraphs of prose focus on the palace rooms where "martyrs gaze toward heaven as blood streams from their wounds (Tanka Prose #22)," on Felipe II's private cathedral where the king could watch the transfiguration of bread and wine from his deathbed, and on some of the tourists including a woman who crosses the velvet rope and enters the sanctuary. Central to the theme is man's abuse of power especially when those proclaiming to be faithful cause bloodshed.

The strength of the composition is in those sections where Hazelton's tanka serve as a counterpoint to the prose allowing the reader to see the narrator not as a tourist, but as a mortal wrestling with questions of faith.

Consider the second paragraph, for example. Hazelton's protagonist discovers that some of the elderly companions in her group are victims of childhood malnutrition from the Spanish Civil War. The guard, however, remains apathetic to their appearance even as these men and women "in their Sunday best" (Tanka Prose #22) pass him on their way into the cathedral:

Together we shuffle past a guard, his arms crossed, eyes half-closed. I am startled by the beauty of the ceilings and walls.

angels lift saints
toward heaven's blue
so thinly painted
that good life

My favorite tanka in Atlas Poetica 9 was written by Amelia Fielden as a part of her set, "The Love Affair Continues: Japan, May 2010."

a brown hawk
hovering above paddies
by the train speeding
through his spring valley (12)

Fielden's brown hawk seems to be briefly suspended in time, hovering simultaneously in two worlds and, by living in the moment, not disturbed by either one of them.

While a few tanka prose works had prose that was haibun-like or perhaps a tanka that did not fully resonate with the prose, both editors made good tanka prose selections. Atlas Poetica 9 also contains a fine selection of tanka, tanka sets and sequences, Patricia Prime's Review of Konno Mari's Snow Crystal *Star-shaped, trilingual tanka, Christine Nyugen's article "Twitter Basics for Poets," as well as other articles and announcements.

It's obvious from the Woodward interview that the future of tanka prose in English lies within the traditions of its tanka past. Atlas Poetica's interest in the genre is just one more indication that tanka prose in English is on solid ground and deserves a place in the tanka community.


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