Copyright © 1990 Jane Reichhold

First printed in 1990

AHA Books

POB 767

Gualala, CA 95445


- in Zion National Park, at the Emerald Pools, water dripping over colored sandstone forms rain and rainbows; but
only on the sunniest days -

rock pool
with autumn wet leaves
golden ages
coloring divided by sevens
in a canyon full of rain

clouds parted
from a blaze of sun
a cock crows
over the morning world
his tongue spreads

- having been born in Ohio, it's easy to remember seeing a tornado approach, running, hiding and hearing it pass over...later looking at the damage and dangers we had escaped -

tail curling
with the spin of a shell
mounting into the sky
animal on the physical plane
borne in a whirlwind

slowed by stone
the fossil lives
in a cockle shell
my heart beating

night air
the breaking wave curls
into a conch
silence upon the mountain
crashes into an ear

flowing over the mountains
wind in rain
the moaning of mothers
harsh breath among tears

musical chord
footsteps on the threshold
where growing up
a house once held a warmth
hearts beating alone together

of a cicada's chirp
stone silent
seed pods split
a crackle of eggs

asleep in dune grass
hollows of sunshine
carved by wind
lulling with sea songs
a cold north storm

leaving home
morning sky pink
with promises
to return to this place
the sun rises higher

-back in America celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks instead of New Year's Eve as in Germany-

and from sparklers
fireworks fill the skies
celebrating high summer

dark curled
a shell of a halo
rainbows moonlight and spit
float above the snail

hot night
sleep too has melted
into satin sheets
the coolness of moonlight
rumpled by restless legs

combing her hair
in the midnight mirror
cars pass by
as dark waves shine
static electricity

into wind
all the words whispered
stay somewhere
riding on a breeze
penny whistle of a heart

summer day
waiting for the sea cove
to fill
water and tides in a clam
footprints of a blue sky moon

clouds come down to earth
as hikers rest
while viewing heaven
soles face the sun

- on the way to somewhere else one always has to make a stop for gas and pop and pee...wishing there was something to see without having to drive any further -

tourist town
green winds blow river willows
back and forth
shaking dollar bills
out of their pockets

wind rushing
into the valley
rock water
colors blown from falls
arch echoes wall to wall

at Weeping Rock the joy
of golden leaves
remembering summer days
fire bright the night

your sleeping breath
night rain revives the earth
waves of sea air
in bright yellow daffodils
nod to the dark wind

pre-dawn quiet
the nearly full moon
slipped into the sea
at my side no one no thing
interrupts the night's going

- all my life I've been married to parents, children, mates, cats, dogs, ideals or goals...sometimes a clear blue sky brings the desire to be alone -

flying wind
with rainbow colors
silk kites
carried aloft with strings
desires for freedom

face of the moon
in the hot tub
a swirl of bubbles
where one naked body moves
a liquid night-time sky

breaking to bits
fallen leaves
drawn down to earth
a hammered silver circle

- after a full day in Yosemite park came sunset and yet one more waterfall to the time we walked up the rocks piled at its feet -

sounds of a dark river
fill a curved path
twinkling splashes arch
white light mists

- like many of our neighbors, we have too little room inside the house for bathing facilities, so on the south wall outdoors is a shower with a claw-footed tub by bamboo growing a screen around -

winter shower
under steaming spray
melted snow
trickling over wet stones
sudsy bath water

the dead go walking
in my feet
earth lined star paths
shape the fluid landscape

- in America these trees are called acacia, but I learned to know their yellow fluffy balls of bloom could color a whole Italian sky when a rainstorm came with the other troubles I had at the time -

between April showers
of thunder and hail
boughs of mimosa

alone in a storm
anchored to a rocky reef
clang of a buoy bell
in the old curved ear
night turns no whisper

gentle breathing
before the performance
rhythms of rain
the stage enclosed on all sides
silver curtains quicken with life

in a lilac bush bare
of leaf and bird
curling around in dry grass
a nest of my old grey hair

cry of a bird
without color
tear of a woman

remembering the high desert
as a river
a ripple in this flowing
how years change our ages

mist droplets
from holes in a rock
a flute melody
the refrain of loneliness
in floating spaces of wind

