Another day, another Refinery. The last couple of days were chaotic first with… well, chaos, but then with joy. I was supposed to head home for an Important Family Event, which was rescheduled due to this blizzard we had. (Note: “blizzard” conditions require a certain amount of snow, a certain amount of windspeed, and a consequent certain reduction of visibility. By the view from my office window, I can attest that it certainly met the criteria.) I own almost no weather-appropriate clothing, but I still traipsed out Friday night with sneakers and umbrella to explore the city. It was too beautiful for words, but dammit if I’m not going to try. And then we’ve had the New Year and everything this weekend, and all is well.
Once again, please send poems for the Refinery! The email to send them to is eduerfsknil at liamg dot moc. (You’ll want to reverse those words, and change the at to @, dot to . and what not.) Today we have…
“More Charming Jewelry” by Yousei Hime
(Cripes, a case of where I don’t know whether to use real name or pen name. I’ll stick with Yousei for now.)
Yousei is a prolific writer of haiku, tanka, and free verse inspired by Japanese/Zen sensibilities and nature. I give her mad props for being one of the few poets to take the time and truly learn about the culture, religion, legends, and history that intimately informs those kinds of poem. (Besides that, she writes love poetry that both floats and pumps blood at the same time.) This set of short pieces was written for a Reverie last year, combining specific images with specific form tricks and combining them into a necklace of poems. I won’t get into whether it fulfilled the conditions of the Reverie, since that’s not the important thing here; let’s read the poem series as its own entity.
Rampal trills moonlit
cherry petal notes
into exile drifting
will you send my flute
over a ruined castle wall
past the cracked rock,
new fern coiled path,
each step . . . pure . . . heart . . . trust
small stones I cede
up to the dusk vined gate
where Taiheiyou bent low, waters
were spilled . . . suffering across hand, impermanence from mouth
you emptiness – trickle over stones to earth, rise to air
when at least, beside Tsushima Basin,
I am content with what I am
gray hair remembers
its maple leaf red
finger twined tilted
to how your breath tastes
but cannot recall you now
morning fire, this cotton gown caught,
a coy pool between my breasts
mid-day earthen words shore
cascades against silk waistband
until night winds ripple that deepest pond
what an odd structure, that half-moon bridge,
a path echoed in a passing river,
crimson by day, starless at night
I saw my fate
and never took either
simple cup of tea
heat the water — no dawn without her
scoop the matcha — her resolve pierces stone
pour the water — she is water
stir to foam — she is content with what she is
Let’s get into it:
- I think there could be more connective tissue in this piece, thematically. I know that it was written as seven separate pieces to seven different mini-prompts, but if we’re going to treat it as one longer piece, that would be the first thing I’d like to see developed. Each of the poems is pretty self-contained, and carries hints of a Japanese aesthetic by not saying too much; the challenge is to get them to work together. Probably the best way to handle this kind of situation is to see which ones stand out the best: in my opinion, the fourth and seventh are the winners. Then, look at these two and ask, what do they have in common, and what are their individual themes? Both seem to have a love element to them, but it’s understated and wistful. They are both very physical, with the hair, the colors, the tea, the water; but one is trapping memory in objects, while one is extending the woman to an almost divine aspect. There are echoes of this (the third poemlet’s ending) elsewhere, but where could these themes be better-developed?
- The syntax jars me a little bit. One of the things about Japanese forms and the grammar structure they use is that (to me, at least) it falls a little bit flat in English. Lines like “into exile drifting”, I want to change to become: “drifting into exile”. And “you emptiness” could use a comma, if I’m reading it correctly: “you, emptiness”. Ordinarily, I would defer to the poet’s prerogative, but because this piece has so many instances that are popping out at me, it’s distracting from digging out the theme and the images. The aesthetic is very “less is more”, but while you may be keenly aware of little “a”s and “the”s and punctuation while typing them/reading the poem aloud, the reader will gloss over them quickly. This is a better effect than trying to cut everything which can conceivably be cut, unless you’re trying to do some really concrete avant-garde stuff (which I don’t think Yousei is attempting here).
