XXII:2 June, 2007

A Journal for Linking Poets   


The Pie In Pieces, thirty-three songs from the Midwest by Andrew Riutta ISBN 91-976430-3-3 River Man Publishing, Sweden. $8 ppd. from the author, 6444 Cedar Run Road, Apt. 2, Traverse City, MI 49684.
by Larry Kimmel

Dave Bacharach

Raffaello’s Azure by Ruri Hazama. Assisted by Amelia Fielden. Tankakenkyusha:  Tokyo, 2006. ISBN:  4-86272-001-3. Perfect bound, 5 x 8 inches, 184 pages, bilingual Japanese & English. No price listed.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward  

Reeds:  Contemporary Haiga 2006.  Edited with Introduction by Jeanne Emrich.  Lone Egret Press, 6566 France Avenue, Suite 1210, Edina, MN, USA  55435.  ISBN: Not listed.   Perfect bound, 5 x 8 inches, 102 pages, $18 US plus $2 shipping & handling in North America or $4 shipping & handling abroad.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

All I Can Do by Aya Yuhki, Sunagoya Shobo, Tokyo, 2006.
Reviewed by Gary Blankenship

Growing Late by Tom Clausen. Edited by John Barlow. Copyright 2007. Snapshot Press,Liverpool, UK. ISBN: 1-903543-13-4. $14.00 USD $17.00 CAN 5 x 7.75 inches, 80 pp, perfect bound. 
Reviewed by M. Kei

The Calligraphy of Clouds, Contemporary American Tanka and Haiku by Yeshaya Rotbard. Copyright 2007. iUniverse, Lincoln, NE. ISBN: 0-595-42071-0. $14.95 USD, 9 x 6 inches, perfect bound.
Reviewed by M. Kei

Tanka Fields by Robert D. Wilson. Foreword by Michael McClintock. Copyright 2006. White Egret Press, Groveland, CA. ISBN: None. $6.00 USD. 5.5" x 8.5" 32 pages, saddle-stitched.
Reviewed by M. Kei

On This Same Star, selections from the tanka poetry collection WILL by Mariko Kitakubo. Translated by Amelia Fielden. Copyright 2006. Kadogawa Gakugei Shuppan Ltd.5-24-5, Hongo Bunkyo-ku,Tokyo, 113-0033 Japan. ISBN: 4-04-651667-4.$15.00 USD.8" x 5" 190 pages.
Reviewed by M. Kei








The Pie In Pieces, thirty-three songs from the Midwest by Andrew Riutta ISBN 91-976430-3-3 River Man Publishing, Sweden. $8 ppd. from the author, 6444 Cedar Run Road, Apt. 2, Traverse City, MI 49684.

by Larry Kimmel

This past year, 2006, has seen nearly two dozen excellent new collections of tanka in English. One that has particularly taken my attention is Andrew Riutta's The Pie In Pieces: thirty-three songs from the Midwest. In part, my interest has been piqued by the affinity I feel for his subject matter. Having come from a rural background that still had a time-lag of about 25 years in the 1950's, as well as being a working-class community where money was often reckoned in dimes and nickels, I could easily appreciate Riutta's people and their quiet, heroic struggle for daily survival. In this bite-sized interview I thought I'd ask Riutta just how The Pie In Pieces came into being.

LK: In an email last year concerning The Pie In Pieces: thirty-three songs from the Midwest, you said that the title was a key to the collection. Could you explain?
AR: It was my intention to have the title address the fact that so many of us measure our individual successes against a backdrop of credit cards and shiny SUVs: in other words, the "American dream." Seen from this perspective, it can be easy for one to bow their head and feel as if their accomplishments are somehow not good enough. For working-class families, something as small as a flat tire can be an obstacle to the usual hope. So, implicit in the title is the idea that there are people in this country who must simply take what they can get when they can get it, and try to feel grateful.

LK: Clearly, The Pie in Pieces is a carefully constructed poetic sequence. How were the selections made? How did you arrive at its overall structure and to what intent?
AR: First of all, I began with the knowledge that exceptional poems do not necessarily make an exceptional book. In other words, a book comprised of award-winning poems does not automatically qualify it as being capable of telling a good story, and this, more than anything, was what I set out to achieve. I never had the urge to use what I believed to be my best poems. Rather, I was much more interested in using poems that aren’t perfect, that have burrs and rough edges — that depict my life honestly. Once I arrived at this, I went through my poems and began selecting the ones I felt would best carry the weight of the theme.

