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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

Tanka Fields
by Robert D. Wilson
A Review by Linda Papanicolaou

 

is this the moon
i've come to know;
a sad-faced poet
writing haiku on the
backs of oxen?

With this unforgettable poem begins Robert Wilson's chapbook, Tanka Fields. According to the announcement of publication, the volume includes "seventy-five tanka written by the award winning poet and owner/managing editor of Simply Haiku," but my own count is well more than that—eighty-seven tanka, including a haibun.

In a brief introduction, the author explains his approach to composing this English language variant of a Japanese poetic form that is "a stirring of the soul, painting a mural on a canvas the size of a periwinkle blossom. And much more . . . it is a matter of breathing, a sense of metre, a tonal quality we listen for."

"No one writes tanka like Robert Wilson," says Michael McClintock in his foreword to the volume. "[His] vocabulary is that of shadow, moonlight, water-image, and restless loneliness." "These are poems of long nights, intuitive dreams and a deep yearning to find, in nature, equanimity and a path to happiness," says Kirsty Karkow in the afterword. "With the publication of this book, the poetry audience can finally get to know the man behind Simply Haiku through his own tanka."

Those of us who know and follow Robert's poetry will recognize many poems through Simply Haiku or the online poetry groups and workshops in which he regularly participates, as well as his tankafields blog from late 2005 through mid-2006. Some were published in the Spring 2006 Simply Haiku. That is not to say that if we've already read the poems we know them. Far from it.

the end of autumn . . .
fox scurries
across the highway
carrying moonlight
on his tail

a sea bass
fanning light
with its fins
into a kelp
bed of shadow

My favorites in the collection include these, which share features I think of as essential to Robert's poetry: animal motifs; an imagery of light and shadow; a simplicity of language that gives way to an arresting turn of phrase in which things are suddenly seen as they have not been before. An egret transforming a sky of clouds and moons into origami; moonlight riding like a gingerbread man on fox's tail; the movements of fish that send light rippling through an underwater forest.

Other poems are in a surrealist mode, as in the startling juxtapositions of this lullaby-turned-nightmare:

what will become
of you, son, when i am
carried off by the crows,
and the clouds you sleep on,
kidnap the moon?


The real and the world of dreams communicate across a continuum of "waking consciousness". Like a shaman the author speaks to animals and knows what the trees are thinking. His poetry truly achieves an "innocent eye" that belies its skill and mastery of form. Like sumi-e, it takes long study and daily practice to capture the essence of things in such few and seemingly effortless brush strokes. Tanka Fields has made me much more aware of this, and other aspects, of Robert's work that I've always sensed but had not much thought about heretofore.

The first is the way his poems function as linked series, or rensaku. They first appear posted in a series, mixed haiku and tanka, that may be the fruits of a weekend's or several days' writing session. Each, of course, is a gem in its own right, but I have always felt that the full timbre of the poetry depends on reading it as series and letting each resonate with those in line before and after it. The book's linkage is less linear, more spatial: a basic layout of three tanka per page and thus six per page spread, so that each tanka is visually juxtaposed with each of the five others. In selecting tanka to appear together, the original chronology and context has been discarded in favor of a thematic arrangement that brings each poem together with a new and different set of links. Sometimes the selection is based on repetition of motifs such as moon, stars, dreams; sometimes it is almost narrative; and sometimes it seems based on mood or intuition. This cannot help but inflect how each poem is read, and it's fascinating to compare the change. To use a music analogy, it's the difference between a melodic line and a chord progression.

Pondering this has also made me more aware that despite the simplicity of language, the repetition of certain themes or motifs such as moon, water, dream or koi, creates a semiotic system that pervades the author's total oeuvre. This is not to say that 'moon' symbolizes this or 'dream' that—rather, it's an elusive, fluid kind of meaning that operates on the level of mood, changing even with each successive reading. There are several motifs that repeat throughout the book but one example will do: 'egret', which figures throughout the book in tanka as well as the author's own publisher's imprint.

an egret
flying out of autumn
to the moon . . .
folding darkness
into paper clouds

I read this and know immediately that I will not see an egret on the wing in quite the same way ever again, but I also understand that the tanka with its conflation of moonlit landscape and origami means it is not a sketch of something glimpsed in the wetlands of the California central valley.

In Asian art, egrets appear on crests and insignia and are a frequent subject for painted scrolls that reflect Confucian/Buddhist color symbolism where white refers to incorruptibility, wisdom, the sterility of winter, and funerals. Some of this seems to inform Robert's poetry, for egret-tanka often refer to Vietnam where the bird may be seen as a metaphor of war, death or simply fate:

a kinsman
to the reeds,
the egret . . .
planted in a
soldier's ashes

egret, what do
you think about at
night, when the
river above you
fills up with stars?


Much of the imagery is highly personal to the author's experience, but those of us who have not been to war may never remotely read the poem quite as he wrote it. The "glossolalia of tongues"—a phrase in one of the many thought-provoking tanka—might be an appropriate analogy. Ultimately, however, it's a measure of the poet and his art that every reader will bring his/her own experience to the reading, and each find a different poem in the same text, a different poem with every reading. To close with more words by Michael McClintock on this book, these are poems "to contemplate, ponder and reflect upon, to read again and again, plumbing each for its meaning and music—that flickering, singular substance that is the tissue of all poetry."


Tanka Fields
by Robert D. Wilson
White Egret Press, 2006
20734 Hemlock Street
Groveland, California 95321, USA
$8 US
$10 elsewhere
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