- Be careful of losing your audience with your symbolism, as well as references and allusions. I knew Taiheiyou and Tsushima (assuming they are the places in Japan I’m thinking of), but I had no idea who Rampal was, and had to look him up (which a lot of people wouldn’t have to). I’m sure the reverse is true for others. When the references are carefully placed — especially when they are the subjects/objects of descriptive verbs — we can generally get by. (Rampal, whoever/whatever that is to the ignorant reader, produces beautiful flute-like music, we can see.) Symbols can be harder, though: with the castle, and the half-moon bridge, I’m not sure if I should be reading them literally, allusively (is there some legend about throwing a flute over the wall I don’t know?), or figuratively (the bridge = fate?). My knowledge of haiku as whole images* suggests that they should be read literally, but I suspect there’s more going on here, which might need a bit of elucidation.
* I mean this in the sense of un-processed, like whole foods. If there was a market called Whole Images, I would be blowing my take-home pay there every month.
And now for the rest of the stuff!:
- That last stanza is fantastic. The fourth was good too, but that seventh one: damn. It could stand alone by itself easily (called “Simple Cup of Tea”, maybe?), but works as a good capstone to the entire piece. Sometimes I uncertain of the paths of the threads that lead to the end, but I have a certainty that this final stanza sums them all up, echoing almost all the other parts of the poem. Moreover, it has a peaceful, meditative, self-accepting quality, that I enjoy. I will go so far as to say this part should remain completely unchanged; the fourth stanza, meanwhile, could use a comma between “twisting” and “tilted”, and otherwise can probably stay as is. Anything else that changes in the poem should follow from those two.
- This is a surprisingly dense poem, which I mean in a good way. The “less is more” aesthetic helps because it gives you more room to include more elements that serve your theme, rather than having to do exposition for only a few images. When I see “cherry petals”, I have instant associations: I don’t need a line telling me about how quickly they vanish, and a third line about how they look and move. That would certainly be a beautiful poem too, but economy gives this piece a lot of its feel, and I think it’s done well here. As I mentioned, there could be some expansion with the skeleton filling in the gaps between images and thoughts, but there is no need to contract anything in the poem, I feel. The only thing that stands out is the second poemlet, which could just benefit from an extra line break to shorten that outstretched line. (I know the original prompt put limits on the lengths of the poemlets; but cast the prompt aside!)
- I’m a sucker for animism, which I can see poking through at a few points here. Japanese poems resist outright personification totally: a pheasant never cries plaintively, the cherry never dies wistfully, and all of the mourning comes from the observer. A haiku says “(natural thing) does X; poet shows his presence with Y,” very little more, and very little less. So this departs from that concept with the remembering hair and the Taiheiyou bending (or perhaps bowing?) into that bay, plus metaphors like that deepest pond and the cherry petal notes; but it’s applied very gently, and gives a nice feel to the poem.
Those are my takes on various aspects of the poem overall. A few smaller points to consider:
- My gripe with ellipses in poems is well known at this point. :P
- There are some great word choices like “dusk vined gate” and “coy pool”, which I suspect as a pun…
- …but there are also some that I’m not so keen on, like “cede up to” and “impermanence”. They sound too cerebral for the very calm, easy tone of the rest of the poem.
- The poem is mimetic at times, echoing itself, as sound does across water, with lines like “pour the water - she is water“, which is a great effect.
- Why not include some imagery of sound across water to drive the point home?
- Again, I know these are seven stand-alone poemlets, but I still want to see some smoother transition between stanzas. The abruptness separating periods of extremely nice flow is either an effect you want, or one you don’t.
Yousei: thank you for sharing this poem with us! Hopefully there are some ideas in here that you can use for revising. And for everyone else, we’re going to try another complicated-ish prompt inspired by the piece so you can jump in:
Write a poem of seven stanzas where each stanza could stand alone as its own short poem. Focus on three connected themes that braid together well, and keep bringing them back with refrains and repeated images or sounds until the last stanza, where they all come together. Include at least three nature images, at least three domestic images, and a balance of images with deeper meaning against ones that are exactly as deep as they seem.
To the poems!