LK: The reviews I’ve seen of The Pie in Pieces agree that it is a "story" of a Midwestern family, beautiful in its austerity, and powerful in its honest, straightforward delivery. Are there any further aspects of The Pie in Pieces that you would like to point out?
AR: A few of my friends and relatives, although they wanted so much to read the book, expressed some apprehension in doing so because they have often found poetry to be inaccessible and unnecessarily complex. To their surprise—and joy—they discovered that the poems were very user-friendly. This was, indeed, one of my objectives; because I couldn’t imagine writing a book about working-class struggles and triumphs that working-class people would be unable to approach.

LK: To round out this mini-interview, I’m curious to know when and how you first became aware of tanka, and why you choose to use it. Could you tell us something about that?
AR: I became aware of tanka maybe a dozen years ago, but did not discern it in a serious manner until just three years ago. I chose to use tanka for The Pie in Pieces because tanka does not look to approach anything beyond the circumference of the moment or mood it depicts. It was the only choice. Tanka does not carry with it the excess that can sometimes keep a poem from being honest. Also, one finds that the brevity itself adds a depth that is often lost in longer poems. Tanka, because of its simplicity, reveals how it is poetic moments—much more than clever words—that make poetry.

LK: Thank you for these keen observations on the nature of tanka.
AR: Thank you very much.



Dave Bacharach

M. Kei, poet and editor, resides in the land of his Native American ancestors along the Maryland coast in the Chesapeake Bay area. Besides attending to a regular job in addition to his prolific literary work, Kei has devoted significant amounts of time as a crewman aboard the "Martha Lewis," one of the last-of-its-kind oyster boats that still works commercially under sail. Kei's work on board that grand anachronism-work accented by salt spray, harrowing adventure, and grueling, dangerous manual labor-combined with his deep love of the bay, its towns, headlands, and meadows, has resulted in a collection of poems titled Heron Sea. Many of these poems have appeared in print elsewhere, but gathered together in company with new work, they make an indelible impression of a particular environment filtered through the intense sensibility of a poet.

Kei has divided the book into six sections, labeled respectively: Chesapeake County; Skipjack One; Love; Skipjack Two; Head of the Bay; and Threnody.

There are a total of 154 poems, 106 of which are tanka; the others are, for the most part, three-line poems the author prefers to call tercets, although quite a few make very effective haiku.

May afternoon,
every piling
with its seagull

This, the third poem in the book, is a haiku with an almost textbook structure, complete with kigo, fragment/phrase, and effective juxtaposition. But it exceeds mere example by bringing to bear Kei's characteristically precise observation of scene, so that in three lines the reader can visualize not just a place, but also its ambiance. It is the latter quality, the feeling evoked by a particular place at a particular time, that is so hard to achieve through language, yet Kei does it over and over in these small poems. For example, a little further along we find a haiku constructed of three solid images:

white drifts
in the stubbled field
snow geese

With its classic pivot line, this poem has not one but three kigo, each of which builds consecutively, in layers, to create an overwhelming sensation of winter. The choice of lineation demonstrates Kei's control of the medium. Lines one and three could easily be switched to design a successful but very different poem. But Kei puts the migratory birds at the end, reminding the reader of the cyclical nature of all things, and that this cold, bleak setting will give way to the lush green of spring and summer. Elsewhere, the three line poems rest upon reverberating metaphors that work both literally as well as by transference, as when boats, with their Freudian symbolism, become men's wives, or swing sets bereft of swings support only weeds; or junkyard wrecks "look good" in the morning fog. And then there are the simple exclamations of joyful excitement:

a bully breeze!
douse the jib, or
we're all going swimming!

However, as evocative as his three line poems are, it is in his tanka that Kei truly excels. In the wider five line form he is able to focus sharply on image and object, and then expand their meaning outward, with a kind of telescoping effect. This skill is apparent in a poem that recalls his Native American roots, the age-old sustenance the Bay area has provided, and the loss of a personal and collective future:

in a small museum
i stroke my hands over
Native stones,
weights for nets
empty of dreams

These little museums exist all across America-musty, unfrequented, one-room bastions doggedly holding onto a small town's past. On a visit, the poet touches an artifact, triggering a realization that suddenly expands to encompass past, present, and future. Again, the charged last line works both literally and as metaphor: The nets are empty of fish, empty of hope, empty of a viable future, not only for the first people that fished these waters, but, with a reference to environmental devastation, for all of us. It is no accident that in this poem, Kei uses the small "i."

