Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

TANKA

Special Tanka Feature:
Tales of Zenbo by Zolo

Introduction by Michael McClintock, Editor, Simply Haiku Tanka

With great pleasure I present this selection of tanka from a collection-in-progress by Zolo (aka John Polozzolo). I found the work to be absolutely extraordinary when first made aware of it nearly a year ago, in its early stages.

As the collection of Zenbo poems grew in my in-box, it became clear to me that a specially formatted selection exclusive to Simply Haiku was needed; for months I have been anxious to introduce a fair sampling of the Zenbo world to Simply Haiku readers.

In making this presentation, and working with Zolo, I have decided to adopt some features that are intended to enrich the reading, in that I have included some of Zolo's own comments about the poems and the direction of their narrative within the selection. Also, following this headnote, and in answer to some of my questions put to Zolo over the course of the last few months (well, half a year, actually), I am including material in an Afterword, at the end of this presentation, that succinctly expresses Zolo's approach to tanka in English and some background about how the Zenbo poems were conceived, written, and made to flourish.

I have not come across a tanka poet with this kind of skill in sustained narration, with an eye to such an array of difficult subjects, in over thirty years of studying the work of English-language tanka poets.

--Michael McClintock

 

from Tales of Zenbo

"Make way! Important
people coming!"
Lookout-bo
exclaimed . . . but no one
moved a muscle . . . nobody
even bothered to look up

 

Timepiece-bo painted
the face of his wrist watch black . . .
while he couldn't tell
the hour of day, he could
hear "tic, tic, tic . . ." perfectly

 

Literal-bo packed
his special peppers in oil
and labeled the jar:
XXX KILLER PEPPERS!!! . . .
He ate one, and . . . it killed him

 

another good friend
was Snail-bo, who had a taste
for Shakespearean
stage roles . . . he'd soliloquize
with great panache, but slowly

 

twirling at high speed
in a sudden gust, Spin-bo
soared . . . not like reptiles,
bugs or birds, but like a seed,
a lovely, sun-dappled seed

 

Affected-bo donned
such a superior air
that the other bo's
passed the hat to buy her a
one way ticket to New York

 

the bean curd vendor . . .
no one can say for certain
at what point in time
he became tranquility
itself, shaping the custard

 

they asked Old Blind-bo
why he bothered carrying
a lighted lantern . . .
"It's not for my sake that I
carry the light", he replied

 

. . . Sometimes, Zenbo's road journey is conveyed onomatopoetically:

 

"Riding on a train
makes a man feel important",
Zenbo said aloud . . .
and listened to the lowing
of the cattle in the car

 

. . . other times, interspersed with those presented in past tense, are tanka that function as asides or as internal monologue, these usually in the present tense:

 

Independence Day . . .
and one after another
politicians rise
to speak before a big flag
all twisted around itself

 

. . . sometimes tanka is used to express sabi, and Zenbo's great sense of loneliness:

 

Another party,
and another Halloween
come and gone
. . . alone
beneath the stars, Zenbo sat
awhile . . . in his childhood mask

 

. . . and sometimes tanka is used to express Zenbo's irreverence:

 

Think-it-Up Bo thought
he was hearing the great voice,
vibratory Om . . .
but the overpowering
hum turned out to be ear wax

 

. . . sometimes Zenbo makes pronouncements:

 

as doctor Zenbo
readied his scalpel, rainbows
broke from its honed edge . . .
"Stand, and cut wind!" Zenbo roared,
"the impasse is just a dream!"

 

. . . and sometimes Zenbo learns lessons:

 

feeling his way through
the swirling mist on the moor,
Zenbo saw it was
not what he saw that really
mattered, but what he didn't

 

. . . sometimes Zenbo offers lessons:

 

"Oh, do give me one
last lesson", jeered Smart Alec . . .
softly, Zenbo said:
Never sharpen a knife blade
while it's pointed at your heart

 

. . . at times, Zenbo is contemplative:

 

as Zenbo sat in
the twilight of dawn, steam rose
from his strict posture . . .
facing a rising pink sun,
he was enveloped in light

 

. . . and at times Zenbo even delves into the mystical:

 

the sky opened up
in a flood of suns, comets
circling a thousand
blue moons rained down like rockets,
Zenbo, awed, and bedazzled . . .

