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Summer 2008, vol 6 no 2

Straggling Into Winter
by Kathy Kituai
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


news that the cancer
growing in your uterus
must be pruned ---
I write a requiem
for cut flowers

Translator, poet, Amelia Fielden, wrote to me recently, excited about a tanka poet she'd worked with on a volume of the poet's work. Fielden has introduced readers in the past to many great tanka poets and plays a major role today in the popularization of tanka via her translations and collaboration with Japanese poets little known outside of Japan. She has an intimate knowledge of the genre, is fluent in the Japanese language and works closely with some of Japan's finest tanka poets and scholars.

Fielden's taste is impeccable. Kathy Kituai is a rare find. Reading through her book, Straggling Into Winter, I was introduced to a poet who writes tanka the way it was meant to be expressed and crafted; one who will leave lasting impression on those reading her work. No newcomer to poetry, she has won numerous awards; she mentors groups and individuals, and is well known in Australia where she resides. I'm amazed that Kituai is little known by the English-language tanka community. Her work is some of the best I have read, old or new, and left me hungering for more in a way few modern day tanka books can. Straggling Into Winter, comprised of 300 tanka penned between June 7, 2005 and June 6, 2006, is a poignant journal of Kituai's life.

In the book's introduction, Kituai explains why she chose to express her tanka in journal form:

"Given that tanka themes in the main are love, longing and loss, the spectrum of life as a diarist, it is quite natural to keep a journal this way. As a diarist for twenty years, it seemed appropriate for me to combine tanka and journal writing together.

"Although I have dated each entry in Straggling Into Winter, I wrote regularly but not daily, which is the way in which I keep journals. I love the charm and power tanka offers by pointing to the moon, that AHA! Moment that then takes place in the reader not on the page . . . [that] mystique is revered in Japanese tanka, and in the case of a journal, a particularly personal expression, is more challenging if attempting to evoke the reader's experience wherever possible. Several months where few entries are included, are of themselves as indirect a statement as tanka are on life."

    8th June 05

he lies on the bed
a monk in meditation---
will he live or die
petals from a slender stem
fall onto the window sill

Kituai follows no formula. Her tanka vary in style and meter. The above tanka, for example, captures a gravely ill loved one on the verge of dying, without telling all, utilizing yugen (depth and mystery), thus allowing readers to interpret the moment through their own experiential eyes. Kituai contrasts the ill man, whom she calls "a monk in meditation," and her feelings on seeing him asleep in bed, with petals on a slender stem that fall on the man's windowsill. It's a poignant moment, the contrast used to infuse feelings into a short poem. This is the beauty of the tanka form, a symbiosis of the unsaid and said, using layers and textures to explore beyond the obvious. So much said with so few words.

how strange
those who aid our birth
were born ---
those who assist death
have never died

A practicing Buddhist, Kituai ponders the world around her, finding truth in contrast and deep thought; her journal recording ideas, observations, questions, feelings, and the senses, without being trite or pontifical.

    24th March 06

leafless eucalypt
a coat hanger for birds
to hang from
a mobile like none other
reflected in her eyes

Kituai takes time to see what those in a hurry often fail to see, viewing her surroundings with a child-like eye. In this tanka, she writes of seeing a leafless, upside down eucalyptus tree, its grey brown branches a repository for birds hanging ground-ward like bats. The imagery reminds her of a mobile. And she sees all of this in a reflection in a woman's eyes.

Straggling Into Winter speaks to readers in a personal, intimate way. Ms Kituai shares her feelings, emotions, and outlook on life, tangible and non-tangible, via expertly crafted tanka that reach into another's consciousness, leaving an indelible mark on the reader. A gifted poet, Kituai deserves a broader audience. Her book is a rare gem among English language tanka books. It's memorable, and has the ability to reach into the depths of a person's soul, her poems deep, melodic, and textured. It's truly a remarkable volume, one I will peruse again and again, her tanka speaking to me in new ways with each reading.

still holding leaves
oaks straggle into winter
too soon at the end
of this tanka journey


Straggling Into Winter
by Kathy Kituai
Interactive Press
ISBN 978-1-876819-69-9