Haibun Today
koi
koi
koi

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 2, June 2011



Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

 

"White & Red": My Beginnings in Tanka Prose

Long before I began writing tanka prose, I bought a copy of Love Songs from the Man'yōshū. The tanka were selections from the Japanese classic, beautifully illustrated by Miyata Masayuki. A couple of the tanka stayed in my mind, particularly Yamabe Akahito's tanka written in the 8th century:

The plum blossom
that I thought I would show to my man
cannot be distinguished now
from the falling snow

—Yamabe Akahito
(Love Songs from the Man'yōshū, Vol.8, #1426)

For some time I had been writing prose poems and haibun and believed that I could follow Yamabe Akahito's verse with some prose of my own, to add a further dimension to the poem.

About this time, Jeffrey Woodward contacted me to ask if I would be interested in joining him in contributing to a tanka prose blog which he was setting up with a view to encouraging tanka poets to combine their poems with prose. With the help of Jeffrey's invaluable criticism, "White & Red" was one of the first pieces I wrote containing tanka and prose.

This is an ekphrastic poem that responds to an image or a visual medium. "Ekphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art" (see the article "Ekphrasis" on Wikipedia). It can be applied to a painting, sculpture, poem, photograph or any inanimate object. It depends upon a secondhand image, rather than on a person or place. The poem doesn't merely replace the original, but adds something in its language and feeling that takes off from the original and talks back to it. "Ekphrasis, then," one scholar writes, "has a Janus face: as a form of mimesis, it stages a paradoxical performance, promising to give voice to the allegedly silent image even while attempting to overcome the power of the image by transforming and inscribing it" (see Peter Wagner, ed., Icons-Text-Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality, New York: de Gruyter, 1996, p. 13). A poem that is based on a work of art will succeed insofar as it comes to terms with the recognition that it should make a revelation.

The more one tries to define what constitutes an ekphrastic poem, the more slippery it becomes. If you consider that all poetry is to some degree, and in some way, both found and shaped by the poet, and dependent on the poetry that has preceded it, identifying the ekphrastic poem may seem a redundant exercise. Nevertheless, many poets deliberately present specific poems, based on the work of artists or poets, in the knowledge that they can add an intriguing layer to the original work by writing their own poem based upon it. One may think of poems such as John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Ashbery's "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" or William Carlos Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." Poets may produce such poems in order to shock or amuse, to be playful or serious, to add further to the art work, and anything in-between. The poems may counter a loss of faith in the ability of language to represent the art work; or provoke one to re-view the piece of art and the world it represents, whether psychologically, politically or culturally.

As a poet, I'm often looking for new ways in which to form a poem. The idea of combining two modes of writing—poetry and prose—was common in classical Japanese literature and early examples of it can be found in works by Ki no Tsurayuki, author of the Tosa Diary (or Tosa Nikki), circa 940 ME, or by the "the mother of Michitsuna," the presumed author of the anonymous Gossamer Years (or Kagerō Nikki), circa 974 ME. Tanka prose was first composed in Japan as an extended form of memoir, diary, tale, travelogue or even history, accompanied by a tanka. It may take various forms, built upon a common basic unit of one paragraph, one tanka. Tanka prose in English is now gathering momentum, with outlets for publication in Haibun Today, Atlas Poetica, Kokako, and other journals.

Tanka prose is considered to be a poem because of its intense, condensed language and its use of tanka, or because of some other similarity to poems in verse. Often it may be difficult to distinguish a short story from a narrative tanka prose poem. But this blurring of genres is an incitement to experiment.

My tanka prose poem is poignantly voyeuristic as it concerns the passion observed between two people, who in the midst of a cold winter's evening find themselves alone before the heat of a fire. The focus on the apparently incidental, accidental and conventional can in fact shine a bright light on the heart, often one brighter than a more serious, cliché-prone approach. Beneath these unsatisfied desires lies a concealed truth: anything can be conjured from its opposite. So here we have the emotional opposites of heat and cold, and that of colour: white is the colour of virginity, of snow, and red the colour of flame, fire, heat and the foretaste of the redness of plums:

a serene painting
white on white
not the red
of plums that will ripen
when we meet in autumn

The word "white" is a symbolic way of saying "snow" or "ice," or talking about an unsolved emotion. "Red" in its vagueness could imply blood (against the whiteness of skin) rather than heat. What does it really feel like, I asked myself, to be cold, chilled, to have lost someone one loves, compared with the pleasure the lovers have inside the house, with its warmth, light and music. Outside in the snow, it felt like a yearning for something that was lacking in my life, creating a desire not only for heat, but for self-ignition, a flare of glowing inner stimulation or inspiration. And where is that to be found? At that moment, it was to be discovered in the observation of two people in love.

The writing of such a tanka prose poem represents a gradual dawning as I advance in knowledge of myself, from the loneliness of gathering blossoms to the happiness at seeing the love between the couple before the fire, and therefore the poem ends on a positive note. My wish is that my poem enters into a dialogue with the original Akahito poem, reacting, re-imaging, re-creating and answering back.

The poem is personal in subject matter based on my own loss and the experience of seeing my children grow up and fall in love. However, it has a distinct directness in its tone and language, which strikes an intriguing balance, widening its perspective and providing scope for a reader's involvement.

 

White & Red

The plum blossom
that I thought I would show to my man
cannot be distinguished now
from the falling snow

—Yamabe Akahito
(Love Songs from the Man'yōshū, Vol. 8, #1426)

early spring
the snow falls softly
on white blossoms
this evening alone—
how cold it is

a sprig of flowers
I pick to place in
an emerald vase
bends under the weight of snow
fallen in the night

a serene painting
white on white
not the red of plums that will ripen
when we meet in autumn

I admire the flowers
the faintest tick of snow
against the window
red roses sprinkled
on a white duvet

Nightfall—I approach the house. Through the lit window I see a man in a cashmere jumper, a woman in a white evening dress with a string of pearls around her neck. Her hair the black of a raven's wing, her lips painted scarlet. They sit side by side in front of the piano, playing Mozart with two hands—their free hands around each other's waists. Discarded outer clothes lie in a heap beside the fire. On a table, an open bottle of red wine and two glasses . . . I stand watching these two people immersed in each other. They're friends of mine, arrived early for dinner. I'd left the door open when I went to gather the blossoms for a table piece. They've let themselves in—two people playing solely for each other.

 


"White & Red" was first published in Haibun Today, December 27, 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

koi
koi
koi
Current Contents about archives resources search submissions current