- Grafton, seemed an ancestor there had tried not to die but maybe it was only the feeling about a town with houses, church and trees in photographs where people were fading in the desert sun -

ghost town road
in a cloud of red dust
a low-bed truck
carries the old man's shell
in a cradle of death

in a bird cage
a child's face
deserted landscape of a jungle
feathers and hair left with eyes

stone paths
the monk's knobby knees bend
up and down
in mouldy stains lost
lightness of genuflection

on the granite
grace of a glacier
edging into winter

a waning moon
watches the world throughout
the longest night
curving back into itself
the snow-white fox

above the underground river
sand dunes
plain as the lighted face
filled with love radiating

nesting birds
in hot springs marshes
back seat lovers
forced to marry too soon
in a small town church

- while meditating in the chapel at San Juan Capistrano, I heard a sound near the ceiling...looking up I saw, one after another, Indian signs scattered skillfully among the Christian ones -

hidden in the ceiling
pagan symbols
the bride and groom repeat
their vows mouthed in Latin

autumn leaves
lying on the ground
silver moonlight
cannot penetrate between
suntanned hands on skin

lightning strikes
splitting apart the oak tree
a couple under it
seem not to notice
they are married

rushing river
unable to hear
his watch tick
tumbling into a meadow
springtime late in May

almond nails
pressed into brown skin
a faint perfume
of two heated bodies
touching light as petals

summer rains
an umbrella also wet
waiting for you
under the young tree
heavy with pears

writing poems
your fingers still wet
with love
looking at me
I smell you

flowered wind
in your wild hair
the will of love
as a bright nimbus
frames your rosy face

spring winds
a little playfulness
and the tight bud
explodes white flowers
all over my hand

sudden storm
the silence of wind chimes
tangled in jasmine
gossips speak our names
tying us together

thorny paths
in the berry patch
lovers meet
the secret of unripe fruit
forever bitter and hard

stumbling on a stone
she sees again the man
who jilted her
as if hearts healed
bandaged like a torn toe

white frost
tundra swans in the meadow
down from the north
the sharp city boy she loved
when her world was young

mountain woman
cadence of rolling hills
in her breasts
laughter of round rocks
in her stone-walled haven

tangled in sleep
on a seaweed-strewn beach
between piles of rotting brown
in one life awakens

hot strawberry
tongue of a young boy
ripe in early June
just out of school
bent over in a field

two lovers
at the fork in the road
just one body
to choose between them
the beauty prefers dreaming

sorting beach debris
a jealous woman
demands to know all about
shifting moon lights

holding inside
the little light color
of a jellyfish
alone in dark seas
it brightens her smile

without undressing
this heart
has no where left to hide
my feelings known to all

a sadness
before we met
and afterwards
in the little space we knew
both of us complete

at the oasis
her heart of winter
yet in summer
wearing the coolness
of willows and cottonwood

- evening when the desert lake, the Salton Sea, released the heat of the day to let a couple's bickering ease into a tired truce -

rippling the lake
with coolness
his eyes turn from her face
entering sunset half-closed

putting the flute
against her lips
searching for something
a finger glides
across a hole

holding your breath
in my hand
the softness of air
pressing your cheek

without wind
desert sun slides into
the narrowest crack
matched by the intensity
of his deep kisses

the dark smell
of ripe plums
creased by thighs
plump and wet

quiet evening
all the winds of May
back in the flute
only songs of love
shining in the hollow

touching myself
your name on my lips
as man and wife
those two bodies now one
so very far apart

