fish spine picked clean end of conversation

Hello new book! I begin this post with my editor and publisher’s name along with mine, and part of the skeleton of a fish. It’s sometimes a good idea to start with a part of something, a manageable piece, to take time to see the part, and so the whole, more clearly.

So here is Éditions des petits nuages, a small press with a big vision, one that takes risks and sends out into the world a fullness of books on poetry, mostly Japanese-form poems, in French and in English. Poet, translator and editor in his own right, Mike Montreuil’s ‘nuage‘ publications run from the historically important through compilations of contemporary poetry. I’m proud to be published once more with Éditions des petits nuages, pleased that some of my books are part of his publications list.

Montreuil is also the Publications Editor of Haiku Canada, main editor of the Haiku Canada Review and its Haiku Canada Sheet Series, both functions he has recently taken over from LeRoy Gorman. It’s a hat that is not easy to fill, but Mike will do a fine job.  And so, back to some the many poets published under the mantle of the ‘little clouds’: Andre Duhaime, Micheline Beaudry, Maxianne Berger, for starters, and Jocelyne Villeneuve. The Villeneuve project alone is worth many blog pages, as is the collection of years of The Betty Drevniok Award poems and judges’ comments, all this besides Montreuil’s work for The Haiku Society of America and sundry other poetry-related projects.

Now it is my turn again to be published by the little clouds, with fish spine picked clean, a collection of tanka, the five-line poems that can, every once in a while, be written in one line as it is in the title of this blog. It’s one of my briefest tanka, but one that pulls in what I like to portray in such a short poem, an image, but an image that links with an emotion, a very human poem.  After so many publications with my name on them, it’s still amazing to see the title and my name on the spine of this spine.  It’s been a long time coming for another tanka collection (after Your Hands Discover Me/ Tes mains me découvrent, 2010, Éditions du tanka francophone,  Montreal), and it mostly comprises already-published tanka in other other journals, in paper or online, such as Skylark, Take Five: Best Contemporary tanka, or Gusts, Canada’s Tanka Magazine, or in themed books such as Blackbird’s Throat.

These poems might count as a section of memoir expressed in tanka, but as such, it is of course, only the smallest part, a particle perhaps, of thoughts and feelings throughout my life.  Records of a kind. Not a narrative per se, but bits and pieces of nature, happiness, love, and sadnesses such as most people have, and about which many poets write. The ‘spine’, so to speak, of tanka poetry.

And what is this spine, my spine, trying to say and why collect all these pieces of my self into a book.  For I am not famous or rich as a many a poet may and should be. Not a celebrity poet whose books everyone wants personally signed, a writer the world clamours to know more about, which doesn’t matter, as it’s the right time to do what you’re doing as long as it is the right time to be doing it. Ah, I will be known throughout the land for long, oblique, tortured sentences. Still, it’s the way it is. Now is the time for fish spine to be shouting ‘life’ and this is how life is for me: how it has been, how it is, including the lusty erotics… who is to say when those experiences in life have been there and gone. Not me.

fallen into temptation/i unbutton/his shirt —/moon’s wry/romantic grin

never sleep they say/in the path/of a moonbeam/but my love/who’s thinking of sleep

crossing the bridge/across the border/the fire in us/could have melted/this steel

Putting the collection together has given me the chance to share the beauty of a dear one’s love of language, the simplicity of  a Brahms passage, or cross cultures with the poetry of another country, showcasing the relationship between early tanka and the Chinese poets.

languish languid limpid livid/you loved words/they came tripping out/like spring brook water/lively

then three simple notes/down and back/generates a measure/the ordinary…/seeding the/extraordinary

the smiles/of small girls/deny what is written/that no one is glad/when a girl is born                        (with reference to a poem called Woman by the poet Fu Hsüan who died c. AD 278.)

Within this collection of notes and whimsies written over the years, and the freedom allowed by Montreuil as editor, I can even approach being funny, reference Artificial Intelligence, indulge in my liking for the word ‘tarty’, and, using a famous pair of dancers, give a nod to how women are men’s equals, perhaps at times more equal, despite obstacles that few even notice.

it’s been with me, officer/all night long/the robot/had already/learned/to lie

fred and ginger/she in high heels/this marmalade is a hit/packed with tarty bits/of orange peel

The book will be out by March 12th, and I will be reading from it at Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series on March 13th.  Thank you so much,  Mike Montreuil and your little clouds.


