Book Review: the forest i know
Alan Summers reviews Kala Ramesh's collection of poignant poetry.
This poetry collection of Japanese genre poetics, suffused with Indian spiritual bhakti writing, is divided into six sections:
pellets of desire
within and without
Maya, as we know, to put simply, is an illusion despite everything looking ‘real’ in life. The opening section contains individual tanka poems (5-line love poems) and tanka sequences (groups of tanka together) plus tanka stories. A tanka story is prose passages interspersed with tanka poetry. When we come to the third section (pellets of desire) we also come across haibun, made famous by Matsuo Bashõ who lived in 17th century Japan, and wrote one of the world’s most famous poetic travelogues Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Haibun are a way to magically combine haiku poems with descriptive prose, and Kala Ramesh is adept at this genre as well. The within and without section also contains cherita which are 6-line storytelling poems invented by ai li and have roots in Malaysian poetics. They are infused with the aesthetics of haiku and tanka in a unique manner.
The tanka doha section is inspired by Kabir, a 15th century Indian saint, who could be said to have been a satguru (true guru) and wrote poems as couplets. Kala Ramesh responds by writing somonka (putting two tanka together) as a love note and its response.
The last section, oneness, has two tanka per page, which you can read as single tanka and also as a two poem tanka, rewarding yourself with two different ways of poetry. We are also rewarded with more tanka stories, haibun, cherita, and tanka sutra (a thread of tanka like a sequence). Also included are tanka stories that replace straight prose with free verse or ‘prose poetry’ plus tanka, further mingling separate genres of writing into one overall genre suffused with the spirit of tanka.
There is so much to appreciate here, and different genres, so I’ll focus on both haiku and tanka (plural and singular spelling in both cases).
Haiku are the shortest of self-contained poetic verses, and yet often pull from us an emotional reaction without obviously trying to do so. This genre is like a sharp blade of poetry, suggestive of the passage of seasons, and sometimes a litmus test of society. The ambivalent cusp of morning we still consider as the deep end of night is of not yet letting go:
something she never had ...
This haiku captures movement and sensation; perhaps we also imagine ourselves wishing to ‘quiver’ away the many things that irritate or hurt us:
dingy barn ...
a cow’s skin quivers
the flies away
Haiku are often made up of two ‘incomplete’ parts, and through their extreme brevity there is a slicing action that causes a breach or fissure creating a 'something unsaid’ feature, pulling between the visible parts for the universe and the reader to slip through.
This next haiku can be read literally, a gazelle full of joy and interaction with the world; or perhaps hunted down by a predator, human or otherwise. Perhaps it does not know about the ‘other’ chase. The morning chase is something humans can relate to, as once we wake, and leave our home, we engage with a ‘greater’ world that constantly makes us run:
a gazelle parts
the river shallows ...
Haiku is actually a three-part poem, two parts visible text, one part invisible to the eye, and it’s up to us to pull them altogether for the larger poem.
The roots of tanka start with the Man'yōshū ("Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) compiled after AD 759 (Nara period) in Japan. The term tanka was used to distinguish ‘short poems’ from chōka (‘long poems’). During the ninth and tenth centuries, tanka became the dominant form of poetry in Japan, though the general term of waka became the standard name instead. Then Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki (1890s) brought back the term tanka stating that waka should be modernized.
Outside of Japan tanka are usually five-line (love or personal emotion) poems, with a ‘turn’ not unlike the longer Sonnet. Tanka are grounded in concrete images, like haiku, though infused with lyric intensity, and an intimacy of direct expression, tempered with implication, firing off nuances more potent than a direct statement. They can cover any subject however controversial, explicitly interpreting our direct thoughts, and feelings, with an event in our lives. Importantly there is both an emotional connection, and a change of perspective, between the first section and the final part, not unlike the volta in a sonnet. This turn in the tanka is a shift leading the reader in one direction, at first, and then concluding in a slightly or openly different direction. Those two parts contain a ‘narrative’ or ‘argument’ and its own approach to resolution or conclusion, sometimes drifting into white or negative spaces.
Tanka are often called short songs, and this genre relies on silences and space as much as music. Many musicians through the ages have talked about this including, allegedly, Claude Debussy, “Music is the space between the notes,’ and Amadeus Mozart ‘The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.’ Mozart apparently believed silence was the ultimate language of God, and the notes were like a painting on a canvas of that silence. This is important in music, and it has its own symbol if you read sheet music, and where it says ‘rest’ that’s silence. It’s vital that a person knows this when creating compositions, and often imperative to bring into tanka (and haiku) as well.
a single cicada
ushers in the summer
making the calendar
one of empty squares
I’ve used this tanka because the shift or turn and space/silence is not marked out with punctuation and so I can point out how a tanka can work. We do not need to rush into a poem as if it’s a race or a competition. Even if we don’t at first understand a poem, that appears so different from our comfort zone, we can still dwell amongst its words and spaces for awhile.
a single cicada
ushers in the summer
We can pause here, if we like, or include the third line, and pause…
a single cicada
ushers in the summer
…before we move those last two lines.