This way of expanding from the particular to a much larger but ever more cogent context occurs, not just within individual tanka, but across sections of the book. It is most clearly seen in the micro/macro sailing poems that progress from paper boats, to toy models, to huge transport ships. The sequence, spaced across the book, begins with a tanka in which the poet rises, literally and symbolically "to sail the moon/in a paper boat;" continues with descriptions of a model sailboat race ("a sudden gust/and the toy skipjack/heels hard"); and is completed by a tanka that brilliantly comments on the new and old forms of commerce:

leaving port,
the container ship's wake
rocks the sailboat
dredging for oysters
in shallow water

The breath of Kei's tone and style should also be noted. Even those poems that focus closely on a nautical way of life do so with a rich variety of perspectives and voices. The pure harshness of laboring aboard an oyster boat is perfectly captured in the objectively matter-of-fact description of its impact on new gear:

oyster season starts
with new yellow slickers
for the crew;
by the end of the first day,
they're torn and dirty

In complete contrast is a poem with the melody of an old English song. Metered with recurring "o" sounds, the rhyming third and fourth lines, and repetitive conjunctions opening lines four and five, this chant of nostalgia, without the least bit of sentimentality, eulogizes years gone by and a life spent on the water:

she talks as she sails
the old wooden boat
of oyster days
and summer bays
and watermen grown old

Different still is the stunning use of metaphor found in this superb tanka:

shaking the bats
out of the mainsail
a cloud of night
made homeless
by my hands

A few simple devices-the strong consonant endings of lines one and three; the assonance of "out\cloud" and "night\my;" and the alliteration at the ends of lines four and five-serve and support the brilliantly expressive central line, whose absolute poetry, once read and visualized, can never be forgotten.

It would be very easy to pick any tanka out of the book at random and find rich ground for the careful, analytical reader, or for the casual lover of poetry. Nearly every poem contributes to the overall impact, an impressive feat when collecting and collating works previously published over a wide venue. In such a work, there is always the danger that some poems will simply not fit, that they will appear to have been forced into place without any organic justification. Kei runs this risk the greatest in the section titled Love; one or two of the poems in that section stand out as relative strangers in a volume that otherwise manages a consistency of tone, image, and setting. The compensation for the reader is that even those exceptions are superb poems in their own right.

With Heron Sea, M. Kei has created one of the most important poetry of place collections of short form poetry in our time. It is not to be missed by lovers of tanka and haiku, by those curious about coastal ways of life, by any who have ever gazed out upon big water with an undefined, universal yearning.



Raffaello’s Azure by Ruri Hazama. Assisted by Amelia Fielden. Tankakenkyusha:  Tokyo, 2006. ISBN:  4-86272-001-3. Perfect bound, 5 x 8 inches, 184 pages, bilingual Japanese & English. No price listed.

            One inspects this collection of tanka and essays by Ruri Hazama with mixed feelings --- wishing, on the one hand, to embrace unreservedly the author’s generous spirit of a plea for tolerance of the differing aesthetic traditions of East and West while being moved, on the other hand, to remark how distant certain of the author’s aesthetic concerns vary from the problems confronting poets in the West. 

Ruri Hazama’s sincerity and humility, however, must be judged beyond question, if one accepts this personal statement from her book:  "Encountering tanka, I feel the interface of 1300 years, a sense of time immemorial. There has never been in the past, there will never be in the future, a single perfect tanka. One cuts a word chain into 31 links, thinking that something satisfactory may have been created thus; then, the very next day, the sense of it collapses."

Raffaello’s Azure consists of thirteen sets or suites of five tanka each, two critical essays and brief prefatory and closing remarks by the author and Amelia Fielden, the Australian poet who assisted the author in translation. The book is tastefully printed with a simple two-color cover; the typography is very tasteful and legible, although the translation, particularly of the prose, is labored and clumsy, a fact which does not support the reader’s confidence in the fidelity of the English versions of the tanka to their Japanese originals.

One tanka from the sequence that bears the book’s title will provide an entry and glimpse into this poet’s world

when I gave birth
the dawn sky was
the exact blue
of Raffaello’s paintings,
I’ll always remember

The overt reference to the Florentine painter, Raphael (1483-1520), would be utterly obscure without further specificity by the poet.  Does she refer to the "exact blue" of Raphael’s skies, for example? One might presume so from the "dawn sky" of Ruri Hazama’s text, yet many of Raphael’s paintings are interiors while his exterior scenes are in nowise uniform in the color of their skies. In an  Afterword some sixty pages later, however, the author relates:  "My name, when written in Kanji, has the meaning of ‘lapis lazuli.’ Raffaello used the colour of this jewel when he painted the Virgin Mary’s garments…." One wishes that this confession were a final clarification but, unfortunately, it is not, as this color as related to the garments of the Virgin can be found in his early Madonna with the Fish,  the Madonna of the Pinks of 1507, the Alba Madonna of 1511 and others as well. Of course, Raphael also painted the Madonna frequently in attire of completely different colors.

