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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2

Streetlights: Poetry of Urban Life in Modern English Tanka
edited by Michael McClintock and Denis M. Garrison
A Review by Johnye Strickland


This book is a companion volume to Landfall: Poetry of Place in Modern English Tanka (Modern English Tanka Press 2007), presenting over eight hundred poems by sixty-nine poets from around the world. In the words of Michael McClintock, "Streetlights goes beyond the customary polemics of 'urban hell' literature to convey the human dimensions of life in the city, town, and suburban 'forest'—the tones, moods, attitudes and emotional velocities of the present day. . . . This is poetry that finds its consequence, ultimately, within our own hearts and minds." (Preface, pp. 5-6)

Since the Features section of this issue of Simply Haiku presents an essay on the current state of tanka in English, it is perhaps appropriate to point out that Streetlights contains both traditional tanka, based on the historical Japanese model, and also the freer forms of English-language tanka which follow Western poetic practice and musical patterns; there is even an occasional example of minimalism or kyoka (the humorous form related to tanka as senryu is to haiku). In other words, there is something for practically every taste herein, and I for one appreciate the inclusiveness.

Examples of the traditional form include:

on the train
these words reverberate
in my head . . .
until they find their place
on hotel stationery

Aurora Antonovic (p. 9)

while you slumber
I work late into the night
our own rhythms
like full moon and rising tide
what's one without the other

an'ya (p. 11)

at the public market
vivid colors
of mangos & peppers
under ghetto skies

Pamela A. Babusci (p. 14)

he sits
behind the plexiglass
utterly still
from a place deep inside
gorilla eyes meet mine

Dave Bacharach (p. 15)

it is a small event
at the end of the workday
this can of beer
yet without doubt my life
has become such small events

Tom Clausen (p. 45)

On the other hand, if minimalism is your thing, you can find it here:

the typewriter

Margarita Engle (p. 56)

i ask
the same
of oil
will i burn?

ai li (p. 123)

hot jazz
hot moon
for the fly
to land

Pamela A. Babusci (p. 13)

Perhaps a kyoka or two?

a sad student
becomes a mass murderer
& we say
nothing is learned
in schools

LeRoy Gorman (p. 77)

House guest—
she can
only leave
if we buy
her gas

Alexis Rotella (p. 191)

But what of the cities, the towns? Try these:

an industrial town
soaked to its bricks with the stink
of the river
where Black Ships tied to piers
whispered of elsewhere

Gary LeBel (p. 114)

The Days Inn hotel
night before an interview
middle of nowhere
under a thin bedspread
in an industrial town

Laura Maffei (p. 144)

land that is today
inside the city
of Los Angeles—
my grandfather's dusty
little bean field

Michael McClintock (p. 158)

my daughter
searches for an apartment
she can afford
where nobody has been shot

M. Kei (p. 98)

And just a few random favorites:

I secretly felt
the skirt she was wearing
was gaudy . . .
until a butterfly comes along
in stunning orange

_kala (p. 181)

that summer
when men walked on the moon
I was in Plattsburgh
doing Repertory:
Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Dracula . . .

John Stevenson (p. 214)

i know all about
feminism and women's
liberation, yes—
but i have a seat now
and you, sir, do not

an xiao (p. 235)

I have tried to give a sampling of the forms, both traditional and modern, as well as of some of the types of content to be found in Streetlights. In my opinion, this is a book that scholars in the future will look to for examples of what English-language tanka was like in the first decade of the 21st century. The editors have carefully chosen the poems included, and I did not find any that I thought should not have appeared herein. My only regrets are that there were only sixty-nine poets represented. There should have been more. But it is the poet's responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity to have his/her work considered when editors issue a call for submissions. I think it very likely these editors will continue to issue calls for tanka with a particular theme for future volumes, and I would like to encourage poets who did not respond to this one to watch for the next. That is one of my regrets. The other is that I did not make the effort to send any of my own poems, even though I was included in Landfall. I was new to tanka at the time, and the experience of writing those poems was profound.

The poems in this volume are a good read, and even more than that, they present a variety of styles and voices for beginning poets to learn from. It is a good book to have in your personal library, and would make an excellent gift for a graduate or fellow poet.


Streetlights: Poetry of Urban Life in Modern English Tanka
edited by Michael McClintock and Denis M. Garrison
Modern English Tanka Press, Baltimore, Maryland
2009 $16.95 USD
ISBN 978-1-935398-04-2