- a lifetime is too short to live with every person one could some loves one says, "Not this time", and sometimes it is the other person who decides there is no room in them for the sharing of their days...even with one's most ardent love -

no trespassing
yet through the split-rail fence
snow goes
in company with my longing
shut out of your heart

without love
the thin moon low
in a winter sky
I've waited so long
with this small light

night school
taking a refresher course
they learn how
to fall in love again
the widow and widower

a broken tooth
yet he sees the young girl
naked before him
smiling a wide smile
as she was at twenty

remembering us young
as we are
old sunlight clings to silver
shining on our earthly frames

winter quilt
warming the cold room
thoughts of you
when the mountain moon
wrapped us together

ruby light
the glow of summer days
in a jelly jar
the sweetness of our kisses
from the raspberry patch

while the power's off
our eyes
gazing at each other
warms the room

full moon
night unrolls a gardenia
of ancient ivory
the rayon blouse I wore
as you undressed me


curving the sky
with sand
making mountains move
the cosmic belly laugh

a dead brown seed
becoming in a muddy pot
a white flower
it is a lie you know
about death, I mean

napping on sands
night tides moisten
feel the pulse
of another place

a little death
the periwinkle stone
in a ghost's shell
a hermit crab soul

desert river
moving into a cloud
of dust
ghostly plumes of grey
willows' etheric form

row upon row
torn from a notebook
mountain lines
raise to the sky limits
poems for our feet

writing words
in moonshadows' shape
pages darken
laments of the lonely
close to the light

sunlight glistens
on a small blade of grass
each poet
passes along the fire
in dew drops winking

desert on his back
a dragonfly carries the sun
between his wings
in the hitch-hiker's pack
memories of other worlds

an owl hoots
walls of the cabin thin
towards dawn
spirits of the sleeping forest
enter and shine as mist

a whole day
curved by sand dunes
the hot sun
melting hours in a mirage
of having traveled far

high noon
tracks in the sand
stand still
which way home?
all shadows silent

sundown road
sky in a day's dust
golden beams
gentled by earthly events
pass this way once more

- arriving too early for the performance of a small family circus, I see someone with whom I've had a liason in another life -

acrobats unfolding
the circus tent
our eyes meeting
under their secret

- one autumn, lighting the wood stove woke the memory of that vacation when my parents let me sleep before the open fireplace...and they thought I slept -

first fire
incense from childhood
in wild lilac logs
a calendar of circles
the day of her knowing

- at a one-tree oasis -

desert leaving
one of my dream souls
in the lizard
patterns of his back
passport to change

torn to ribbons
bright mist
this body someday too
a rainbow bridge

high-tide beach
blue into the clear sky
the openness
for all things to become
the rush of another wave

free to fly
the ocean flows
into a cloud
the spirit released
expands in whiteness


From tanka's long history - over 1300 years recorded in Japan - the most famous use of the poetry form was as secret messages between lovers.

Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons of the Imperial Court to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji [sound syllables much shorter than those in English], the little poem expressing one's feelings were sent either in a special paper container, written on a fan, or knotted to a branch or stem of a single blossom. This was delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply which he would return to his master.

It was not an easy task for the writer, who had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night, to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one's feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again that evening. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the giggling servants back to work and the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he wouldn't know exactly what was what but with the references and illusory comments the beloved would understand and appreciate.

In a society that accepted the fact that marriage vows were financial and social leaving affairs to trigger adrenalin and the arts, the chore of writing those morning-after notes was raised to an exercise in poetic genius. A woman who, after being wakened from a well-deserved sleep, could cope with brush, solid ink, and words, was assured of more lovers (and hence, more financial support) than the contortionist on the mattress.

So treasured became tanka - and so eager were men and women to improve their own works - that contests were regularly held for the purpose of writing, judging, and reading tanka. So necessary was a body of esteemed works to which one could refer, and be inspired, and borrow from when all else failed, that the emperors decreed the collection of anthologies beginning around 700 AD.

Thus, there are preserved in Japanese, more tanka than any other poetry form in the world. Yet, here in North America, one finds very few people writing and publishing tanka and as far as I know, there is no magazine in English devoted exclusively to tanka. From a survey done with women in Holland in 1986, it was found that many of them valued their work with tanka far above the writing of haiku.

Even in these modern times, the Emperor of Japan holds a tanka contest each year for the whole land. He chooses the subject on which millions write for months, each hoping to win the grand prize - to read one's own tanka before the Emperor and his Family on New Year's Day. One family earns its livelihood supplying the handmade paper slips on which the Emperor alone writes his own tanka.