China in Tanka/ Terry Ann Carter

Yangtze Crossing, Terry Ann Carter (2009, Bondi Studios)

yangtze cover 2In 2005, Terry Ann Carter accepted an invitation to teach at the International Educational Exchange Center at Dongzhou Middle School in Haimen City, China, a Summer Language School for Teachers. She suggested we do this together. We both found the five line Japanese form of tanka to be the best way to express our experience.  We published a set of chapbooks. Yangtze Crossing is Terry Ann’s collection. It takes you through her second trip to China, and my first.China 308

Yangtze crossing
I must be someone else
crossing the river
clouds drift
in no particular direction

In this poem Terry Ann Carter sees herself, a modern women from Canada, on a ferry in China in a country of millions of women whose ways of life we cannot possibly understand.  Initially the poem speaks of the natural astonishment of being in China at all.

It is an adventure to cross the Yangtze, though today there is a bridge where we crossed to Shanghai from the north. The photo shows our chauffeur (yes!) waiting for the ferry beside our Mercedes (yes!!). Blame it on the heat and humidity, and/or being driven in China by a chauffeur in an air-conditioned Mercedes, but there was a sense of unreality despite the closeness of truck beds on the ferry loaded with piled cages of chickens, despite the small girl hiding bashfully in her mother’s skirts from the white devil ladies, leading to connections less concrete than what we saw around us, those of myth, poetry, and history.

The muddiness of the water and our muddy relations with this country, mud by the shore, too polluted even for reeds to grow through the trash washed up in the estuary.

Terry Ann Carter was also a different person than she was when she first came to China many years before.  Like the clouds, her mind was unable to settle for long on what her senses were telling her. There were so many changes, yet so much was unchanged.

Both Terry Ann and I, like children, wanted to believe in the China of poetry and Art, of beautiful clothes and elegant manners, not the condition of those hundreds of pathetic chickens in the heat.  We could only look up, where the clouds were drifting, unconcerned. Of course, clouds do not float ‘in no particular direction’, except that here on the Yangtze, with everything coming at us at once, they seemed to.  The line could suggest the opposite analogy, that in China there is only one ‘correct’ direction, but that there is a feeling in the New China that anything is possible.

lazy afternoon
from the teacher’s room next door
a pipa melody
and wildflowers spilling out
of a vase

This is how we knew we were in China.  After all, we’d been picked up by our chauffeur from the Shanghai Airport, whisked to Haimen City on a many-laned highway. In our separate rooms, we had a bed, desk, computer to use, and air conditioning, modern bathrooms and showers. We were teaching in a secondary school and had at our disposal up-to-date classroom equipment.  The giant department store on the corner had just about everything, except yogurt and eggs…

But to hear in the evening this pipa music, a fellow teacher who was a student of this ancient stringed instrument, going over certain groups of notes, honing melodies, was for the moment, our China, the China of a small city.

The flowers spilled, like the notes, gracefully.  The vase, a container of water, a symbol for the physical body containing a spiritual life, as the music ‘contains’ life for the spirit.

The poem is a reminder of our students, teachers themselves, with us to improve pronunciation of English, and to learn new English Language teaching methods. There is a vase, containing, limiting the amount of water which is transparent and easily poured away, easily lost, a lesson, sign of what is possible and not possible, a structural discipline. That much water in just that form.

China 582It could be analogy for obedience and discipline, a ‘holding in’ first and foremost for Chinese students and Chinese teachers, for all Chinese citizens. Rules, philosophies and laws are cultural containers. This tanka is our friendly Director checking all my photographs before I left, is our students always wary of telling us anything about their personal lives, their families, or their teaching situations, and knowing that to exchange email addresses may be useless at best, if not dangerous. Vase as caution, solid and in a recognized shape.China 120The evaluation comments from our students were delightful and positive, and I’m sure they had a good time learning from Terry how to practice phrases while keeping a hula hoop going, or from me how to make collages and create stories and conversations about them.

