A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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January, A Tanka Diary – M. Kei

reviewed by Susan Constable


January, A Tanka Diary – M. Kei
Keibooks, P.O. Box 516,
Perryville, MD 21903, USA
$18.00 USD (print) or $5.00 USD (Kindle)
ISBN 978-0615871561

Kei’s latest book provides further proof, if any is needed, that he’s an extremely prolific poet. Containing 640 tanka from his diary account of the year 2007, readers are taken month to month, season to season, via these five-line verses.

The book is, naturally enough, divided into the twelve months, with four tanka down the left side of each page. This layout is space efficient – a necessity with this number of poems – but not what one would call artistic. Although there is no index, I didn’t find it difficult to recall approximately where poems were located. Sometimes, it was a direct seasonal reference that clued me in; other times, simply a feeling that a particular poem felt cold and dark . . . like winter in Maryland.

January 1st includes 27 poems that introduce insects, birds, pain, aging, humor, hope, memories, writing, death, and despair – themes that are present throughout the book. Among them is, perhaps, my favourite from the entire collection.

it’s a day like any other,
full of melancholy
and yet – somewhere
there are herons

Twelve months later, we find just one tanka on December 31st – also about pessimism, but unaccompanied by anything positive.

last night
of the year –
set of hopes

Many of Kei’s poems are easily recognized as tanka; others might be considered as five lines of free verse. Much depends on the reader’s definition of the term and how willing they are to open their minds to someone else’s style of writing. I certainly have my own preferences, which are somewhat different from Kei’s, so although I find many of his poems both poignant and thought-provoking, I feel that further culling might have resulted in a stronger collection overall. These two, for instance, appear more like aphorisms than tanka and border on cliché.

a house
is never
a home
until the cat
moves in

you can’t run forever;
but there’s no reason
to try and get
a good head start

Kei’s tanka may not fulfill some readers’ expectations of the form, since many are without concrete images, do not contain five lines that each comprise a grammatical unit, may not be written in two or more parts, or with a clear juxtaposition. He often ends lines with prepositions or articles, splits adjectives from their nouns, and writes what many might call ‘sentence’ tanka. This doesn’t necessarily make them meaningless or ineffective, but it does exemplify Kei’s view of tanka, which is also evident from the wide variety of styles he accepts as both an editor and publisher.

there was a time
when I had faith in
a better future;
now it is enough to
breathe ordinary air

this night
so big
not even
can fill it

Despite being somewhat non-traditional, these pithy verses make us think, help us see and hear things in new ways, speak to our emotions and imagination – and isn’t that what poetry is all about?

In previous books, Kei’s written extensively about his sailing experiences, but this volume of poetry surprised me with the inclusion of so many tanka about the flora and fauna in the Chesapeake Bay area where he lives.

In the month of March, there are some 20 tanka that mention birds, for instance, but nature (in one form or another) is in many of Kei’s poems throughout the year. The season is often alluded to, there’s sometimes humour, and very often a phrase or image that makes us stop and consider the wisdom of his words.

it’s because of January
that God made cardinals;
when our hearts are weary
of the long grey cold
and we yearn for spring

hollow ribs,
empty of marrow,
hollow vertebrae,
empty of will,
all things come to this

blue flag iris,
a piece of driftwood,
a pebble beach,
these are the things
that stay a traveler’s steps

the white coins
of clam shells
scattered on a beach;
the wealth of the world
beneath my feet

There’s an easy flow to Kei’s work which comes, I think, from the simple vocabulary, a natural rhythm and conversational tone, an effective use of alliteration, and a concentration on everyday experiences. There may be imagination, too, but his tanka ring true to life. We get to know him a little better through these short poems: his day-to-day thoughts, what he sees and hears, how he feels about his environment, relationships, and life in general. For me, it’s this emotional component that brings depth and resonance to much of his poetry.

how am I
to know
what I am
without the mirror
of your disapproval?

afloat on
a rotten plank
this man’s heart
lost in the narrow sea
of the Chesapeake

peel me
down to the bone,
to the white
heart of me

when the world of men is gone,
who will scatter
the ashes of our existence,
who will place the memorial
of our dying?

If you’re looking for tanka worth contemplating, are willing to put aside limiting definitions or arbitrary rules, and to concentrate on the ‘best of the bunch,’ you won’t be disappointed with January – A Tanka Diary. There’s something of interest and value here for everyone.

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