A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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circling smoke, scattered bones – Joy McCall

reviewed by Susan Constable

book cover

circling smoke, scattered bones
– Joy McCall
Keibooks, P.O. Box 516, Perryville, MD 21903, USA
176 pp, 6”x9”, perfect bound
$15.00 USD (print) or $5.00 (Kindle)
ISBN 978-0615880006

Although Joy McCall has been writing tanka for a good many years, she’s only been publishing them for the last two. This is her first private collection, selected and compiled by M. Kei from more than two thousand of her five-line poems. The close-to-450 chosen tanka are grouped into 24 chapters, each with its own topic or theme These include insects, pain, family, friends, witches, religion, death, and Christmas, but the book opens with the accident that rendered her paraplegic.

sorrow falls
a heavy dead weight
I want to go
where my feet can’t take me
where love lies sleeping

when asked
what I miss most
these days
it’s not standing or walking,
it’s making love at bedtime

Intensely autobiographical, these tanka portray a woman with many friends from all walks of life, who observes and interacts without judgment. Joy’s tanka show us – simply and directly –what her senses show her, allowing us to share her emotional reactions.

I want to ask
‘do you miss your wife
after so long?’
then I see in his room
a candle by her photo

the man charged,
the child still missing
presumed dead
how is her mother to bear the grief
when I read the news, weeping?

he stands
his hand in the hand
of his grown son
this hard man, this offender,
this protector, this friend

the woman next door
always drunk and undressed
is taken away
on the ward, no brandy,
no cigarettes, no hope

When reading this previous set of poems, it can be seen that McCall often puts several phrases in series. (i.e. L4&5 in ‘he stands’ and ‘the woman next door’) Of course, with such a large selection of poems, there are bound to be ones that follow similar formats. That said, I never found it particularly obvious as I read through the entire collection, since there are a variety of approaches, including the use of sentences, questions, two or three parts, and pivots.

Readers might well conclude that Joy has compassion for everyone in her hometown and far beyond – from drunks, felons, and madwomen to mavericks, ghosts, and old nuns. Human interaction is extremely important to her, but she also receives a great deal of pleasure observing the local flora and fauna.

every day
more white roses open
on the rambler
every day more
white petals on the path

in the night
another small spider
finds its way
along the sheets,
tiny feet across my face

In the first tanka, the repetition of ‘every day more white’ gains emphasis and depth by breaking the phrase in different places. The change in alliteration from the R in ‘roses’ and ‘rambler’ to the P in ‘petals’ and ‘path’ is also lovely.

‘in the night’ provides refreshing examples of alliteration. All those T and S sounds seem so small and quiet, and the Fs in L3 and L5 just add to the impression of softness.

My main criticism of circling smoke, scattered bones concerns punctuation. Consider the following tanka:

last week the swifts,
yesterday the cuckoo
today, dragonflies
the signs of summer are here
my heart still covered in snow

It seems to me the commas should either be omitted or they should follow ‘week’, ‘yesterday’ and ‘today.’ Parallel phrasing suggests the use of similar punctuation. This lack of consistency within individual tanka is, unfortunately, apparent between tanka, as well.

Sometimes line breaks suffice and end punctuation isn’t necessary. However, there are a number of poems where the lack of punctuation makes the meaning unclear, if only for a moment or two.

such scandal
the young teacher, the student,
running away
we all learn how to love
by making mistakes

Is Line 3 meant to be a pivot? Are we to read ‘running away we all learn how to love’? If not, then an em dash at the end of Line 3 would be helpful. The judicious use of punctuation can certainly clarify the poet’s intention.

Unless I missed them, there are no ellipses and very few em dashes in any of Joy’s poems – just commas and question marks. In places, I think some longer pauses would improve the pacing and increase the depth of mood and atmosphere.

Whether a poet follows grammatical or punctuation rules isn’t as important, in my opinion, as that s/he remains clear and consistent. In that way, the ‘pattern’ becomes part of the poet’s recognized style and readers adapt to it as they progress through a poet’s published work.

In some tanka books, certain formats or phrases can begin to sound familiar. The only time I felt this way while reading Joy’s collection, however, was with the following two tanka.

the long-tailed magpies
in all their cruel beauty
are gathering now,
bickering, fighting, mating
‘one for sorrow, two for joy’

two magpies
on the broken chimney
in the sunshine
sometimes, despair is deep
but it’s ‘two for joy’

Since the Line 5 phrase was unfamiliar to me, it caught my attention. Apparently, ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’ is a traditional nursery rhyme about magpies. According to superstition, this counting song would determine if your luck would be good or bad.

Despite how much bad luck McCall has experienced, she is well-named, and looking for joy wherever she might find it.

now I have been
in dreams to your bay
where the great ships sail
I hear that same voice
of the sea, calling

if only I could
live in an old light-house
far out to sea
a house with no corners
and always the light, shining out

I suspect that ‘now I have been’ may refer to M. Kei, her tanka friend and editor, and I can’t help thinking that Joy herself is that warm light shining out in ‘if only I could.’

There are a great many tanka here that refer to various hardships, either McCalls or others, but the entire body of work is not depressing, nor does it feel repetitive. Far from it! As a collection, I find this debut publication heartwarming and inspiring.

I am certainly hard pressed to pick my favourites among the many poems presented. Let me end, however, with some poignant tanka from this relatively new, but talented tanka voice.

in his prison cell
he writes to me
I am trapped; and he knows,
paralysed, I understand

I watch from bed
as my friend works all day
in my garden
love is sometimes cloaked
in sweat and soil

my well-being
swings on a fragile thread
caught by the wind
I’m tossing the coin
for holding on, letting go

I don’t want
to close my eyes now
and stop reading
but it is dark, and the quilt
is heavy, and sleep will come

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