Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2
 
 

Tanka From The Edge
By Miriam Sagan
A Review by Robert D. Wilson

 

Miriam Sagan is no stranger to poetry, having penned 20 books, not all of them limited to Japanese short form poetry. She founded and directs the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico, and was the editor of the late Elizabeth Searle Lamb's collected work, Across the Windharp.

Not a traditional English tanka poet, Sagan stretches boundaries, her tanka irregular in meter, her style and voicing at times reminiscent of modern free verse short poetry. As many of you have discovered, English tanka is going through an identity crisis. There is one school that advocates that traditional tanka adhere as close as possible to the S/L/S/L/L/ schematic indigenous to Japanese tanka, coupled with the use of aesthetics, and another school that advocates free form, non-traditional meter—if it works, it works—experimental tanka.

There is room for both types, of course. Sagan's book, dedicated to the memory of her dear friend, the late Elizebeth Searle Lamb, includes a sampling of both schools, though the majority of her tanka fall under the second category.

I can't say all of the author's poems are sparkling gems, but who can make that statement about any poet's book? All in all, I like Sagan's poetic voice and find many of her tanka memorable. Her poetry stands out on its own and she doesn't have a need like some to list a million credits under her name in the book's short bio.

in the dream
my dead husband
gives me a hug
his hair has turned gray
in the years he's been dead

New tanka? Old tanka?

This is a wonderful poem. It has something to say, makes excellent use of Japanese aesthetics, has excellent meter, and leaves room for an informed reader's imagination. Yes, she could have removed "dead" from the second line and said the same thing, but cognizant of meter and her own original voicing she opted to use "dead" twice. And so what? What's important is what is said and how it affects informed readers within their own individual realms of cultural identity and experience.

in the dream
my dead husband
gives me a hug

To Sagan, her dream is not "a" dream but "the" dream; a dream she'll remember forever, that inspired her to write a tanka to memorialize it.


his hair has turned gray
in the years he's been dead

She has grown with him, not just remembering her late husband, but aging, interacting, in a way that challenges the concrete thinking of scientific minds that have lost touch with their psychic selves. He is dead but he isn't.



by the abandoned
motel's empty
swimming pool
sunbather
in the middle of nowhere


This poem, written in the non-traditional stylization indigenous to free verse on the order of new tanka, is equally beautiful, ethereal and translucent, drawing an informed reader into an experience we've had before, in the womb and in life. Sagan's visualization here is a cross between Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali's surreal mindscapes and Edward Hopper's Morning Sun.

by the abandoned
motel's empty
swimming pool

"A sunbather in the middle of nowhere?" Is the poet actually lying beside an empty swimming pool like a vagrant dreamer or crazy person? Or is she painting for us a picture that will help us to ascertain what it's like to be completely alone, an empty canvas painted by the state of one's mind and mood?

sunbather
in the middle of nowhere


The first part of Sagan's tanka, lines 1-3, form a stark contrast with the last two lines. According to some Japanese poetry critics, the contrast in such a poem is intended and, when joined together, the tanka says something different. We must remember when reading Sagan's tanka that she writes figuratively. The poet's talking about an empty pool at an abandoned and, most likely, fenced in motel surrounded by tall weeds in a rundown area of real estate. Now comes the contrast: [A] "Sunbather in the middle of nowhere" when taken literally and not attached to lines 1-3, sounds like a person relaxing next to a swimming pool alone, her mind somewhere in space; the joy of pure relaxation coupled with serenity. What does Sagan mean? More importantly, what does this poem mean to you?

Why the contrast? How's the combining of two contrasting images changing the poem's meaning? Read Sagan's poem two or three times, this time without preconceptions or thinking. What does it say to you? This is the genius of economically worded tanka verse. It cannot be written effectively or be memorable if one just describes something literally, causing it to resemble something on a Hallmark card. Utilizing Japanese aesthetics, this poem becomes a multi-layered piece, causing the informed reader to look deeper, to see the unsaid and the said; and to interpret it not from the poet's mindset but from the reader's individual cultural memory, education, and levels of experience.


a woman
of fifty-five
sunning myself—
late afternoon
the lizard's golden eye


I still remember
how you stole chrysanthemums
off the graves—
our triple-decker house
tilting from the weight of dreams


Tanka from the Edge is a thinking person's book of tanka and a worthy tribute penned in "loving memory" of the late Elizabeth Searle Lamb.

 


Tanka From The Edge
by Miriam Sagan
Modern English Tanka Press*
2009
$11.95 USD
ISBN 978-098176919-6

*A special "thank you" goes to Denis Garrison, the owner of Modern English Tanka Press, for sharing some of the best books of Japanese short form poetry written in the English language, bar none.