HCSHR 4:4 — Dance into the World: Tanka Society of America Members' Anthology

HCSHR 4:4Michael Dylan Welch, editor, Dance into the World: Tanka Society of America Twentieth Anniversary Anthology.  Pasadena, CA: Tanka Society of America, 2020. 979-8-5751-9871-0.  106 pages.  www.tankasocietyofamerica.org 

review by Dave Read

Dance into the World, edited by Michael Dylan Welch, is the Tanka Society of America (TSA) members’ anthology for 2020.  As the 20th anniversary edition, this collection marks a milestone for the TSA.  The anthology is organized in sections of seven themes.  The poems are largely representative of current English language tanka.

The first four sections of the book deal with nature, death, love, and family; common themes in tanka.  Generally, these poems are solid but not spectacular.  A lot of familiar ground is covered here.  As a result, while many of the tanka don’t suffer, they certainly don’t stand out.  Even so, some of the poems are notable for their artistry and originality:

lunch break
at the children’s hospital
two clowns
look at each other
without smiling                                          Kat Lehman

my mother
with Alzheimer’s…
hands
like dead birds
in her lap                                                      Susan Constable

The tanka of the last three sections of Dance into the World, however, are much stronger.  Here, we are treated to poetry featuring miscellaneous themes, the pandemic, and travel, respectively.  The “Umbrella Inside Out”, the miscellaneous section, provides some gems:

windows shut
against thick smoke—
someone else’s home
full of memories
blown across my path                                Carole Harrison

walking meditation
putting one foot in front
of the other
I pass
the sobriety test                                          John Quinnett

Harrison’s tanka is a potent reminder of the Australian wildfires from last January, and the impact they had on many people’s lives.  Quinnett's poem embodies the spirit of kyoka.  The turn in the fifth line moves the poem away from meditation to the narrator’s implicitly close call on getting charged for driving drunk.  

Similarly, many of the tanka about the pandemic in “Garden of Dwindling Petals” shine:

in the garden
the dwindling petals
of the daffodil
the blessing of a death
from natural causes                                               Marianne Paul

sprites flash 
across purpling skies
for a moment 
I forget the grim state
of this locked-down life                                         Debbie Strange

Paul’s tanka does not overtly speak of the pandemic.  Even so, the reader gets her reference in the last two lines.  This COVID world is not natural to any of us.  We are left, ironically, to see blessing in a death that comes from anything but the virus.  Strange’s tanka, on the other hand, is about a moment of distraction.  However, that moment is brief.  Even in watching the “sprites flash/ across the purpling skies”, the narrator is not far from her awareness of the pandemic.  The poem’s force hinges on the word “grim” which jettisons the reader back to the reality of “this locked-down life”.

The anthology concludes with “Path to Holy Waters” which features tanka about travel:

cold rain
lashes a grey huddle
on the platform
commuters wrapped
within their own disquiet                                     Anne Benjamin

dragging
an old Samsonite
across a gravel border road
the only item left
not damaged by hate                                              Mike Montreuil 

Both Benjamin and Montreuil’s tanka are good examples of poems which surprise their readers with the turn of their concluding lines.  In Benjamin’s tanka, we are presented with a scene where commuters are forced to huddle under a platform in response to the rain.  At the end of line four, she creates the expectation that the commuters will be “wrapped” in rain-appropriate attire.  Instead, we discover they are “wrapped/ within their own disquiet”: uncomfortable with their imposed proximity to strangers.  Similarly, Montreuil plays on, then turns sharply away from, expectations built in his first four lines.  Prior to line five, the reader is led to expect that the Samsonite suitcase is the only thing the traveler still owns.  In discovering, instead, that it is “the only item left/ not damaged by hate”, we are provided a much different scenario.  The traveler is emotionally, not economically, poor; worn down by his burden of hatred.

Dance into the World is a good anthology of tanka, which gets considerably more interesting in the later sections of the book.  It is recommended to all readers of tanka.

review by Dave Read
February 2021

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