 

. . . mostly, Zenbo tries to tell it like it is:

 

Rings break the surface . . .
yet, from the moment it starts
its downward journey,
a stone is encircled by
all the water in the pond

 

Zolo

Afterword: Notes by Zolo

I began writing the Tales of Zenbo a couple of years ago. The collection stands at about 300 tanka poems at this time, all in a traditional 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. Without rekindling old arguments concerning form and the relationship of the English syllable to the Japanese onji, I've tried to adhere to a count of thirty-one syllables, whenever possible, without padding the lines or sacrificing poetic naturalness. The content of the poems, however, is rather unorthodox, veering from the nature themes and expressions of love and passion so prevalent in oriental tanka poetry. The extensive use of characterization and dialogue is unusual in contemporary English-language tanka, I think, with many of the poems being presented as a kind of anecdote or vignette.

lifting a pine cone
and seeing the sea shine through,
Zenbo was taken
by the structure of its wood . . .
So much like the scales of fish

In some ways, the poems are interrelated as parts of a whole, and at times some pieces seemingly flow into others with consistent seasonal settings, but a truly sequential arrangement has been avoided in hopes of enhancing the ability of each tanka to also tell its own broader story and to stand on its own as a complete verse. Some of the pieces appear in the present tense, others in past or future tense, one goal being to create connecting leaps that hopefully deny strict logic.

"Just what do you think
will grow in this plot of yours
without daily toil?",
sneered Green Tea . . . Zenbo just winked
and replied: Egolessness

"Zenbo" was created from the combination of two words: Zen and hobo. The "beat" novelist and poet, Jack Kerouac, introduced a similar idea in the title of one of his most famous books: The Dharma Bums . . . "dharma" being a reference to the spiritual path, and "bums" being an adaptation of a slang term for a wandering outcast. But a Zen-bo is not a bum in any traditional sense, not a ne'er-do-well . . . his heart is pure and full of compassion.

The poet Gary Snyder wrote: "I perceived that there was a kind of freedom and mobility that one gained in the world, somewhat analogous to the wandering Buddhist monk of ancient times, that was permitted you by having a proper pack and sleeping bag, so that you could go out on the road and through the mountains into the countryside. The word for Zen monk in Chinese, yun shui, means literally "clouds and water," and it's taken from a line in Chinese poetry, To float like clouds, to flow like water, which indicates the freedom and mobility of Zen monks walking around all over China and Tibet and Mongolia on foot."

Hence, the emergence of the term: Zenbo . . . not exactly a monk or a true hobo, but a wandering Zen-man, a seer on the archetypal pathway of life whose endless variety of daily adventures confront the world and humanity with no other anchor than the moment itself . . . a man of many guises, of many times and places who "floats like a cloud and flows like water", drifting along and absorbing illusions.

On his travels, Zenbo encounters a large group of "Bo's", a wide assortment of talking insects and wise animals; a collection of often philosophical, sometimes cantankerous hobo companions who epitomize the marvelous and the mundane in a variety of ways. Often they appear as characters pinpointing one particular trait of the human personality. At other times they are seekers of truth and illumination. Nonetheless, they all seem to exist happily unconcerned with the mores and values of the society around them. Most of the time they are presented simply, and with humor.


Zolo "Zolo", was born in 1949 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he began a career as an English teacher, and later veered into adult education and seminars. He presently lives in Alton Bay, New Hampshire with his wife, Susan. His haiga paintings have been featured in online shows, in journals, and on the covers of books. For the past five years he has taught haiku and haiga as a guest artist to prisoners in the New York State prison system. As a result of this work, Zolo has been a presenter at the conference of the New York State Association of Incarcerated Education Programs.

For the past few years Zolo has been concentrating on Tanka poetry, and is writing a collection called The Tales of Zenbo. He believes the genre of tanka poetry is a new frontier in English-language poetics and that the popularity of tanka is growing by leaps and bounds in our language because of its inherent room for rumination, imagination, poesy, and musicality.