Monday, July 02, 2012
All This Dark 24 Tanka Sequences By John Elsberg and Eric Greinke
24 Tanka Sequences
By John Elsberg and Eric Greinke
Woodcut by Ogata Gekko (1873)
Cervena Barva Press
Review by Dennis Daly
When my wife and I first got married I enthusiastically plied her with little presents. For each of the usual gift occasions (birthday, Valentine’s Day, Christmas) I spent an exorbitant amount of time shopping for items that would be eye catching, express some delicateness of inner feeling and also be doable within my paltry budget. Some guardian angel inevitably transported me to the creaking wooden floors of Daniel Lowe’s in Salem Massachusetts. It was an old fashioned department store/ curio shop with a main showcase at ground level and an upstairs gallery. Every table exhibited marvelous creations for all to see: music boxes, German clocks, Irish crystal, Chinese China, seascape and landscape prints, gargoyle lamps, doilies, etcetera from seemingly every exotic place on earth. Each item considered for purchase I had to handle, turn at angles or upside down, all the time being careful not to horrify my fellow shoppers by dropping it and thereby asserting my credentials as the clumsy oaf that I appeared to be and, indeed, was. Then, of course, in another tricky motion, I exhibited my subtlety to all dubious onlookers by putting it back in place exactly as I found it. These poems by John Ellsberg and Eric Greinke remind me of those elegant and sometimes strange pieces of miscellany sold in that yesteryear treasure-shop.
A tanka (meaning short poem) is a Japanese traditional poem made up of thirty-one syllables in five lines. The poems are usually two tiers with this syllable structure 57577 . Although the term tanka appears first in the early twentieth century, it comes from a 1200 year waka (Japanese poem) tradition. Waka poems in this form show up in Japan’s first known poetry anthology compiled in the eighth century.
The authors of All This Dark order their tanka poems in sequences of three, each sequence with a suggestive title. Some of these sequences bring you to the edge of a story line. Some suggest surprising associations. A third group seems to pull you in to a deep elegance, admiring the curves and the geometry of the poetic words. Some overlap all three groupings, depending on how you read them.
The poem Drifts suggests the fluidity of life, both in the sensory world and the unconscious. The first tanka uses the a runic symbol suggesting randomness and the image of a blue heron transcending itself, peering into the future. In the second tanka a green snowplow attempts to order the dream-like snow drifts. The crystal flowers disappears and the landscape changes. Here’s the third tanka,
outside my window
low branches bow in sorrow
a spider in the corner
works out his karma
while owls sleep in the deep woods
The allusions are unmistakable as we move into the drifts of unconscious and transitory karma.
In the poem Dreamer, a leaf becomes almost mythical. Color intensifies into weight and the weight becomes the volume of a dream which delivers when stroked by the artist. It goes this way,
a leaf falls
with the weight of color
when I bend
to lift it the trees murmur
of this hand is inclined
to feel obliquely
stroke it & it becomes
The poem ends oddly but wonderfully in a Chinese restaurant with the poet writing and eating fortune cookies. Intrigued? I was.
Memory is a sequence that is part commentary on the art of poetry and part lament for the fragility of our landscaped memories. The poet happily says,
O the lure
of memory the stream
in the valley
of my parents’ farm
fish still spawning into light
But then it dawns on him how expensive this area has become to live in. But even worse he can’t seem to find the sounds in the landscape that he remembers as part of his loneliness of that earlier time.
The tanka sequence entitled Aggression knits together three thumbnail stories fully related by wondrously efficacious images. A mad anarchist becomes emblematic of evil aggression. Wild crocodiles give voice to instinctual aggression. A kung fu boy somewhat ambiguously portrays aggression as a form of self-defense. After the violence ends, each scene turns peaceful in interesting ways: the anarchist retreats to a safehouse; the crocodiles inhabit a still lake; and the adversary of the kung fu boy is in shock. The second tanka tells it this way,
three wild crocodiles
tore at a piece of chicken
in furious rage
the water churned skyward
moments later a still lake
Luckily the template for aggression always seems to require a return to the rest position.
The woodcut displayed on the cover of this breathtaking chapbook is just about perfect. A Japanese blacksmith forges a blade infused with the spirit of little foxes which hovers above him as he works. A timeless image of artistry!
These tanka sequences, like the blacksmith’s blade, are inspired and the chapbook itself is a little masterpiece. The authors and Cervena Barva Press should be proud.