But just before we left, a shy teacher came to me and thanked me for the new methods, but said none of them would be able to teach that way; they were told precisely what to teach and how to teach it, mostly by forced repetition and rote memory. If their students did not pass their exams in the manner expected, the teachers could lose their teaching positions.China 283This tanka, with its dreamy mood, is accessible however to anyone who does not know its background stories and/or associations. It is everyone’s memory of walking past a house, and hearing through an open window, someone playing Mozart on the piano, or someone practising something beautiful anywhere.  It leads to recollections of picking our own wildflowers in an empty lot, or in the country, or of stopping the car to choose a bouquet from the side of the road, or even wondering whether Chinese wildflowers are different from ours.

The next tanka is in a similar dreamy mood:

home from China
each rounded leaf
reminding me of moon gates
this summer night
fanning against my skin


moon gateI don’t know what particular plant Terry Ann was looking at in her home garden, but what was uppermost in her mind was not the plant’s name, but the shape of its leaves. This is one way memory works, a kind of synecdoche, a ‘part’, in this case a shape, bringing to mind a ‘whole’, not even just a whole object, but a complete scene.

Moon gates are almost cliché when thinking of China; every temple, every garden has one, and anyone having read or experienced anything to do with China, can’t help but having somewhat romantic feelings about them. Romantic is not completely the right word, but these gates in the shape of the moon and ouroboros signify myth, story, and mystery ― rabbits, the goddess Chang’e, moon as female principle (Yin), even the Good Night Moon storybooks we’ve read to our own children.

change e and rabbitLeaving aside our customary association of romance and moonlight, the romance in this tanka is in the delicate sensual phrasing of ‘summer night’ ‘fanning’ and ‘against the skin’. We are ‘touched’ in a metaphysical way, not quite physically touched, but as if our skin were being brushed by the summer air, a sense experience, a relationship between sense impression and its referents. In religious rituals relics are touched or kissed. Masons recognize each other by a handshake, Pygmalion had to first touch the statue in order to be moved.

‘Air’ has fanned against the poet’s skin, and she has made it touch ours ― touch as index to consciousness.  In this poem, touch is positive connection with memory, and with some things we already deeply know.

Here too is a physical structure in the form of not the moon itself, but what is outside the moon, the moon’s halo. It has given us a circle around emptiness, around what we don’t know, the art of knowing nothing.  It can be linked to the summer air, which we can’t see, but which we feel; nor can we see emptiness, no mind, the innocent mind, where it all begins and ends, but we can sense its truth, its essence.

To read Terry’s Yangtze Crossing is to give us an intimate picture of some aspects of Chinese culture ten years ago. Our students, the director of the Center, the secretary of the school and the principal were so warm and welcoming.

farewell party
students fold paper cranes
into a necklace …
like the morning moon
we will soon disappear


China 668

(We and some of our students and their friends at a farewell dinner)

Grant’s clouds and etc/ a few haiku

Why write minimalist poems, poems using plain language that can be snapped up in a few seconds, and left, the way studies have shown that in an Art museum, the average time spent looking at a painting is about 5 seconds. Let’s consider the following poems from the book Their White with Them (2006, Bondi Studios), by Grant D. Savage.

Haiku is a funny thing. The best are simple, just being and seeing, or being and hearing, or being. Being and noticing and not having to say much about it. One of the best facebook posts I’ve received and shared lately says: A wise man once said nothing.

Grant’s haiku almost fall into this vein. There is nothing forced about them. He doesn’t explain what he meant to say, or explain the haiku’s hidden metaphors. Usually there aren’t any.bee grant

cloudless sky/ a bee buries its face/ in blue mint

In this poem, Grant notices a clear sky, full of calm and ‘nothingness’, notices too a very busy little bee working its striped buns off getting at the pollen in the mint.  He leaves us to see the contrast between stillness and busyness, the pure clarity of the sky and the furry body, the stripes and whirring wings, the ‘nosing’ from bud to bud.  Subconsciously, or consciously, he was aware of all those things, but he doesn’t tell you ALL that it meant to him, ALL that he noticed, ALL that went through his mind at that moment. The poem is simply the noticing and the noting what is noticed down in a few clear words.

A bee buries its face― so simple, but so perfectly descriptive of what is seen. We can’t see the collection of pollen, we do see the body wiggling away to get at the nectar. Grant doesn’t describe the wiggling; that would be redundant as we’ve all seen the movements of a bee collecting pollen, have an image in our minds of what that movement is.

A cloudless sky. A bee doing what it does. Simple but precise recording. the rest is up to you.