            What we have, then, is a skillfully composed poem with a deeply personal and hermetic reference that may be significant or may be meaningless, but the author provides the reader with no means of deciphering which the case may be.

            The tanka that immediately follows the above example is

leaving blank
today’s schedule
I cut
a grapefruit
precisely in two

which one recognizes immediately as a success. Why? The sensory impressions are direct and require no explication while the sensitive reader has here been provided by Ruri Hazama with the requisite context to construct a possible narrative and decipher the relation of a blank schedule to a grapefruit cut "precisely in two."

            I cannot do justice to the poet within the constraints of a review. She composes or organizes her tanka into sequences and obviously does not view them as individual poems. An analysis of an entire sequence, however, would exceed the proper limits of a general overview and so I must be content to represent her virtues, as best as I can, through citing without comment only these few further examples:

the Shônan Sea
is smoky jasper –
the Black Current
nears, sweeping
fish along in its wake


on the shining glass
of a revolving door
flower shadows
swallows’ shadows
slip and slide


wild roses
with the breath
of green grass
tickling –
farewell my thirties


            Ruri Hazama’s intended contribution to the current dialogue between poets East and West is rounded off with two essays to close the volume. The first, "Thinking and Form," probably has limited appeal to the informed Western reader. Her reflections in this article on the impact of Western culture on the practice of leading Japanese tanka writers affords only a mirror reflection of the difficulties that tanka and haiku writers in the West face in attempting to integrate Eastern conceptualities into their writing practice and their personal lives.

            The final essay, "Searching for a New Wave: Onoe Saishû’s "My Own Thesis Predicting the Fall of Tanka," offers a historical overview of two seminal critiques of tanka that led to the development of tanka as we know it today. Ruri Hazama here compares Onoe Saishû’s hypotheses, in 1910,   that tanka were becoming more prosaic and colloquial while suffering a long decline with the later criticisms of Kuwabara Takeo (1946) that echo Saishû’s earlier conclusions  and call into question whether "the modern spirit may not be able to be contained in 31 syllables." Kuwabara’s conclusion, not surprisingly, was that the old vessel could not retain the new wine and, therefore, tanka’s future would be dependent largely upon the extended prosaic sequence as against the individual tanka with its traditional metrical norm. 

That Ruri Hazama seconds the conclusions of the two earlier critics explains her own practice.  The critical issue, in the end, must be how, if at all, this differs from much current tanka practice in the West. If it does so, is there any compelling reason why Western practice should imitate Eastern precedent? Unfortunately, Ruri Hazama does not take up that question.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward  


Reeds:  Contemporary Haiga 2006.  Edited with Introduction by Jeanne Emrich.  Lone Egret Press, 6566 France Avenue, Suite 1210, Edina, MN, USA  55435.  ISBN: Not listed.   Perfect bound, 5 x 8 inches, 102 pages, $18 US plus $2 shipping & handling in North America or $4 shipping & handling abroad.

The fourth annual anthology compiled by Jeanne Emrich, founder and first editor of Haiga Online, this handsome volume collects 85 haiga by 35 contemporary artists and poets in faithful four-color reproduction and establishes Reeds as the foremost publication of its kind in English today.

The sheer variety of the work in regards to haiku styles and graphic media employed is indicative of how diverse the as-yet largely underground phenomenon of haiga is in the West.  In a brief and factual introduction, the editor cites this very diversity, pointing to the employment of graphic pen, colored pencil, sumi-e, watercolor, collage, and digital composition as well. 

One mode of haiga composition notably absent from the collection is perhaps that most commonly found in print and online today: photograph and text. Emrich’s submission guidelines for future annual collections which is appended to the collection tells us why. She prefers "handmade art" that blends "haiga’s three essential elements: haiku, calligraphy, and a painting." She further adds that "haiku should not be merely a caption for the art nor the art an illustration of the haiku…." Her implication is that image and text, while one, should not be linked too closely but should demonstrate a principle of distance not unlike that of the fragment and phrase of a haiku, a resonance which requires of the reader/viewer a role in the creation, too:  the perception of the manifold possible relations of these two complementary parts.

