A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Quartet: The Origami Barge

Autumn in Venice -
a passenger boards
the origami barge

a spice so sweet,
the moonlight on silk

at the edge of thought
escaping resolution

no other purpose
but to disturb the dust

healing the scars
from boiling henna
in an iron pan

a barrel of lant
to tan the walrus hide

his anorak
put on backwards
the shaman does the deed

praise and thanks
for the bride's virginity

little lambs cavort
as well they ought
and not be naughty

his dog cherry cane
clack-clacking down the path

it's the ocean
you can smell from here,
the boundless sky above

the wild pearl
unaware of imperfection

I stole a kiss
that night we met
the ferris wheel broke down

you promised me a ride
in a red convertible

a rumble in the switchyard,
distant train horns
long and low

the monkey and his master
do the rounds

Tzetzka: 1, 5, 8, 12, 14

John: 3, 6, 9, 11, 16

Willie: 2, 4, 7, 10, 13, 15

Tzetzka Ilieva, Marietta, Georgia, USA

John Carley, Rossendale, Lancashire, England

William Sorlien (sabaki), St. Paul, Minnesota, USA


This composition is the third in a series of an experimental renku format, dubbed a Quartet, a creation of the noted renku author and theorist, John Carley.

Initially, the primary goal of John’s invention was to create a collaborative poem in four sections of four verses each, with each movement intended to have its own distinct, dynamic tenor, but, not necessarily that of jo-ha-kyu.

Certainly the impetus for the idea was to create renku that was fresh and exciting – or was it? One could consider it an extension of John’s Yotsumono form. Except for the caveat stated in the original appraisal notes:

“Can feel like an invitation to place four yotsumono in series - to be resisted (my emphasis- ws). #5, #9 and #13 are hiraku not hokku.”

During the composition of The Origami Barge, John went on to say,

“Talking of fours … It kind of all comes down to those ‘launch’ verses at the start of each movement – only the first is a hokku. The rest have to link. Not a problem in our poem. But, given the hazy understanding of cut/uncut and hokku/plain it is a potential pratfall for persons who don’t write much renku.”

So, what else is it that drives this little 4x4 vehicle?

It contains an even number of season verses, each taking a pair, and those separated, at a minimum, by a pair of non-season verses.

Also, moon and blossom appear, and in a traditional approach are associated with autumn and spring if one so chooses.

No season, fixed topic or category group may persist for more than a pair of verses, with the deliberate inclusion of love and the fixed topic of religion reintroduced from renga.

This last topic concerned a willingness to deviate from “the anodyne impulse that drives ‘nice people’ too frequently. “ Yes, we wanted to reintroduce those serious subjects -war, unrest, conflict, e.g. - as well as the amusing, if at all possible, and this was one method to do just that.

Coming in at just over a hundred postings, the poem was composed via email over a period of a little less than three weeks. Although all verse selections were subject to a final mutual consent and/or revision, so attuned was our team that, prior to their introduction, no real discussion about the meanings, origins or inspiration of any verse ever took place. However, great care and attention was always given to prosody, meter and pacing. A play-by play appraisal of the process of composition follows.

Tzetzka’s hokku, an enchanting bit of surrealism grounded in historical fact, was a verse in hand from the previous Quartet composition, thus providing the inspiration for a third. And having two Quartets written by pairs of authors previously meant it was time to advance the form with a third author – exponentially, if you will. John jumped on board without hesitation.

The hokku’s mystical mix of East and West nearly cried out for something equally stupendous to follow, so it took some restraint to answer without excess adornment. A good thing, too, considering John’s carefully weighted, existential response.

Finally, as in the ushin-renga tradition of old, we find an allusion to Modern literature drawn quite naturally from TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets”.

Tzetzka’s ‘healing’ verse then lifted us from these more serious depths with a common image easily recognizable in the simplicity of the ‘iron pan’.

Curiously, the origin of lant, or aged urine, is Old English; language from a time close in kin to the Nara Period in Japan. Never let it be said we would be wont to waste a perfectly good barrel of lant!

And what of that walrus? Sure, Lewis Carroll or even the Beatles may come to mind, but in such a brief format it was as good a time as any to jump to the topic of religion. Again, to avoid the saccharin taste of cliché, it seemed only correct to speak of Inuit/voodoo animism. I mean, who wouldn’t?

‘Praise and thanks’ carries the blithely mocking tone forward, ending the side on a slightly sardonic note. A touch of poetic madness, taken at the quick step.

Ever the experimenter with language, John opens side three in a sing-song, kindergarten voice, revealing a bit of poetic madness of his own - in only three lines. Genius, for once again the tone takes an about face. Followed closely by a dog cherry cane in place of blossom, an echo of tradition warps somehow across the hills and dales and down that well-trodden lane.

As further reminiscence, perhaps, of a euphoric state in the high register, Tzetzka’s ‘wild pearl’ hearkens to Issa’s story of the playful puppy not knowing it's Buddha’s birthday.

The fourth side called for a return to a common summer scene, life-like and real; unembellished so as not to hinder the pace. Almost belatedly, the topic of love was introduced.

The iconic ‘red convertible’ followed, revealing an underlying sadness and longing all its own as the scene then cuts away to distant trains and imagined destinations. We close with an extract of John’s translation of Basho’s verse from the kasen Summer Moon. A wonderful summation, actually - an achingly concise acceptance of life taken as it really is.

A close collaboration in all, it was to our advantage to share a common mindset throughout the poem akin to poets who had written together for a lifetime. Part of this shared interest lay in the desire to tackle “difficult” subjects not always considered suitable for less well-informed “Western” tastes.

As the intent of its season order is to mirror the abbreviated Shisan, the Quartet strays from that restricted space by adding an extra verse to each section. This may be small compensation, a wink and a nod to creation of the renku wave, though the two verse restriction of topic, on the order of the six verse a side Rokku, can be an aid to move the momentum along in the hands of skilled writers.

Clean-limbed and supple, the Quartet format can induce a ripping yarn, albeit taken at the quick march. Although lacking the space for extended runs of development, the charm of the Quartet *is* in overcoming constraint. Aided by an adherence to thoughtful control of meter and phonics, the structure of the Quartet can exhibit a seamless acuity of formlessness and flow. Or, as John might have quipped, “… be like water - grasshopper.”

William Sorlien

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