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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3

All the Horses of Heaven / Todos los Caballos del Paraiso
by James Tipton
A Review by Johnye Strickland


James Tipton began studying haiku and tanka in the mid 1960s, over sack lunches at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. His first book of haiku, Bittersweet (Cold Mountain Press), was published in 1975. The bilingual collection All the Horses of Heaven / Todos los Caballos del Paraíso is his first book of tanka, even though he has been writing and publishing tanka, as well as haiku and related genres senryu and kyoka, for forty years. Composed in English, these poems were translated into Spanish by his wife, Martha Alcántar, aided by Gabriela Ocampo Ocampo, with editing suggestions provided by Zofia Barisas. The dedication is “for all the women I love / para todas las mujeres que amo.”  The overall tenor of the book is reflected in an introductory holograph, which is repeated as the opening poem:

                I used up my whole life
                waiting for her to arrive
                and now there is nothing left
                but her presence here
                in a thousand poems 

                Usé mi vida entera
                esperando por su llegada
                y ahora no queda nada
                pero su presencia aquí
                en mil poemas.  (p. 11)

On first reading this collection, I felt like almost like a voyeur, watching the male persona ogling passing women:

In libraries and book stores
I study the women
with long hair
who look at me
through such articulate eyes. 

En las bibliotecas y librerías
estudio las mujeres
con pelo largo
quienes me miran
a través de sus ojos elocuentes.  (p. 88)

That senorita who just boarded
can take all the time
in the world
to stuff her obstinate luggage
into the bin above me. 

Esa señorita quien abordó ahora mismo
puede tomarse todo el tiempo
del mundo
para rellenar su obstinado equipaje
adentro del depósito sobre mi.  (p. 36)

Coffee Tree Café--
who needs Heaven
while there are still
beautiful waitresses
in this world?

¿Arbol de Cafe--
quien necesita el cielo
mientras hay todavía
meseras hermosas
en este mundo?  (p 56)

Having decided the poems in this collection are mostly variations on a theme, I kept coming back, looking for a few favorites to use as examples. Each time, I found my selections had changed. But then I realized, as I was making my last trip through before deadline--these are not just simple love poems, though they are that too. The real theme herein is the poet’s lifelong search for the beautiful, for which the women with “articulate eyes” and other notable (and noted) body parts are the archetype. In the Western literary tradition, poets have been talking about the conjunction of love and life, truth and beauty, spirituality and the human condition ever since Homer: “the face that launched a thousand ships.” It is often expressed as a search for the meaning of life, or the very essence of poetry.

By the time I had thought through this discovery, another phrase from the Western tradition came to mind--Ibsen’s ”joie de vivre” (joy of life), which came as an epiphany to Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, a powerful play of love and loss, and the ultimate meaning of truth and beauty in life and art.
This joie de vivre can also be seen permeating the poems in this collection. It just might rub off on the reader, or at least brighten the day.

The tanka in this book have five lines, but they do not conform strictly to the s/l/s/l/l model so much dicussed in tanka circles recently with respect to “traditional tanka” based on clasical Japanse models. No doubt literary historians of the future will place them in the developing Western experimental tradition, influenced by free verse and the concept that “form follows function,” and that musicality flows from the normal patterns of the English language (or Spanish, in the translations), rather than necessarily from adherence to a rhythmic pattern. Each poem deserves to be read within it own world, rather than in comparison to the entire body of tanka ever written--another idea from the contemporary Western tradition.

With these ideas in mind, I offer a few of my favorites from this handsome volume, graced by the image of “Lady Godiva” on the front cover, a Pre-Raphaelite painting by John Collier (1850-1934):

Winter evening...
in the library a bum
tells me about God.
Well, one book
is as good as another.

Noche de invierno...
en la biblioteca un vagabundo
me habla acerca de Dios
Bien, un libro
es tan bueno como otro.  (p. 89)

When death finally comes
can she be in the form of that woman
wearing the black bikini
walking toward me
on the beach at Guayabitos?

¿Cuando la muerte finalmente llega
puede ser en forma de esa mujer
vistiendo el bikini negro,
caminando hacia mi
en la playa de Guayabitos?  (p. 86)

That woman on Market Street
who promised to meet me
at the theatre twenty years ago...
I remembered her tonight.
Part of me must still be waiting.

Esa mujer en Calle Mercado
quien prometió reunirse conmigo
en el teatro hace veinte años...
la reacordé esta noche.
Parte de mi debe todavía estar esperando.  (p. 43)

Maybe they’re right--
we all have a “soul mate.”
Walking through this Mexican village
I know I saw mine today
at least a hundred times.

Quizá ellos tienen razón
todos tenemos un “amigo del alma.”
Caminando por este pueblo mexicano
yo sé que hoy ví el mio
al menos unas cien veces.  (p.91)

And for the purists among us, one final offering. (You might want to consider what they say about “they say” . . . “the greatest of all liars.”):

They say you like to pick apart
these five-line love poems
because “they are not pure tanka.”
Is the form important or the poem?
They also say you are a lousy lover.

Ellos dicen que te gusta desantelar
esos poemas de amor de cinco líneas
porque “ellos no son pura tanka.”
¿Que es importante, la forma ó el poema?
Ellos dicen también que eres una asquerosa amante.  (p. 63)

I plan to give this book to my two daughters, both of whom write an occasional tanka.
Partly because I think they will enjoy the poems, but also because they are both in the medical profession and are increasingly finding a need to learn Spanish. This seems like a pleasant way to accumulate vocabulary.


All the Horses of Heaven / Todos los Caballos del Paraiso
by James Tipton
Modern English Tanka Press 
2009      $12.95 USD
ISBN 978-1-935398-05-9
Available from:
Modern English Tanka Press
PO Box 43717
Baltimore, Maryland 21236