Haiga that achieve a perfect balance between image and text – the goal of the practitioner in this art – are quite rare. Most artists show more strength of conception and execution either graphically or lexically, depending upon prior practice and natural affinities. Perhaps for this reason, Emrich provides a generous sampling of collaborative works that unite the varied skills of the plastic artist and of the mature poet.

Manda, a French sumi-e painter and calligrapher, offers four delicately colored traditional haiga which combine her very professional hand with texts by Basho and accompanying French/English translations. Susan Frame, whose ability with a brush is already widely appreciated, links up with poet Andrew Riutta for five haiga of quite varying styles, beginning with minimalist sumi-e and calligraphy, the black ink sparingly placed against a white background, and concluding with a work of vibrant blue, green and lilac gouache or watercolor washes on rice paper that answer, but do not seek to represent literally, Riutta’s haiku:

a shattered world
through its wing

            Another interesting and ambitious collaborative effort integrates, in five haiga, the mixed media of artist Peggy McClure, the calligraphy and translation of Shokan Tadashi Kondo and the original haiku of Raffael de Gruttola. Perhaps the most satisfactory offering by this team comes with the one haiga that departs from the dominant blue motif of the series for a brilliant orange accompaniment to the text 

reddened sunflower
the embossed dream
of a full moon


Kuniharu Shimizu, who maintains the online haiga gallery, see haiku here, contributes those simple and unadorned digital haiga for which he is best known with the haiku of six different poets, including Francine Porad, Dimitar Stefanov (Bulgaria) and Sagicho Aihara (Japan). Another collaboration, between the Romanian artist Loretta Baluta Lorincz and Japanese haijin Kayoko Hashimoto, adds to the international flavor of this collection.

The many solo contributors in these pages can be roughly divided between specialists whose primary discipline is either plastic arts or poetry. Here, disparity between the execution in image and text is more commonplace, as one would anticipate, though such dissonance is far from uniform. 

Space precludes discussing every artist at length, so I will seek to point out only a few highlights of the plastic artists followed by a few from the poets.

Maria Cozma of Romania has only one entry but it is truly exemplary for its graphic and verbal simplicity. The left hand side of her woven drawing paper is defined by a top-to-bottom column of the horizontal scribbling of a thick carbon pencil, a gesture not dissimilar to that a child might make when invited by such fine quality paper. The remaining two-thirds of the sheet would be blank except for the small and modest autograph of the artist immediately below her simple cursive text:

the old eraser
leaves a trace
on the drawing

Other than the pencil markings, only a red rectangular stamp with the initials "M.C." colors the paper.

            Farther along the spectrum is the work of American Gary LeBel, one of whose seven haiga doubles as the cover of this anthology. LeBel’s métier is largely mixed media with an emphasis on collage and photomontage. Each entry by LeBel testifies to his engaging mastery of color and his inventive visual composition.  The poems that join these images, however, fall somewhat short of LeBel’s considerable artistic gifts.

            Moving along now to the haiga of persons known primarily as poets, established haijin Cor van den Heuvel offers two very elementary and casual pen-and-ink sketches on baseball themes while Marlene Mountain precedes him with two sumi-e compositions, the first of which weds a solitary vertical brush-stroke to the spare text


Scott Metz appears with six haiga in styles that vary from a conscious mimicry of the naiveté of children’s drawings to modern minimalism and abstraction.  His work is very uneven, both in the execution of word and image, but this may well be the necessary cost of his obvious willingness to engage in risk and experiment.  The best of his works that aspires to a child’s innocent vision is

a child’s drawing
the ladder to the sun
only three steps

which is followed by an illustration of the same:  a red crayon ladder of three steps that reaches to and rests against a yellow Crayola sun. This would seem to violate the editor’s precept that the art not serve only to illustrate the haiku, but this particular haiga is charming enough to avoid censure. Metz’s best effort, however, is reserved for an abstract lime-green and speckled watercolor of the partial lateral line of a fish

dawn stars …
releasing the first trout

Other very interesting offerings include Robert F. Mainone’s haiga inspired by aboriginal North American petrographs. Ion Codrescu’s gestural abstractions and Donnalynn Chase’s collages with their delicate colors and feathery textures.

  Two fascinating prose documents complement the art of the volume. Stephen Addiss, well-known author and editor of various books on haiga and haiku, contributes a brief but lively and informative historical essay, "Yomeiride:  Haiga as Dowry." This article explores a work by Matsumura Goshun, a disciple of Yosa Buson, who produced a haiga that incorporates 13 haiku in the master’s own calligraphy;  Goshun’s haiga is reproduced on the pages immediately preceding Addiss’ article. 

