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Summer 2008, vol 6 no 2

Cigarette Butts and Lilacs: tokens of a heritage
by Andrew Riutta
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


I'm not sure if all of the poetry in Andrew Riutta's book can be categorized as tanka. He does not always adhere to the traditional meter of short/long/short/long/long indigenous to the genre,and in some instances, he exceeds the 32 syllabic count. If they aren't tanka then, what are they? Can modern day English language tanka sculpt an entirely different genre with its own set of rules, a second or third cousin to the Japanese form? Are some of the poems in Riutta's book, Cigarette Butts and Lilacs, more akin to the short form poetry of Imagists like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams? Scholars and well known poets differ in their interpretations as to what constitutes an English-language tanka.

Riutta fluctuates from one meter to another when composing tanka. For instance, this poem follows the standard short/long/short/long/long pattern indigenous to the genre:

Like Buddhist monks
we chopped wood that afternoon
with little to say . . .
until an arch in your back
told me you were pregnant

The words Riutta chose for this tanka allow readers to share a magical moment, bringing them into the author's mindset. A couple has fallen into the daily routine of chopping wood for the winter. Chopping wood requires alertness, a steady rhythm, and focus. Like monks they go about their routine, having little need for words . . . one with the axe. That is until the man catches a glimpse of his mate's back arching, telling him she is pregnant. Were the poem less skillfully written, a reader might not get the poem's gist. It is the unsaid following this poem that brings the meaning home, fed by the right arrangement and choice of words.

Let's look at a few more examples:

In the end,
it was these filterless cigarettes
that made me the man
my father said
I'd never become

Utilizing meter consisting of short/long/long/short/long, Riutta has crafted a poem that invites his readers to contemplate, probe deeper, and think through this tanka. The question of how the filterless cigarettes make the poet into the man his father said he'd never become, comes to mind at once, drawing the reader into the poem, like a lingering aroma. Positioning of lines, selecting the right words, removing what isn't needed, factoring in the unsaid, all play an important part in the crafting of a good tanka.

Riutta's poems are easy to read because he speaks matter-of-factly, with ease, as if the reader were in his living-room, without the pretence of fancy words:

It's not so much my wife
but time that jots down
these endless lists of chores,
telling me when to plant seeds
and when to rake the leaves

In this tanka, the poet utilizes a long/short/long/long/long meter. There is texture and poignancy in the poem. Riutta is a Native American. Integral to many Native American tribes is the ability to read the seasons, listen to their voices, and to accept their teachings: when to plant, when to harvest, when the first rain will come, etc. Here we are kindred to the poet's thoughts and pinings, seeing through his eyes what many of us might take for granted. Careful to pull his readers even deeper into the poem, he makes use of yugen (depth and mystery), the unsaid inside of the said.

Riutta has written a book readers will read through again and again. It's intimate, enlightening, and well written. Whether or not some of the poems therein can be considered tanka is debatable, depending upon who one talks to. I enjoyed the book; its subject matter is refreshing and non-mundane. Andrew Riutta deserves a broad audience:

It's difficult to tell
who's drunk and who's sober
when you are only five.
In a field of fireflies,
my father would let me drive


Cigarette Butts and Lilacs: tokens of a heritage
by Andrew Riutta
Modern English Tanka Press
ISBN 978-0-6151-9445-5