Sunday, March 04, 2007

Review: Blue Night & the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses

Blue Night & the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses
by Larry Kimmel

Winfred Press
364 Wilson Hill Road
Colrain, MA 01340
ISBN 978-0-9743856-9-3
$11.95 USD
95 pps 6 x 9 inches

Blue Night & the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses are two books in one by Larry Kimmel, well known as a tanka poet and editor of Winfred Press. Blue Night is a collection of short poems, but the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses is subtitled ‘a collage of cherita’, each of which takes up about one half the book. ‘Inadequacy’ was previously published in 2001.

Blue Night presents various short poems, including free verse, tanka, free verse tanka, tanka sequences, haiku, and others. Generally speaking, Kimmel as at his best in the shorter forms. Some of his longer poems, such as ‘Night Journey,’ lack sufficient tension to justify their length. The same scene was treated more briefly and more effectively in cherita #72:

a streetlamp

casting a path over snow-melt
where five pines stand

that’s all it takes
one moment an insomniac
the next a tourist in Faery

Kimmel is an excellent tanka poet and many of the tanka in the book treat romantic and erotic themes along with their inevitable disappointments.

stark from the shower
to answer the phone,
she dons a robe
of the finest distance

—the girl with the spring desire

Several of his romantic tanka have already been published, but some of the tanka I had not seen before were some of his best. They were striking not only for their quality, but for treating subjects not frequently seen in contemporary English-language tanka, such as the following:

we did what we could
read their letters, figured their taxes,
good neighbors they -
now just a cellar hole
and the lilacs in spring

Included among the poems are several short lyrics of Western prosody that add a pleasant variety:

Two carved their names, enclosed them in a heart,
And still their love grows deep by beechen art,
Though they’ve been twelve and twenty years apart.

The cherita is an invented form created a few years ago by ai li. My previous encounters with it had not impressed me; it seems a fad among poets to create knew poetic forms and give them excessive rules and exotic names. Yet in Kimmel’s capable hands, the cherita offers poetic dignity worthy of serious consideration.

A form of one line, followed by two lines, followed by three lines, it has something of the cinquain’s melody, but is more flexible about syllable count.

a bead curtain sways

long long stockings climb
a dark stairway

when I was a lad
and prince among
the apple carts

Kimmel’s cherita are very tankaesque, selecting ‘tanka moments’ (if there is such a thing) to present in a short image full of emotional resonance. Many of his cherita feel very much like tanka formatted in six lines.

“two Manhattans coming up”

he wants to know
she won’t tell

maraschino cherry
between white teeth
her taunting smile

Particularly interesting are Kimmel’s experiments with tanka in alternative formats. Some of these poems would not be recognizable as tanka if the reader had not previously seen them in five line formats. Yet the alternative lineations provide structure and suppleness that the block of five lines down lacks.

“okay! okay! he’s everything a woman wants.
now what’s for supper?”
the petals
of yesterday’s rose lie around the vase

The poem above could have been rearranged in traditional tanka format (and has been, elsewhere):

“okay! okay!
he’s everything a woman wants.
now what’s for supper?”
the petals of yesterday’s rose
lie around the vase

I argue that Kimmel’s alternative lineation is more effective both as poetry and as tanka, bringing out the two part nature of the structure and the tensions and distances of the relationship. Some critics would argue that if it’s not in five lines, it’s just a short free verse, so why call it tanka?

Tanka is not published in five lines in Japan, so we could just as easily question why five lines has become the de facto form of tanka in English. The five part structure that underlies the five line convention is clearly present in the poem above. Either it’s a tanka or it’s not, and rearranging the lines is not what makes that determination.


Review by M. Kei
6 January 2007
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA

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