The other document, entitled "The Spirit of Haiga," is a lengthy interview conducted by Emrich with Ion Codrescu, a Romanian haijin long active and instrumental as a leader of various continental haiku circles. Codrescu’s formal training as an artist and art historian is ably demonstrated in his wide knowledge of the many materials and techniques of haiga as well as haiga’s historical development within the larger context of Eastern and Western art.

That no better introduction or comprehensive survey of contemporary Western haiga exists today is a fact sufficient to render this carefully edited and beautifully produced book a must for practitioners and students of the art.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward



All I Can Do by Aya Yuhki, Sunagoya Shobo, Tokyo, 2006

Aya Yahki’s All I Can Do contains 26 free verse poems arrayed in Japanese and English in three sections. Each poem is accompanied by one or two tanka inspired by the preceding poem. The author’s aim is to create a new poetics. She states: I secretly wish…a magnetic field of fixed form poem counter free verse, and at the same time that of written counter spoken style."

While Yahki’s talent shines throughout the book, the most impressive poems are in the second section, "Walking." These poems are the most personal, about the author’s history and family. In "Diapers" she speaks of being a new mother:

in those days there were no paper diapers,
diapers were made of old cotton clothes.
when hung on the veranda,
fluttering in the wind,
you laughed with your whole body like a fish

Yahki’s language is rich, but she does not hesitate to use common, everyday speech. Her "Life" evokes Nishiwaki Junzaburo, arguably the best poet of the last century:

Old age: gains of sand falling from the edge of a cliff
Eyes full of wisdom
Eyes sloppy and motionless

The companion tanka, presented in Japanese in the traditional one-line form, are in the best tanka tradition while being modern, as in this companion to Tokyo Bay Wind:

from the Gobi Desert,
where are you going?
the wind tousled
my hair just now?

The pivot line, "where are you going?", allows several reads of the tanka – full as written or as sets of haiku – as the best tanka often do.

The beautiful poem, "Diapers" was cited above. Its companion tanka is as lovely.

I counted the number
of tiny pink shell-like nails
on her fingers and toes
on right and left
hands and feet

The tanka is a complete examination of a mother’s unconditional love.

In The Tanka Journal 26, Yuhki discusses English tanka, concluding the ideal English tanka counts ten foot in 2 2 2 2 stresses. While I appreciate her thesis, I appreciate more that her translations follow the best tradition of translators such as Kenneth Rexroth.

All I Can Do is an excellent and well produced work and would be an excellent addition to any collection of Japanese poetry or bilingual tanka.

Reviewed by Gary Blankenship



Growing Late by Tom Clausen. Edited by John Barlow. Copyright 2007. Snapshot Press,Liverpool, UK. ISBN: 1-903543-13-4. $14.00 USD $17.00 CAN 5 x 7.75 inches, 80 pp, perfect bound.

Growing Late is the latest masterwork for Tom Clausen and edited by John Barlow. Winner of the Snapshot Press Contest for tanka, the physical production values are elegant, understated, and classy. The tanka contained within the book are all winners, with each poem displayed one per page on crisp white paper. Growing Late is a highly recommended addition to your tanka collection.

Clausen’s opening poem is the perfect poem to begin the collection:

my wife asks
what it is that I want—
there it is, that question
not even I
can answer

What follows are still more questions, answers, discoveries, and mysteries as the author grows old and feels the lateness of his hour. 

all these years
in one house, one job
one town and in me—
too many changes to fathom
as I sweep away autumn leaves


we work briskly
into the momentum of the day
a long list of what to do,
once all there was
was to fall in love

This awareness of the passing of time and of things–and relationships–lost includes a melancholy nostalgia with a tinge of bitterness.

for years I had desire
to purchase things
that reminded me of my childhood
but now, even that
is gone


wondering if this
is what my parents felt
in their own time
seeing a better past
slip ever farther behind

Poem after poem demonstrates the mastery of a highly skilled poet willing to engage the unsentimental realities of his existence.

so much to do
I sit here
doing nothing—
below zero outside and
so much blowing snow


lunar eclipse
it comes to me
what is wrong at home—
something I did
or didn’t do

Each poem has the fluid lines and solid grace of a sculpture. With the same sense of immovable permanence as a block of granite, they document the swiftly fleeting passage of our lives. Clausen is the rare artist that can make stone float. For that reason there is really nothing for a reviewer to say, all that is necessary is to open the book and let the poems spill forth at random, each one saying more about the poet’s skill than any reviewer ever could. 

