Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Poet's Roving Thoughts: Review of This Short Life by Jenny Ward Angyal

(First published in Skylark, 3:1, Summer 2015 and reprinted here by kind permission from NeverEnding Story contributor, Jenny Ward Angyal)

Serving Sadness at the Waffle Shop
A Review of This Short Life: Minimalist Tanka by Sanford Goldstein

Keibooks, Perryville, MD, 2014, 164 pages, perfect bound paperback, 6 x 9, afterword by M. Kei. ISBN 978-1494845599. $15.00.

“A poet is by the very nature of things a man who lives with entire sincerity . . . “

 —W. B. Yeats

Decades ago, Sanford Goldstein, often considered a founding father of English-language tanka, expressed the wish that “my own single line will spring fully armed from the head of Zeus.” (Gaijin Aesthetics, 1983.) The image seems akin to his definition of “minimalism” in the introduction to his latest book, This Short Life: Minimalist Tanka, which he has published at the age of 88. Many poems in this volume are quite brief— as few as nine syllables— but others range up to at least 28. When he calls his tanka “minimalist,” Goldstein is not referring to the number of words or syllables— he has always been more concerned with content than with counting. Instead, he observes that “concentration is limited,” and that when we are preoccupied with counting syllables or adjusting line lengths, “something happen[s] to the original feeling we had.”

No, minimalism is a state of mind. Something appears in the mind and before one realizes it the poem has been formed. Of course it may be revised or rewritten at times, but the core of the image remains. And I think spontaneity is the major clue.

Thus by “minimalist tanka,” Goldstein means tanka that spring fully armed from the head of the poet, uncontrived and unvarnished; direct, genuine expressions of the poet’s lived experience. He credits Takuboku with teaching him that “tanka are a diary of the emotional changes in a poet’s life” (This Penny World, 2005), and he has long endeavored to express that emotional life in the simplest possible language. In This Tanka World (1977), he wrote that when a colleague “calls my language commonplace, the poems capable of being written by anyone, I regard this as lovely praise.” Well— “anyone” may be capable of jotting diary entries in five lines, but few writers can sustain across decades the honesty, clarity and reflective depth of Goldstein’s poems. His latest book is no exception.

not just
winter description
oh, a minimalist depth
is what I want

... and depth is what he often achieves. The poems in This Short Life— over 350 of them— were drawn from Goldstein’s yearly tanka notebook for 2008, suggesting that he wrote on average one poem a day, every day. Naturally not every tanka in the collection attains equal “depth,” but Goldstein’s willingness to keep his tanka-mind alert, and to spill directly into tanka-form the little things of daily life that most of us ignore— this willingness often allows him to capture the profound hidden in the mundane. Cumulatively, the poems present the candid and multi-faceted record of a life lived in keen awareness of each passing moment.

the wind
might as well take
these five lines down,
so fleeting,
the infinitesimal fraction of now

Anyone who has been alive and awake for a quarter of Goldstein’s years will have noticed that even the happiest of lives is tinged with sadness. Spilling his tanka in coffee shops, Goldstein captures again and again the bittersweet flavor that makes us treasure every moment, every poem.

to find chocolate
with my coffee,
and the waitress
fills my cup again

Such a simple observation, but so much is left unsaid about loneliness, about kindness, about connection. Human loneliness and its compensations are threads that run throughout the nine loosely thematic sections of the book, the first of which is called “Kids.”

my son heaps
bowl on bowl
with rice,
head down
he devours the world

how short
my son’s
miss you,
at the close of
today’s letter

Any parent can identify with these two brief, simple poems, which together poignantly express the perennial tension between wanting to send our children forth to “devour the world” and wanting to hold them close.

my kid
carrying it
her lopsided

Here a concrete description of a young child’s artwork, perhaps a proud offering for Valentine’s Day, is transmuted into a metaphor for the whole human condition— which of us does not carry a “lopsided heart”?