Though tanka revels in the affairs of the heart, the form has also been used as well by Zen priests as witness to their satori experiences. Another custom has been the writing of a death poem either as haiku or tanka. To be able to write a poem in the last moments on earth that express one's whole philosophy was greatly admired and emulated.

If you've enjoyed reading and writing haiku, you will probably luxuriate in tanka. Here the writer gets two extra lines - and long ones at that - plus the freedom to write about one's feelings! For a society such as ours, where people are encouraged to express and explore their feelings, tanka seems a better fitting poetry form than the more popular haiku.

What are the rules? At this point there aren't many which have been given to us in English. We've seen the syllable and line count. Over the centuries there have been changes in styles regarding where the line breaks should be. For a while it was after the second line, later after the third line. With the decline in tanka writing in this century and the Japanese practice of copying European poetry fads, line breaks have become a purely individual decision.

Capitalization and punctuation have been at the mercy of translators; so the rules one follows with haiku are a possible starting point.

For nearly a thousand years there has been very little written about the use of the "pivotal image." Formerly the idea was that somewhere in the third line would be an image that could relate - or link - to both the upper two lines, which were to be on one subject (usually nature) and to the lower two lines written on another subject or feeelings of the author.

Haiku writers will recognize this linking concept and be able to use it to add the two last lines. Haiku writers will also probably find in their notebooks verses which were not haiku-like enough to be published as such, but which could make a beginning for a tanka. By linking the images in the lower two lines with the first two by the associations fostered by the middle line, it is possible to find a new way of thinking of all three, or more, images.

We have a translation of Fujiwara no Teika's admonishment believed to have been prepared for a prince in 1222, "In emotion, newness is foremost: look for sentiments others have yet to sing, and sing them." It is tempting to read the masters' works and to be so impressed (even with the translations) that one's own wet ink makes sounds just like the ancient songs of old Japan. We have an obligation to be true to ourselves, to our own emotions.

If you don't write haiku in 5-7-5, you probably won't write tanka in 5-7-5-7-7. I have to admit that the factor of wits (trying to say something within a prescribed manner) is the half of the poem that balances inspiration (those glorious streams of words falling on our ears). If one does not or cannot give the inspiration a form it comes out either in holy nonsense or the next easiest step, everyday narrative labeled as free verse. There is a challenge in fitting our ideas to a form, a sense of accomplishment when we succeed, and admiration when another person is able to do what we have attempted.

An adaptation of the haiku rule of short-long-short lines extended with the two longer lines is a possibility. There are those who begin the tanka with the long-long lines. Everything will be tried and we will graciously allow it to be called tanka until someone gives it a better name. We aren't Japanese as we come from the land of odes, sonnets, and limericks (as well as longer forms of poetry). Tanka is new to us and we will never write a real tanka as we cannot write, even in kanji, a real haiku. The best we can do is to be ourselves under the influence of the tanka genre. Some persons will very soon appear on the scene saying, "It isn't a tanka unless it has...!"

At this stage, one can only say it would be preferable that each writer adopt some rules as a framework. As you write you may discard one or more and adopt others. The important issue is not the form you use or the fact that you have used a form (whether it comes from the Japanese, experts, or yourself), but what you are able to do within some determined limits.

Looking at tanka history it may seem that the only infallible way to be inspired for the writing of tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons or life itself.

Out of these everyday experiences of living, loving, and growing can flow the words for tanka. By getting in touch with inner feelings, by looking at them with the eyes of a poet, you will find the peace and space to be more impartial. By sharing your feelings and insights with others you will find you are not alone. By reading others' tanka you will see how we all are faced with similar, but different lessons.

Tanka makes it possible to share at the inner level. The training with haiku to link, to be objective, and succinct can help you write about feelings without being sentimental.

Tanka began as praise for experiences shared with a beloved person. Tanka can still be a way of praising. With the references to nature and human relations, it can be a little song of thanksgiving to the universe; a way of saying thanks for the memories.

Jane Reichhold

Winter 1990

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