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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 9, Number 3, September 2015


Dru Philippou
Taos, New Mexico, USA

On Patricia Prime’s and Giselle Maya’s Shizuka

Shizuka by Patricia Prime and Giselle Maya. Uxbridge, United Kingdom: Alba Publishing, 2015. Paperback, 100pp. £12 , €15 , $15. ISBN 978-1-910185-162.

Patricia Prime from New Zealand and Giselle Maya from France, writing partners for years, have put together their first collaborative book. The work is divided into four sections: collaborative tanka sequences, tanka prose, haibun and individual pieces. Nature, love, travel, time and the minutiae of everyday life are some of the themes explored.

The inspiration for the book’s title is explained by Maya: “In Japan each year the Emperor gives a theme for the entire world to write tanka and send them to the place where the best poems are selected, chanted at the Utakai Hajime ceremony. Shizuka (tranquillity, calm, silent contemplation) was the theme for the year 2014.”

In the opening collaborative tanka sequence, “Shizuka,” the reader will discover imagery that reflects the promise offered by the title. Take for instance the first two tanka:

autumn afternoon
in the art gallery
whispering voices
in front of the canvases
of water lilies by Monet

cicada pines
silent now in late winter
silver sky
painted by snowflakes
waking with poems in my heart

The first tanka depicts a serene and contemplative setting. The second tanka links to the first by dropping the reader into a greater silence: that is from an autumn to a winter scene. There is also the association of painterly images: “water lilies by Monet,” and “silver sky / painted by snowflakes.”

“Shizuka” also touches upon memories of love and lost youth. A poignant verse merits a pause:

because of bare trees
with their creaky branches
I notice
a young woman on a park bench
singing softly to herself

The understated image is striking, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps with his/her imagination. Creaking branches, waiting to leaf and the woman “singing softly to herself” could be just another tranquil scene, but I could not help feeling that there was something more. “I notice” carries emotional weight as it appears on a separate line. It also draws attention to the speaker whom I imagine thinks about her younger self and mourns unfulfilled expectations.

The ten tanka in “Shizuka” cycle through the seasons, almost from verse to verse. This rapid shifting, in such a short piece, feels rather jolting. Some tanka links are weak and often require huge leaps for the reader. One or two verses could be easily deleted without ill effect. Therefore, the overall meaning of “Shizuka” remains obscure.

In contrast, “Dwellings,” a delightful description of the places one might live, is a more tightly woven collaborative tanka sequence. Consider, for example, the opening two stanzas:

on a rocky plateau
of Skellig Michael
in Ireland
monks built their dry stones
cells and monastery

perched high
among redwood trees
a hand built dwelling
have I not always lived there
this love of birds and wind

The high location and seclusion of the dwellings form the associative links. The ending lyrical line: “have I not always lived there / this love of birds and wind“ evokes a desire as old as mankind—the desire to fly.

The accumulation of the six tanka reach a playful climax with the idiom “over the hill” and its implication of death.

a hobbit’s house
under and over the hill
evening fires
why wake at all
when one can rest in peace

“Hokianga nui a Kupe, the returning place of Kupe” by Prime is the only solo tanka sequence in the book. According to legend, the Polynesian navigator Kupe, who discovered New Zealand, declared that Hokianga would be his “returning place.” In a similar vein, mother and daughter go on a journey of discovery. After taking a ferry to the historical towns of Russell and Rawene, they explore a battle site between Maori and European settlers, an art gallery, historic chapels, watch birds and dolphins, surfers and more.

However, out of the eleven tanka six of them read as complete sentences, justifiable where they serve a thematic or narrative function. Had the poet varied these by insertion of stronger tanka, the work might have been more distinguished. Where the tanka do stand alone, they fail to captivate the reader.

along the waterfront
we walk the mangrove boardwalk
pick out shorebirds:
herons, dotterels and sandpipers
fossicking in the mud

Further along:

relaxing over coffee
in the harbor café
overhanging the sea
the deep sea diver hefts
himself out onto the reef

This work lacks “dreaming room” or “some empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill in with his personal experience, from his unique social context” (Denis M. Garrison, “Dreaming Room,” Modern English Tanka V1, N3, Spring 2007, p.4.).

The haibun, six in total, seem out of place in a book that is mostly devoted to tanka. Five of them are solo haibun, all written by Maya. My favourite work from this author is titled “For the love of Basho.”

The first paragraph describes what is known about Basho such as his “indigo-dyed straw sandals” and the island he visited, Matsushima. It also includes a wonderful allusion to one of his famous haiku about his horse eating wildflowers by the roadside.

In the second paragraph, the speaker, genuinely interested in Basho, wonders about the trifles of his day: “But how did Basho and Sora cook, what did they eat on this long journey?”

The third paragraph also describes what is unknown about Basho and is worth quoting in full:

The moon is prominent by its presence or absence; the finding and not finding of inns for the night; the silence of the temple of Eihei-ji. Not a word about wild animals such as foxes, deer, boar, lizards. What kind of tea did they drink . . . o-kusuri, what medicines did they carry—so many things for the reader to imagine.

The last phrase addresses the reader as if the speaker yearns for others to share the depth of her feeling for Basho. In appreciation for Basho, the speaker leaves a calligraphy seemingly at the temple he once visited. Thus, the haiku ties aptly back to title and prose.

left as a gift
at the mountain temple
a calligraphy

“Riddles and Puzzlements” is a collaborative tanka prose with alternating prose and verse in the ratio of one to one. The first prose paragraph is ushered in by Gollum’s riddle from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The reader might properly guess the answer by reading the prose, but for the purpose of this review, the answer is “time.”

“Time” shows what it can do physically and emotionally. The opening paragraph transports the reader to the weathered ruins of Delphi and the stone Buddhas of Sri Lanka, to a more positive perspective, “wines and cheeses improve with age, and possibly our ‘sagesse’, our wisdom and understanding.” The tanka that follows echoes the prose with an image of Buddha, yet deftly bridges the next prose paragraph by alluding to a line from another famous Basho haiku.

all that remains
in an empty niche
a ghostly silhouette
of the larger Buddha
and his gigantic feet

Hence, in the second paragraph, we enter the subject of war in Afghanistan and learn about Mullah Omar’s destruction of the “sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan.” The speaker is powerless over the chaos and destruction so she cultivates her garden, something that is within her control.

with a small shovel
I add compost for a new plant
a blue hortensia
set under the walnut tree
it cheers me all day long

We also learn that time is transformative, affording various personae: the makeup of geishas and the Kitsune, a woman with nine tails from Japanese folklore. The various personae are a thing of power, but all impermanent. The above are just a few characteristics of time. The work holds the reader’s attention throughout its four and half pages.

Although the book offers many moments of quiet reflection, it is difficult to recommend Shizuka unreservedly. Prime states: “ . . . many of our best poems are presented in Shizuka.” Be that as it may, better works have been published by these poets, though mainly in their solo endeavours.

Author's Note: Works in roman are by Prime and those in italics by Maya, unless otherwise stated.



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