The thread of loneliness continues through the following section, ironically entitled “Minimalist Sexuality.”

in this April light
tells me
this celibacy
will last and last

Goldstein’s honesty about himself is blunt and unsparing:

I spit
on tonight’s lonely
I floss,
I scribble poems

Loneliness and its compensations: Goldstein does not hesitate to write about writing, a topic many poets avoid. But for this poet, tanka is not a game, a hobby, or an art pursued for its own sake. It is a lifeline and he explores its limitations and its power.

a fall universe
into five lines down,
pen in hand,
the seaside bench hard

I want to push
these lines out,
out into this October light
to the very edge!

To cram a universe into five lines, to push to the very edge of what the form can do, the poet must be willing to spill thousands of tanka. Those of us among his readers who also attempt to write— those of us who tend to think “Oh, I already wrote about that,” and then stop— we might learn something from Goldstein’s willingness to return to the same themes, the same images, even the same words, in multiple poems. In the section entitled “Death,” for instance, he gives us these two poignant poems:

as rain,
as desire,
I see her
cloth-covered face

that white cloth
covering her face
again remembered,
sixteen years

... which beautifully capture the way in which grief resurges when we least expect it, even after many years. On neighboring pages Goldstein offers two more poems that use the image of “her cloth-covered face,” two others that mention “sixteen years,” and two more that speak of the death of “that young bride.” It is as if he holds an experience up to the light and examines its every facet, trying again and again to grasp its essence and to express the inexpressible. The many similar poems resonate against each other, ringing the experience into the depths of the reader’s memory as it rings in the poet’s— and keeping alive “chains of connection:”

almost broken,
chains of connection,
some having died,
some corridor silent

Goldstein also shares his acute perception of what other mysteries may lie hidden under a white cloth:

as if from behind
a magician’s cloth
radiant snow

Living with nerve endings equally exposed to sorrow and to beauty, Goldstein is denied the consolations of conventional religious faith. Among his most resonant attempts to cram the paradoxical universe into five lines occur in the section called “Zen, God, Faith, Doubt.”

I picked up
and dropped them off,
so many bundles
of religious regret

He is unable to find “heavenly belief” in either the Judaism of his own background or in the Zen of his adopted country, Japan. And yet . . .

how neat
the straw slippers
at the Zen meeting,
they speak
the wordless

... just as the poet himself attempts to “speak the wordless” in poems that employ the bare minimum of words. The power of that bare-bones approach to poetry— to life— is reflected in the section entitled “Cleanliness, Whiteness, Purity.”

to clean
even a closet,
a bedroom floor,
this October light
steadies me

my colleague
invites me in
for tea,
we lift the white bowls

In the simplicity of a life scrubbed down to the essence, fewer and fewer words are needed to forge “chains of connection

It is thought-provoking that the poet chose to include the following poignant poem in the section “Cleanliness, Whiteness, Purity,” rather than in “Food, Drinks,” or “Kids:”

I want
to tip
my daughter,
she serves sadness
at the waffle shop

Aware that sticky sweetness cannot nourish us, Goldstein offers instead the purifying flame of existential sadness.

my sad now
out to dry,
how white
this April sky-light

In his introduction to This Short Life, Goldstein writes “I offer these [poems] to my readers in what may perhaps be my last book, though I said that about my previous book . . . [and] here I am again . . . “

it’s useless
I know
and still, still,
these five
lines down

is close enough
for death,
and still, still,
a few people say stay

Readers of This Short Life will surely echo those “few people” who say “stay”— and, despite the poet’s modesty, readers can assure Sanford Goldstein that his life-long practice of deep and honest exploration of his life through tanka is far from useless.

(Editor's Note: for more information about minimalist tanka and haiku, see "Cool Announcement: A New Release, micro haiku: three to nine syllables by George Swede" and "To the Lighthouse: Minimalist Tanka, not a word missing, not a word to be added")

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