In Grant’s photo above, the bee is not in blue mint, but you can see how closely Grant will look at a bee or any other insect.

EPSON scanner image
raindrops/ the curve of the pink iris/ half open

raindrops/ the curve of the pink iris/ half open

I like the sense of what will come in this haiku, a wordless prediction: the pink iris will open fully, unless, unless. The wording of ‘half open’, can point to the famous ‘half’ saying that we all know: the glass half empty or half full. Too much rain might be the ruin of the iris, but the right amount will allow a perfect opening, a fullness.

There is something particularly vulnerable about a pink iris. Iris petals to start with are so fragile looking, and the pink is reminiscent of a dawn sky, a baby’s lips, an awakening. Little girls and big girls and many of the male persuasion are attracted to the colour. I am. Flowers are sexual in nature to start with, but the pink iris touches the woman in me ― the delicate parts of a woman, flaunted in the pink iris.

lady’s slipper/ a bumblebee too fat/ to fit in

A frustrated bumblebee. A less skilled poet would try to put that word into the haiku, say that it is important to the haiku. The way Grant does it is to ignore what you think you know about how the bee must ‘feel’, or what it is going through mentally, so to speak. He also ignores obvious connections to how we feel in maddening situations; he lets us see the straight funniness of the scene. Give it up bee, it’s not going to work. Neither will we fit into those jeans from ten years ago.

The poem also plays with the roundness of the bee’s body, and the rounded parts of the wild orchid. An artist would play with those shapes, as Grant has played with the image in words.clouds

dusk in the yard/ clouds and fleabane/ a deeper purple

A couple of things come together to make this a wonderful haiku. Yes, it is, again, simple noticing, but you have to be in the zone already to notice how certain things complete each other.

The word dusk has this feeling, and it’s also a physical feeling in the throat. Say it, and feel the tongue meet the palate for the ‘d’, hear puff of the ‘uh’ in the middle, the sweetness of the ‘s’ and finally the ‘k’ , feel the back of the tongue meet the rear of the palate. The word itself is satisfying to the body.

Then there is the name of the plant. Grant knows plants, knows it is nothing else but fleabane. He notes the purple tints in the clouds, links it with the purple in the fleabane. There is a feeling of him sitting quietly, just watching as the purples deepen.  It is another example in which we get a sense of time; it takes more than a moment, but not much longer than that, to see everything he sees…

What it doesn’t do is take for granted that North Americans, or anyone, would look for a different (and some would say deeper) meaning given that fleabane is the symbol of exorcism, protection and/or chastity, in the way that Japanese readers of haiku might feel they understand a haiku better if they know all the references a certain word brings to mind. Nor is it important to this poet that its name derives from a belief that this plant repels fleas. We are merely expected to see what Grant sees and experience that with him.

light in the wings/ of the shadow/ of a dragonfly

Here attention is given not only to a dragonfly, its wings, and its shadow, but the poem points out that even in the shadow of the dragonfly’s wings, there is light. He may be describing notes of brilliance, reflections from water… but whatever kind of light he sees, he leaves it up to you to imagine. The poem is a direct invitation to look beyond surface, to look through to find whatever may be subtly hidden there.

Apart from the concrete aspect of the poem, in the progression of its three phrases: in the wings, of the shadow, of a dragonfly, the first preposition leads to a word of one syllable, the second to a word of two, and the third… you see where I am going. Grant may not even have noticed what he has done, he does it so naturally.

There is lightness, fragility in the wings in the first line, almost a dance.The ‘sh’ of shadow in the second almost tells the reader to be still. The poem is rounded off with the very solid ‘d’ sound of dragonfly to ground it. I’ve always thought there should be a different word for this ethereal insect. ‘Dragonfly’ has a certain whimsy to it, I admit. But in this poem, that heavy ‘d’ sound is well placed. The poem aurally goes slowly from light words to a ‘heavier’ word.  I say slowly, because it seems like this is a slow poem, that Grant sat or stood watching for a while, and eventually went away. Satisfying.

Here is a last, for now, haiku ― another summer poem:

quiet afternoon/ only the silent growth/ of cloudscloudmountain DSC_0099Each part of the haiku points both to the physical aspects of our world/universe and to the self, written by a quiet man ( for the most part) with his quiet views of the world that expand, renovate, and intensify experience.

All the photographs in this post are by Grant D. Savage, a man of many talents.