Reviewed by M. Kei



The Calligraphy of Clouds, Contemporary American Tanka and Haiku by Yeshaya Rotbard. Copyright 2007. iUniverse, Lincoln, NE. ISBN: 0-595-42071-0. $14.95 USD, 9 x 6 inches, perfect bound.

Calligraphy of the Clouds is one of the better done self-published books made available through, in this case, iUniverse. The physical production values are attractive, and the book is a satisfyingly meaty 133 pages for the $14.95 price tag. Unfortunately, the poet’s Introduction and the poems show a poet not quite ready to emerge from the workshop mileau.

The book is almost evenly divided between tanka and haiku, with the tanka being the more worthwhile. Rotbard, as his Introduction makes clear, is not knowledgeable about the practice of haiku, other than that it is a short, pithy poem in a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables. 

Having settled that Rotbard’s verses are not haiku, but tercets in the form of 5-7-5 syllables, we must address the question of whether they are good poems. The answer to this is, "almost." There is promise here, but it needs to undergo the strenuous training of a workshop. Nonetheless, there are times when Rotbard makes his chosen form work. 

Absurd          how a word
can catch           a raindrop          mid-air,
hold it there.          Yet it does.

However, he doesn’t know when enough is enough. The following poem needs no title and would be stronger without it:

The Miner’s Canary

Our  thread has a knot.
should we try to unravel it,
or just cut it out?

Rotbard’s tanka are much better than his tercets, and there are some real gems here. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of giving them all titles. In ‘The Russian Immigrants,’ the title is redundant; the poem itself gives all the information needed.

The Russian Immigrants

The old men gather,
they walk as one, talk and smoke,
as if on a street
that’s not quite theirs, still strolling
in the shadow of Red Square.

Some of his tanka are good and need just a little tightening to make them the best they can be: 

The Chinese Tailor

After hours, head bent
over that rhythmic needle,
he steps from the dark,
squints at the sun, imagines
boats swaying on the River Wei.

Rotbard is particularly good with romantic tanka. His images are direct and usually fresh. To write romantic tanka that are not drowning in romanticism is difficult, but he succeeds. 


Really are two moons:
the one that sails through the sky,
and the one about
to let her hair down, shake free,
and then lie down next to me.



How I love to play
the piano of your back,
fingers poking at
the curved keyboard of your spine,
the music of your breathing.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of mediocre tanka as well. Rotbard has made the mistake of the emerging poet: hungry for publication, he has gone to press before his art is ripe. While there are tasty fruits to be plucked here, he should have shaken the tree hard first and offered us only the best. 

Reviewed by M. Kei



Tanka Fields by Robert D. Wilson. Foreword by Michael McClintock. Copyright 2006. White Egret Press, Groveland, CA. ISBN: None. $6.00 USD. 5.5" x 8.5" 32 pages, saddle-stitched.

Tanka Fields, by Robert D. Wilson, best known as the owner and managing editor of the online journal, Simply Haiku, and as the author of Vietnam Ruminations (haibun), is a collection of excellent tanka, but poorly presented. 

The opening page presents us a with a ‘Foreward’ which I was at first  disposed to accept as a deliberate eccentricity, but the existence of other malapropisms suggest an editor depending too heavily on his spell-check instead of his grammar. Other oddities, such as beginning the poetry on the left hand page instead of the right, the sudden change in font and size at the end of the book, inconsistent ellipses, alignment errors, and other anomalies distract from some very excellent poetry that deserves a better presentation. 

While most chapbooks are of variable quality with a few gems among a field of pleasantly ordinary verses, Wilson’s good tanka are numerous and a reach a consistently high standard, which only serves to make the errors mentioned above even more jarring. As presented here, Wilson’s poetry invites us to immerse ourselves in the still waters of a deep soul, then drops rocks that make it hard for us to keep that contemplative mood.

Some of the most effective poems come at the beginning and reflect Wilson’s experience during the Vietnam War. Few poets address war so well; Wilson is the bard of war for the tanka world.

gold buddhas
sitting on the echo
of muffled cries . . .
gunships setting fire
to the moon

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

While many artists in many media have attempted to evoke the Vietnam experience, few have done it so economically and so effectively as Wilson. His sequence of poems leads to a short prose piece about his mother’s reaction to his departure and her death; the flow is disrupted by an unnecessary tribute to another poet. I’m all for acknowledging our sources, but an end note would have been sufficient.