Seasons come around again, and we might not mark a calendar but leave empty squares or spaces, either letting opportunities come to us, or let life pass us by. There is sometimes something poignantly lingering behind the words of a tanka. Whichever interpretation we take away, as readers, tanka will carry the impulsiveness of ‘the line’, as well as sharing its 'impact’ as a miniature song. Tanka, ever evolving, is its own poem. It’s like a balanced ball of string that is allowed to unravel a little but not too much. How apt that string and distance are directly or indirectly within the lines of these two wonderful tanka!
I were looped
to a string ...
one red kite fluttering
across the twilight sky
from a distance
a wailing cuckoo
than this voice next to me
mumbling mundane things
The frisson of the line can be anywhere, even hidden as a line within a line, or across two lines, or threading through all the lines. Read each tanka, and find your own lines, and meaning, within each superbly crafted tanka.
Kala Ramesh’s book is a declaration of the poet as to how they try to see themselves as a human being, and how they interact with their own self and with a greater self that is beyond an everyday existence. It is our greatest challenge, if we choose to pick it up, and Socrates, also a great teacher, uses the maxim ‘Know Thyself’ which is the ultimate journey.
I highly recommend the collection on various grounds. First of all, for its poetry alone, without worrying about labels, and which genre or genres they fall into. Secondly this is spiritual self-examination by way of poems testing and pushing the author and acting as an investigative agency. Thirdly, it’s a great insight into the poetic genres of Japan and how we can all attempt our own great experiment, in our chosen language, to add this as an adventure, as both poet and self-examiner. And lastly, it’s a testimony of who we are, might be, or could be, and if it’s enough or is it actually and surprisingly just our first step on a journey because there is always more, always more.
About the Poet
Kala Ramesh, a Pushcart Prize nominated poet, is the Founder and Director of Triveni Haikai India, and Founder and Managing Editor of haikuKATHA Journal. Author of ‘haiku!' for children (Katha Books 2010); ‘Beyond the Horizon Beyond’ (Vishwakarma Publications) shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize in 2019. Her collection of poetry, ‘The Forest I Know’ (HarperCollins) was launched at Jaipur Literature Festival, March 2022. She has been experimenting with a fusion of japanese poetry and dohas (couplets with 24 sound units) of 15th Century saint poet, Kabir. The end-result is beautiful Tanka dohas.
‘The Forest I Know', my book of tanka, tanka prose and tanka doha, contains fourteen years of my work to be discovered. Tanka is a 1300-year-old, five-line lyrical poem from Japan. It’s known for its brief and succinct qualities and therein lies its beauty and subtlety, its transient and mysterious grace. ‘Here I show you what a wordless poem is all about. The tanka and related forms in these pages are built from concrete images, so that words seem to slip away, allowing an effortless artistry to shine through. The woes and conflicts of city life, juxtaposed with verses rooted in nature, will leave the reader breathless and wanting more. The well-known Japanese tanka poet, Machi Tawara, believes that nearly all tanka are written in the first person, and that tanka can convey only the 'middle”'of a story. The spaces in and around the poem are the unsaid and they aid the poem in weaving its magic!
Alan Summers, is a multi-award-winning poet of haiku and related genres, whose poetry has been published in various anthologies and journals worldwide. Born in London, he now resides in Chippenham, England and is the editor-in-chief of The Haiku Reader. He has authored several poetry collections viz. Does Fish-God Know, The In-Between Season, among others, and been involved as an editor in various haiku-based anthologies The Haiku Foundation Digital Library contains a number of Alan’s books including Forbidden Syllables and Glint as well as the 2019 joint collection The Comfort of Crows. He is the founder and lead tutor of Call of the Page, where he runs international online courses, workshops and events on Japanese forms of verse. Alan is also the founding editor of three journals viz. Blo͞o Outlier Journal, MahMight haiku journal, and The Babylon Sidedoor.
A double Japan Times award winning writer, Summers was filmed by NHK Television (Japan) for ‘Europe meets Japan-Alan’s Haiku Journey’. He is a Pushcart prize nominated poet for haiku and haibun, Best Small Fictions nominated for haibun, and was formerly General Secretary of the British Haiku Society (1998-2000), President of the United Haiku and Tanka Society (2017 to 2021) and was an editor for the multi-award-winning Red Moon Anthologies for best haikai literature between 2000 and 2005. He also happens to be the recipient of a Touchstone Individual Poem Award in 2016 for his poem ‘house clearance.’