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Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4

The Dreaming Room: Modern English Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets
edited by Michael McClintock and Denis Garrison
A Review by Kirsty Karkow


For the past couple of years, it has been exciting to watch tanka anthologies roll off the presses of Modern English Tanka. Most of them have been collections gathered quarterly from the MET website, but others have been edited selections from the works of today's tanka poets—and yesterday's. These have featured individual poems and sequences.

Now, another anthology has arrived on the scene. Here is a collection with a different flavor—The Dreaming Room: Modern English Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets. It is edited by two men with remarkable energy, enthusiasm and talent for these projects—the team of Michael McClintock and Denis Garrison.

On my desk is an attractive, perfect bound volume of ninety-seven pages, with approximately four verses to a page. It is about the right size, I think, for an experimental enterprise. The front and back covers display original artwork by Karen J. McClintock—a repeated pleasure, since her designs are found on several MET publications. The back pages display advertisements for Tanka Central and other books published by MET Press.

The poems in this anthology are leading the way as far as contemporary English tanka are concerned. The thrill is in reading new work by contemporary poets who are stretching and exploring novel means of expression—most successfully. Here we see the cutting edge of what is being written by a group of progressive poets who are still more or less adhering to classic structure.

In the introduction by McClintock, the reader is told that this anthology began with the hope of presenting "examples and explorations of a special kind of 'dreaming room'." Denis Garrison explains this as "empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill with his personal experience, from his unique social context . . ."

There is also an explanation of tanka collage and tanka montage. The former is "an assemblage of tanka with other short forms (haiku, senryu, cinquain, sijo, etc.) composed as a set and intended as an aesthetic whole." The latter is "two or more tanka composed or arranged as a set, intended as an aesthetic whole."

The editors invited thirteen poets to participate. These are poets with mold-breaking creative ideas and images, carefully chosen from the pages of Modern English Tanka and other sources. The resulting collection is diverse, unique, sometimes startling and yet fascinating. It ranges from Tom Clausen with two long montages (one with forty tanka!) to the comparative brevity of some of Larry Kimmel's collages.

I need to quote one of Larry's before going any further, simply because I find it so completely captivating. It is beguiling in its simplicity and there is no lack of dreaming room!

Woman Playing Guitar

Her breast
like a fruit

in the curve
of the small guitar,

and I
would have been
her Picasso

Spanish afternoon

The poets and their work have been arranged alphabetically. This is democratic and easy; but since the submissions were by invitation, I feel that there could have been a more creative arrangement, considering the material. I also wish that some more poems had been elicited from Gary LeBel, Beverley George and Robert Hill Long. It will be wise for the reader to remember that even if fewer poems are shown, this does not mean the author is a lesser poet.

Robert Hill Long has written one of the most imaginative montages (there seem to be more montages than collages). Here it is in its entirety, since it is the only example of his work:

Dear John

Dedicate a room
to love and you will die there—
In Italian
as well as in poetry
it's called a stanza

No oleanders
no jasmine or hibiscus
no Roman summer
or spring for Keats—breath
a red crocus

I'm dying too
in this small blue Roman stanza
the fountain Keats heard
in the street below repeats
Love Fame Nothingness

The bed two windows
desk he was too sick to use
his voice a stone boat
at the base of the Spanish Steps
sunk in clear water

As naturally
as leaves from a tree as blood
in a white towel
as water rising falling
in the same fountain

Where's the deathbed—
burnt like his rival Shelley
or disinfected
gilded for someone's
mother-in-law in Trastevere

Piazza Spagna
Hans Christian Andersen dreams
a merman whose gills closed up
when he quits singing—
It's Keats, dreaming him

Fled is that vision
do I wake or do I sleep—

Good manifesto
for any moment passing
this one included

So how many breaths
gild the breadth of time elapsed
between Keats and me—
Shelley measured it with stars
just before he drowned

Maybe in the coffin
he wore Italian shoes—
I bought a pair yesterday
for parties but today
for Keats I'm going shoeless

This is not your common or garden-variety tanka sequence! Apart from the complex thought and allusions, there is some out-of-the-ordinary, but surely deliberate, use and omission of punctuation. It makes for thoughtful reading and consideration.

Another new voice is Carol Raisfeld—and what a voice it is! Passionate, her verses take a great leap forward from those of wistful longing that we read so frequently. Do the first four poems in this montage make you catch your breath?

a curtain of dust

she bends
to collect her tip
and smiles,
aching to be touched
by knowing hands

I suck
the brandy from
his finger
before love; whispering
promises of much more

refuge from reality
in a night of shooting stars
I open to him . . .
in half-light, the pleasure
in each other's eyes

falling up
into the stars from
a cradle of sand . . .
nestled close beside you
I turn and taste the night

You will have to buy the The Dreaming Room to see what she writes about next—but isn't this poem appropriate, considering the book's title and its definition?

In between these extremes, there are the poems of a more familiar poet—Jeanne Emrich. Her explorations are original and provoking. She has broadened her usual style with such fine results that one hopes she continues in this vein—part of the time, anyway. Here is one of her montages:

A Thousand Dirt Baths

all day I dig in the dirt—
the Rocky Mountains
rise from my hands;
eagles fly up through my fingers;
this is my rapture

I am like an elephant—
a thousand dirt baths
would only deepen the joy
settling into the creases
and folds of my skin

you would think I ate
jewels off the Taj Mahal
the way I came home
and cried like a peacock
that never tasted dirt

the outraged stallion
brushes the earth with a foal
in his teeth—
I bury the newborn
with a fistful of sorrow

I am the dirt spooned
into the petri dish,
the illumined stereoscope,
and astonished eyes staring—
what I see is me

In the work of these poets there is no conscientious adherence to a particular syllable count or line length, but the essence of the familiar s/l/s/l/l is evident. There is the distinct feel of the old Japanese poem from which all this originated. So, what does make these poems so unusual? Is it the refusal to follow any presumed rules? Is it the enjambment, more than commonly seen in English-language tanka? Is it the uncommon thought processes? Or is it the "longer and more sustained poetic experience…without recourse to the progression of Western-style stanzas" that McClintock speaks of in his introduction? It could well be something indescribable.

The other selected poets are Cherie Hunter Day, Margarita Engle, Denis Garrison, Sanford Goldstein, Michael McClintock and Robert D. Wilson. I have chosen to showcase those whose work seems most original in subject and style. The work of each and every poet contributes great depth to this collection.

Each one of their collages and montages allows the reader to wander happily in the space allowed to pervade between words, lines and verses—that space called "dreaming room."


The Dreaming Room: Modern English Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets
Edited by Michael McClintock and Denis Garrison
Modern English Tanka Press (2007)
PO Box 43717
Baltimore, Maryland 21236 USA
ISBN 987-0-6151-5083-3
$17.95 USD