A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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Spent Blossoms – Claire Everett, editor

reviewed by Susan Constable


Spent Blossoms, Claire Everett, editor
for the Tanka Society of America
74 pp, 6”x9”, perfect bound
Available through TSA;
$10.00 USD + shipping and handling

Over 150 poets submitted more than 1000 tanka to Claire Everett, guest editor for the 2015 anthology for the Tanka Society of America. Every member who submitted a minimum of five tanka was assured of having at least one of them published. However, no poet would have more than three chosen for presentation.

Anthologies offering this kind of guarantee can present problems, since the quality of poems can be very inconsistent. Considering that submissions came from novices as well as from long-established poets of the form, Spent Blossoms is very strong. I suspect Everett offered some editing suggestions in order to strengthen individual poems, thus improving the book as a whole.

The book is broken into 15 sections of approximately equal length. They bear intriguing titles, each taken from a poem in each section, such as ‘Every Kind of Cloud’, ‘Still as Blue’, and ‘There Are No Secrets’. Of course, there are the usual themes of love, romance, loss, and grief, but there’s also attention paid to humour, travel, and modern day events. In this last category, there are several poignant tanka about the Syrian crisis, including this one by Keitha Keyes (Australia).

sink from view
in the ocean
of our apathy

The tanka begins with a simple, impersonal image, but becomes appalling by line 4, then lands directly in our hearts in line 5. With another reference to the Syrian situation, Donna Buck’s tanka (USA) supplies the title for the anthology and also appears on the back cover.

wrapped in white
the children lie
in silent rows …
spent blossoms
of a sarin mist

These are not simply poems with strong images, but ones that cause us to think deeply, reconsider the words, then read them again. We feel the pain of those who felt forced to leave their homeland, then died in their search for a better life.

Another tanka, this one by Michelle Brock (Australia), also brings us into the 21st century.

the ebb and flow
of daily lives once etched
in stone –
now just status updates
on Facebook walls

One of the most difficult yet creative aspects of compiling a collection of poems is to arrange them in a pleasing order. Often, the reader is not conscious of how this is done, but can easily sense whether or not the organization of poems is smooth and cohesive. Claire Everett has done an excellent job of creating a cohesive and enjoyable collection. The organization and flow of the tanka is artfully accomplished – quite a challenge with so many different voices in the anthology’s choir.

Following a poem that mentions restaurant dining, are these two by Pamela A. Babusci (USA) and Dawn Bruce (Australia). They’re good examples of independent tanka further strengthened by their proximity to each other.

slicing my heart
into small pieces
of loneliness –
I cut vegetables & herbs
for soup for one

she fillets
the grilled cod
at our table …
still your loveless words
might choke me

Here we move from a broken romance, using destructive verbs in the slicing of a heart, to cutting vegetables and herbs. Dawn’s verse follows with filleting the cod (which involves a sharp knife and deft hand), leaving us with the image of someone choking – not on fish bones but on loveless words. Of course, Babusci and Bruce didn’t write their tanka with any knowledge of the other’s verse, yet Everett ‘found’ this link among over 1000 poems. That’s an art form in itself.

There are usually a few poems that prove to be difficult to fit into a collection, not because they aren’t good as stand-alone tanka, but because they have a different tone or completely different theme or imagery than others. Or, they’re too similar! If you’re compiling your own book of tanka, you can leave those verses out, but in an anthology like this, you are obliged to find a suitable place for every accepted poem.

Grief and loss are common themes in tanka, yet must be handled with care. It’s easy to slip into sentimentality, something avoided by two American writers, Dorothy McLaughlin and Jenny Ward Angyal.

for five years
the widow has talked things over
with her dead husband …
how does she tell him
about this new man in her life?

the griefs
I’ll most regret on dying –
the crying child
I cannot comfort,
the music I’ve not learned to play

Another common theme for poets concerns the act of writing or the inability to do so. I often wonder if this subject is dealt with in the absence of the poet’s muse or simply in retrospect of his/her absence. Whatever the case may be, here are two poems on the theme of writing, penned by Ignatius Fay and Chen-ou Liu, both from Canada.

his words
rendered the color
of ripe persimmons
the elegance
of a fountain pen

I can’t stand
the thought of all those I’s
in poetry
I undress the muse’s mind
–with words, wine, and moonlight

I particularly like the imagery in the first tanka which shows rather than tells us about beauty, and the irony with all those I’s in the second one.

One would expect a preponderance of writers from the USA to be featured in any TSA Anthology and that’s certainly the case here. In fact, there are approximately twice as many poems from American residents compared to all other nationalities combined. Of the 60 or so tanka from outside the States, half were written by Australians. Other published poets represent Canada, the UK, Japan, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and France. I imagine the cost of membership in the Tanka Society of America, for those living outside the USA, plays a significant role in the representation of poets worldwide.

Not too surprisingly, there are about three times as many female poets compared to the number of males in the anthology. This appears to be fairly common in the tanka journals I’ve checked. I imagine it’s tanka’s ability to deal with emotions that makes it a more popular vehicle for women, whereas men lean more toward haiku.

The many fine poems, so artfully arranged in Spent Blossoms, are sure to please both novice and experienced poets. The layout and design by David Rice is simple, yet effective, and the cover art by John Hall fits perfectly with the anthology’s title.

There are many fine tanka that could be mentioned in this review, but I’ll simply close with two that beautifully link the natural world with a human emotion. The first is by Margaret Dornaus (USA) and the second by David Terelinck (Australia). Both poets give us their gift of observing the familiar and finding something new beneath the surface.

the path to our house
a little wilder this year
now that you’re gone
daylilies move in closer
to keep me company

how steady
this accumulation
of loveless nights –
when the owls fall silent
I ask myself why …


If you wish to learn more about the Tanka Society of America and be included in their next anthology, be sure to check their web page for further information.


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