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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1
 
 

Meals At Midnight
by Michael McClintock
A Review by Robert D. Wilson

 

Michael McClintock is no stranger to most modern English language Japanese short form poets in the United States and world-wide. He's authored several books, judged contests, co-authored anthologies, and has written haiku and tanka for decades.

His new book, Meals at Midnight, is by far his best book. Not one to fall into a rut, McClintock is always seeking to improve his craft. He's not a follow-the-leader kind of poet and is unafraid to expose his soul via poetry. He has matured as a poet through the years, every book better than the last.

Books of English language tanka and haiku are becoming more and more widespread, although the quality of the tanka and/or haiku therein are lacking for the most part. Few books stand out as memorable, many written by poets with little understanding of the aforementioned genres who think they've arrived after hearing people compliment some of their poems online.

Let's look at some of McClintock's poems and examine why they stand out. Meals at Midnight begins with the haiku:

a long letter . . .
honeysuckle in the window
and the enormous sea


Making use of juxtaposition, placing lines with opposite meaning together to form a symbiotic message, McClintock created a haiku that invites readers to participate in its interpretation.

a long letter . . .

followed by a pause (ma) and then the final two lines:

honeysuckle in the window
and the enormous sea


To me the haiku paints a picture with more than one possibility. The poet could be writing a long letter to someone he cares about deeply, remembering, as he pens the letter, a time spent together in a home by the sea. It could also be a letter written to a lover, a sibling, parent, or close friend, the poet attempting to reconnect or maybe deepen the relationship. Then again, as he ponders what to say in what is to be a long letter, McClintock gazes out of a window beside his desk at the ocean through a cluster of honeysuckle, seeking inspiration or an emptying of the mind. His haiku utilizes a combination of ma (time and space), a place for one's imagination to connect with the poem; and yugen (depth and mystery), going beyond the obvious.

there's a house
far back in the summer woods
I've visited for years . . .
my noon-hour nap still
my only way to get there



This tanka doesn't make use of juxtaposition. Instead McClintock makes excellent use of ma. Ma means space and time, which in the west are two separate words. This may sound like a contradiction, but in the world of Zen, contradictions create new dimensions, building one upon the other. Like Miles Davis holding a note accompanied by a quick moment of silence during a performance of the "Concierto De Aranjuez" from his album Sketches of Spain, to add emotion and illuminate his message using the unsaid to form a symbiotic unity with the said, making each of them equally important. McClintock adds an ellipsis where it is needed most, at the end of the third line.


there's a house
far back in the summer woods
I've visited for years . . .



Allowing the picture he's painted with words to set in via ma, he adds the final two lines:

my noon-hour nap still
my only way to get there


The two lines add new meaning to the first three lines, using yugen (depth and mystery) with kokoro (emotion) to bring the reader into McClintock's world which, in essence, becomes a reader's redefined moment dependent upon the reader's cultural memory, familial background, experience, and education, whether right- or left-brained. At the conclusion of McClintock's tanka, the reader begins his or her interpretation.

Read the first three lines and pause at the ellipsis ( . . . ) without any preconceived notions, emptying the mind, then read the next two lines slowly. What has this tanka awakened? How can you relate to it?

Do the same with the tanka below, stopping at the end of the third line where again McClintock uses the equal of a cutting word via his insertion of a colon. Then when the ma has passed, read the final two lines.


right there
in the wide blue sky
above me:
that is where I find
the origin of loneliness



A tanka without a pause is oftentimes weak. Japanese tanka was and still is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. Zen meditation for a poet and the poet's readers is an act of deconstruction, a journey that rids the mind of the dualisms found in linguistics and life in general, allowing common rationality and sense to flow through one's being, the goal being to eliminate suffering.

Empty your mind and read the first two lines below. Add ma (time and space) when you come to the comma, take a deep breath in through the nose during this cessation of time, your mind emptied, hold it for 5 to 10 seconds, and slowly release your breath through your nose. Now read the following three lines:


these thoughts
that come and go,
what are they really
but a glitter of light
on leaves and water



Most English readers and writers of Japanese short form poetry are not Zen Buddhists, but the principle inherent in ma and McClintock's use of Japanese aesthetics in his poetry are universal, as evidenced by pauses after a politician's speech, an actor's lines, the white space in an artist's painting, the stop in music.


The following poem makes use of juxtaposition, the use of opposites to form a unified whole. The first three lines are opposite to the last two lines, but when read together and correctly, the result is a metamorphic transformation, weaving the dualism of two opposites into its own rationality, like when a river empties itself into the ocean. Pause after each comma, with a longer pause after the ellipsis at the end of line three, then unite the last two lines turning two opposites into a symbiotic harmony.


such is their power,
I lost all sense of time,
reading old poems . . .
journeying into morning
high in Chinese mountains



McClintock's tanka, including the four haiku that signify a new chapter, are consistently good. His voice, original and occidental as is his cultural memory, yet shows respect for the two genres Japan gave to the world and the aesthetics therein.


July heat . . .
rinsing peas in water
cold from the well

 


Meals At Midnight
by Michael McClintock
Modern English Tanka Press
2008 $11.95
ISBN 978-193539800-4