The second quarter of the book is a series of intimate poems, depicting the poet’s love and loss for an unspecified other. 

dining with you
on a plate of stars . . .
each one a memory
painted with what
could have been


i saw you,
this morning,
passing through a
salmon’s shadow on
the way to coffee

Passing the half way point of the book, we stumble into a series of poems that are not as well sequenced as the first half. Excellent poems are here, along with poems that are not so good, and some of the juxtapositions make little poetic sense. Taken with the physical production values, it gives a sense that the poet was rushing to completion. Nonetheless, there are some good poems here. Especially good are the poems that evoke the Japanese sense of ‘aware,’ or the keen awareness of the ephemeral beauty of the world.

she lights a candle,
reciting a prayer
learned long ago
in a cathedral
made of paper


how could you have known
she’d take your jacket,
lock you outside
in the snow, and
drink mango juice?

The end section regains coherence and presents a progression of winter/death to spring/rebirth. The set includes a tanka that is one of my favorites and has been ever since I first saw it in an online workshop:

am i mad,
wanting a jellyfish
to teach me
how to breath
the tide?

Poems like these are well worth the $6 price. The reader can but hope Wilson will come out a second edition that does justice to the poetry. There are few books I like well enough to buy twice, but if he did come out with a revised and improved second edition, I would snap it up.

Review by M. Kei



On This Same Star, selections from the tanka poetry collection WILL by Mariko Kitakubo. Translated by Amelia Fielden. Copyright 2006. Kadogawa Gakugei Shuppan Ltd.5-24-5, Hongo Bunkyo-ku,Tokyo, 113-0033 Japan. ISBN: 4-04-651667-4.$15.00 USD.8" x 5" 190 pages.

On This Same Star is a bilingual Japanese/English edition of poems that were originally published (2005) in Japanese in the collection WILL by Mariko Kitakubo. Included in the selection are 263 tanka, out of the 330 tanka that make up the original. Kitakubo is one of the best known and most popular of the Japanese tanka poets working today; her translator Amelia Fielden is well known as both a translator and a tanka poet in her own right. 

The works included in On This Same Star are arranged chronologically in sections. As Fielden states in the English introduction to the book, "contemporary tanka are customarily arranged in sections, under headings relating to one or more of the poems within the sections. I use that term, rather than ‘chapter,’ because there is no continuous narrative even within a section—albeit the overarching theme of the poetry here is Kitakubo’s life." 

Not explicitly stated in the introduction, but learned from the translator through private correspondence, the works are not strictly autobiographical. Although many are, some are fictional, or fictionalized. With a poet of Kitakubo’s stature there is no way to tell which are which, but the poems about her mother’s finally illness carry with them the unmistakable truth of authenticity. 

ah, there’s nothing
in particular
I want to talk
with Mother about—
and yet, and yet

Having attended my own mother’s death bed, I know exactly what it feels like when there is nothing to be said, but you wish you could think of something to say. 

For those readers who are used to modern English-language tanka that is heavily dependent upon nature imagery, Kitakubo’s work will be a challenge. Nature in her poems is frequently present, but treated far differently than the Romantic tradition that is a major topos in Western tanka. 

through my hollow body
a breeze blows
gently shaking
my one frail altar
to the gods


the water
in the cistern
remains silent—
from my weary brain
a single bubble floats up

Not only are her images strong, they often feature striking juxtapositions and turns of phrase:

just like lips
storing hatred, then opening—
white lilies
come into bloom


in the hollow
of my palm
aromatic cashews
the shape of fetuses

Both poems are excellent examples of ‘controlled ambiguity.’ The cashew poem is anything but vague, yet it does not yield its meaning to the casual reader. Is the fetus-shaped cashew a metaphor of the beginning of life, as both nuts and fetuses are the seeds from which new beings grow? Or is it a metaphor for death, the cashew an aborted fetus? Or does it mean nothing at all, simply being one of those things that make you go "hm?"

While Fielden eschews calling the ‘sections’ sequences, they are indeed ‘sequences,’ if by that term we mean autonomous tanka joined together by an invisible thread. ‘An Unfinished Letter’ contains the cashew poem mentioned above and is immediately followed by:

my ring finger
once showed that
being bound
and being loved
were one and the same

Each of the poems is a worthy poem by itself, but when juxtaposed with each other, the Labyrinth of the poems grows more complex. Like the Labyrinth of Greece, there are mysteries lurking here, and monsters too. That sets Kitakubo’s work apart from most Western tanka poets today; while many of her poems are beautiful, they are also disturbing and unique.

Reviewed by M. Kei


Poets wishing to submit tanka books for review may contact M. Kei directly at kujaku@verizon dot net.or Jeffrey Woodward at: send copies to Lynx, pob 1250, Gualala, CA 95445. 


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