"Encountering tanka, I feel the interface of 1300 years, a sense of time immemorial. There has never been in the past, there will never be in the future, a single perfect tanka. One cuts a word-chain into 31 links, thinking that something satisfactory may have been created thus; then, the very next day, the sense of it collapses. But therein must lie the mysterious charm of tanka, for it keeps me enthralled."
Kalahari desert ---
in its iron-colored sand
I can smell
of the earth
Although Ruri Hazama is a well known poet, essayist, and literary critic in Japan, she is relatively unknown to the rest of the world. Her bilingual book, Raffaello's Azure, introduces the English speaking world to Hazama's tanka and philosophy regarding Japan's oldest poetic genre. Due to the lack of translated critiques and textbooks, Westerners seldom have access to Japanese thinking in this area of study. We are fortunate, therefore, that Ms. Hazama, with the assistance of Amelia Fielden, makes available in this book two important essays: "Thinking And Form" and "Searching For A New Wave: Onoe Saishu's 'My Own Thesis Predicting The Fall of Tanka.'"
Two tanka from the book:
stars as numerous
as the souls of the dead ---
in their gaze
fixed on the earth
I am spellbound
A powerfully evocative tanka comparing the stars on a clear night with "the souls of the dead," this poem skillfully paints a picture with words reflecting Shintoist beliefs. The poet gazes at the stars in awe, and in a moment of reflection, imagines them looking down at her. Are they "the souls of the dead?" One has to wonder, and since she doesn't "tell all," readers are free to interpret this poem from their own frame of reference, social context, and cultural memory.
Hazama's tanka are not poems to be read once. Each poem is layered intricately with images that invoke deep thought and, at times, introspection. She is not afraid to expose her emotions and infuses them with both yugen (depth and mystery) and makoto (truth and beauty). When you read Hazama's poetry, you enter her mindset, sensing her awe of nature, love of travel, critical outlook, and vulnerability.
is beyond our reach
but the fragrance
of the tide
turns into spiral shells
Strolling along the seashore, the poet stops to look at the ocean. It is a special "aha!" moment. There are whales past the shoreline, on their way into a thousand peoples' dreams, one of them Hazama's. Conversations between whales, of course, are beyond her realm of comprehension, but not the fragrance of the sea. She closed her eyes, allowing this aroma to draw her into a daydream that transformed something indigenous to one's sense of smell into something tangible and visual--the spiral shells. I am reminded by this poem of Shotetsu's words, "Mystery and depth is something that is in the heart but is not expressed in words." Ruri Hazama uses the intangible (yugen) in her poetry to help readers grasp what she is feeling during a given moment. Few poets have the expertise to do this well, especially when limited to an economy of words.
In her essay "Searching For A New Wave," Hazama exhorts tanka poets to expand their horizons and, although paying homage to classical tanka (waka), seek to develop their own, truly unique voice.
"It would be a shame for tanka to be viewed simply as classical literature. Tanka can function in many ways, through lyricism, abstraction, documentation, catharsis and so on. That is what makes it such an attractive artistic form."
Deeper into the essay Hazama adds: "It is the suggestiveness of tanka that makes it high art."
The two essays in Raffaello's Azure are clear and insightful, allowing readers to ascertain and peel back some of the layers in her poetry. My only criticism is with the placement of the poetry before the essays.