Friday, May 30, 2014

Poetic Musings: Bruise Tanka by Susan Constable

You have to understand what the form is doing, how it works, before you say, “Now we’re going to make it different ..., we're going to turn it upside down, we're going to move it so it includes something which isn't supposed to be there, we're going to surprise the reader."
-- Margaret Atwood, interview with Geoff Hancock


a large bruise
deep inside the mango
unexpected
the way you turned away
when I needed you most

Simply Haiku, 8:3, Autumn 2011

Susan Constable


Modeled on traditional Japanese tanka, this heartfelt poem is made up of five poetic phrases (equivalent to five ku of 5-7-5-7-7) 1 and structured into two parts (“jo,” the preface, and the main statement) with a pivot (L3). It can be read as either of the following:

a large bruise
deep inside the mango
unexpected

the way you turned away
when I needed you most

or

a large bruise
deep inside the mango

unexpected
the way you turned away
when I needed you most

Structurally speaking, the jo, is typically a natural image or image cluster (“long jo”) that precedes the “main statement” of the poem (Cranston, xxiii). It is common in love poetry, where the jo performs a “valuable imagistic function” (ibid.). In the case of Susan’s tanka, the prefatory image of “a large bruise/ deep inside the mango” is visually stunning and psychologically suggestive. It prepares readers to see  what's lying under the surface.

Jo  may be of two types. In one there is no logical connection between the jo and the main statement of the poem. The connection is “solely based on wordplay” (ibid.). This type is called “mushin” (meaningless) 2. In the other, called “ushin” (meaningful), the prefatory image is “logically metaphorical or at least resonates closely with the emotional point of the poem” (ibid., xxiii-xxiv). In the case of her tanka, Susan uses the ushin jo, combined with the emotionally effective pivotal line, “unexpected,” to build up a metaphoric relationship between the two parts of the poem and to uncover two “big bruises:” one is visible and portrayed in the jo (Ls 1&2), and the other invisible and left on the psyche of the speaker as implied in the main statement (Ls 3-5).

Strategically speaking, through a pivot on the unexpected (L3) to uncover the human relations aspect, Susan’s tanka effectively builds, poetic phrase/line (ku) by poetic phrase/line (ku), to an emotionally powerful ending that has the most weight and reveals the theme of betrayal.

There is no doubt in my mind that Susan's beautifully crafted tanka can be used as a model for beginning poets. It skillfully tells a personal story with a universal theme, reminding me of the following remarks:

To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal. -- Malcolm X

There is no betrayal more wounding than the betrayal of love. It touches us in our most vulnerable spot, that of the helpless child who is totally dependent on another. This child always emerges in any relationship where the possibility of trusting in another person exists. -- Jacqueline Wright


Notes:

1 "The syllabic units of Japanese prosody are known as ku, a term traditionally translated into English as "line," I too call them lines and treat them as such, though this practice has recently been called into question, at least as it applies to tanka... There is ample evidence, however, that the Japanese have always -- or at least since the first treatments on the subject in the eighth century -- thought of the ku as meaningfully distinct units, to which different formal criteria might apply....
-- excerpted from Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume One, The Gem-Glistening Cup, xix

ku (prosodic units of 5 or 7 syllables) ...
-- excerpted from Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume Two, Grasses of Remembrance, xxi

2 Below is an example in which the mushin jo is used:

Azasayumi                        A catalpa bow --
Oshite harusame             Bend it, string it, it will spring
Kyo furinu                        Rain fell today;
Asu sae furaba                 If it rains tomorrow too,
Wakana tsumitemu           I'm off to pick young greens

[This] poem pivots on the word haru, which means "spring" in the sense of putting spring into a bow by stringing it, but also is the name of the season. The jo here is of the type called mushin ("meaningless"); the point of the poem is the pun.
-- excerpted from Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume Two, Grasses of Remembrance, xxiv


References:

Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup,  Stanford University Press, 1998
--, Volume Two, Grasses of Remembrance, Stanford University Press,2006

1 comment:

  1. Appraisal by David Terelinck
    (Given at the 10th Bowerbird Tanka Workshop, 19th October 2013)

    There are true moments of tanka perfection. Those times when a poet pens a poem that connects so strongly with the reader that it becomes indelibly etched into the reader’s consciousness and soul for all time.

    a large bruise
    deep inside the mango
    unexpected
    the way you turned away
    when I needed you most

    Susan Constable

    I first read this tanka in Simply Haiku in May of 2011. It has stayed with me from that moment. I have had the joy of being able to recite it by heart ever since.

    For me this tanka has it all. As a lover of the classical form, the short-long-short-long-long structure is highly appealing. There are no redundant words or phrases and the entire tanka works in harmony to create a powerful piece of writing.

    Specifically it is the choice of words, construction, and powerful imagery and metaphor that make this tanka sing for me. The tanka opens, not just with a bruise, but with a large bruise. This is our first clue to significance of the theme and story behind this poem. Small bruises can be easily covered over; forgotten even. Not so with a large bruise. These are unsightly and are much more difficult to hide or disguise. And large bruises are apt to leave large scars on the psyche, if not also the body.

    And where is this bruise? It is not superficial, something we can see when we first admire the fruit or enter the relationship. But it is hidden, deep down out of sight. Beyond the bounds of where we make daily allowances for the smaller trifles, and say that it doesn’t matter.

    a large bruise
    deep inside the mango

    It leads us to wonder what else is not perfect with this situation and relationship. What else lies hidden? Is this bruise just the tip of the iceberg . . . is there more beneath the surface that we will not see until it is too late and we capsize?

    The third line makes us wonder how this has remained hidden for so long – it is “unexpected” when found. A shock. From the outside this was never envisaged. It looked so ideal, so promising, perhaps even perfect, until the layers were peeled back to reveal this imperfection.

    a large bruise
    deep inside the mango
    unexpected

    The poet then pivots on the unexpected to fully reveal the human element of this tanka. The large bruise, deeply hidden, is a metaphor for a loved one or close friend who has turned away. More than this, it is someone who was trusted, considered faithful, and who should NOT have turned away . . . under any circumstances.

    a large bruise
    deep inside the mango
    unexpected
    the way you turned away

    This bruise runs very deep for another reason. The betrayal becomes complete when we realise this is the one time that the narrator really, intensely and so completely, needed this person to be there – to support them. The time when they were needed the most. There is now no denying the impact this bruise has when discovered.

    a large bruise
    deep inside the mango
    unexpected
    the way you turned away
    when I needed you most

    As shown, this tanka builds, line by line to a powerful ending that carries a strong theme of loss and betrayal. It climaxes to exposes the uncharted human depths of someone we may never really know until we need to call upon them in crisis and then find they are not there. And it raises so many questions about what we should do if someone is not there when we most expect them to be.

    This particular tanka by Susan Constable will stay with me for many years to come. It will be one that I return to again and again for sheer enjoyment, for teaching purposes, and for personal inspiration about constructing excellent tanka.

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