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Cicada Forest: An Anthology of Tanka
ISBN: 978-4-04-652019-7 C0092
By: Mariko Kitakubo, translated by Amelia Fielden

Review by: Moira Richards


Cicada Forest is a beautifully made book containing more than 600 tanka presented bilingually with the single vertical line of Japanese kanji on the right-hand pages, and Amelia Fielden's English translations in five line poems on the pages opposite. Mariko Kitakubo began publishing her tanka in 1999 and has been reading her poems regularly as performance poetry since 2002 in Japan, Australia, Canada and the USA. Cicada Forest is her fifth collection of poetry. Amelia Fielden is a professional translator of Japanese and a prolific tanka poet in her own right. She has authored some half-dozen books of her own tanka and has translated or co-translated twice as many books of tanka poetry by contemporary Japanese poets, one of which has been awarded the Donald Keene Prize for Translation of Japanese Literature (Columbia University, New York).

The word tanka means "short song" in Japanese and it is a lyric poetry form intended to be sung, and which has a 1300 year history in Japan. Tanka is a wonderful vehicle which a poet can use to capture single moments of mood, emotion or experience. In the Japanese, tanka are written to a sound pattern comprising thirty-one sound units divided as follows: 5/7/5/7/7. But the salient elements of the Japanese and English languages are too disparate to accurately mimic that form in English and so generally, English tanka are written as short five-line poems with somewhere inside, a caesura or sonnet-like volta. And although they are not usually placed with any sort of sequencing reminiscent of the stanzas of a poem, tanka are often grouped by the poet to reflect various facets of a central theme or event.  

And so the first section of Cicada Forest, which is entitled "rounding the earth's axis" comprises some two dozen tanka centred on a particular time of the protagonist/poet's life. We find no narrative thread to string the poems together; the poet has allowed them to spark off each other by their proximity. Here are just four from that section:

remembering the day
I learned about
the supernova
then, from a chill distance
notification of my disease (24)


mouthless faces
many mouthless faces
in my dreams tonight
now I know
I have a tumor (24)


we won't know
if it's benign
till we operate
I'm nodding as if
this isn't about me (26)


you'll be right,
they'll fix it, for sure
over water
people's words
sliding, slithering 26)

In other sections of the book Mariko Kitakubo's short songs touch on a variety of themes, philosophical musings and reflections of the events of her life such as her memories of her father, the growing to adulthood of her son, and her travels in far parts of the world. Sometimes the tanka pause and group around a topic, sometimes they form a recurring motif or thread of remembrance through the book.

One can also hold this book and flip through the pages, or just let them fall open at random to enjoy whatever poems present themselves. The book is too beautifully made to bear the folding down of the corners of the pages, so my copy is littered with slips of paper to bookmark poems that I want to return to. There is this glimpse of sad quandary,

as I go to rip the photo,
a moments
hesitation &
so recent the memory
of your smiling face (128)

and a bit of disarmingly honest avoidance of the unpleasant:

maybe it's better
not to know the depth
of her wounds
tranquilly I asked
how many sugar lumps (40)

The last section of Cicada Forest comprises a selection of tanka from the poet's 2006 book, On This Same Star. They record snippets of poetry such as these two, of the poets experience and memories of the time when her mother lay for days in a coma before eventually dying:

ah, there's nothing
in particular
I want to talk
with Mother about &
and yet, and yet (180)

after the deep fog
of brain death,
on the grassy plains
might her heart wander? (182)

Mariko Kitakubo also maintains a comprehensive and up to date website http://tanka.kitakubo.com  which tracks her poetry, her publications and performances. It gives a small indication of the extent of the growing reach and interest of tanka outside of Japan today and links to a variety of articles and resources useful to anyone interested in learning more about this centuries-old poetic form.

And to close, one of my favorite poems in Cicada Forest which captures so well my own too-frequent misgivings:

I have no way
of being really sure
about things,
yet my nails are growing
so confidently (28).

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