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A Collection of Tanka Poetry written in English according to the Japanese syllabic pattern

David Brazier

Copyright David Brazier 2008 Amida Trust 12 Coventry Road Narborough Leicestershire LE19 2GR UK 0116.2867476 Words, photography, design - David Brazier incorporating four verses written by Caroline Brazier

CONTENTS Page Introduction Across Other Sands Fragility


Baie de Somme


Loire in August Dandelion


Three Crosses


On Mount Madeleine


Summer’s End


Jura Diary


Night Watch




INTRODUCTION In this pamphlet I have gathered together a number of poems written in the tanka style. Much creativity has been stimulated in the history of English literature by translation and exposure to work from sources overseas. This is particularly true in the domain of poetry. Chaucer, who is sometimes regarded as the ‘father of the English language’, was, amongst other things, a translator. His creativity was stimulated by his attempts to render the effects that had been achieved by French poets in the English vernacular. He was also inspired in this by the example of Italian poets including Dante. He not only translated words and meanings, he was also influenced by style and form. In the twentieth century European and American poetry has often been influenced by knowledge of oriental forms, especially the Japanese. People admire the succinct Japanese forms such as the haiku and tanka for the ability they manifest to capture a moment when some particular influence makes its impact felt. The brevity of the form appeals to the pace of modern life, yet the poetry injects into that immediacy a sense of stillness and it is this contrast of peace and urgency that generates the dynamic of these pieces. Japanese is a very different language from English. Where English poetry traditionally has regard for the ‘foot’ as a unit of sound within which there is a single stressed syllable, in Japanese where all syllables tend to be stressed alike, the syllable count itself became the measure of form. A tanka thus is divided into two parts having respectively 17 and 14 syllables. This may sometimes be further broken down into a 5-7-5--7-7 pattern. Rhyme and rhythm may occur but are not essential elements. Internal associations of meaning between words and allusions to earlier well known poems are more common devices by which the Japanese poet seeks to make the work memorable. All this transposes only partially into English. An English tanka may follow the Japanese syllable pattern, but this produces something new, not merely a repetition of the Japanese type. The rhythms of English cannot be ignored and, in some respects, the seven syllable line runs against the grain of naturally spoken English. It is, therefore, sometimes a challenge to find a way to break the rhythm in a manner that is constructive and reveals a deeper harmony. I have personally found this a satisfying exercise. Many of the poems included here were written in France - an additional twist to the multiculturalism of the exercise. Some include explicit Pureland imagery or symbolism, but in most the concern with spiritual depth, the evanescence of human life and the sense of pervading beatitude remains implicit. In addition to the poems included here you may also like to see and contrast those included in the pamphlet called ‘Nineteen Poems’ which records a set of tanka that I presented to the 12th European shin Buddhist Conference in August 2008.

Across Other Sands


Sylvan soldiers stand A poplar guard of honour ‘Cross Picardy’s land Their crests bob faint bows toward The becalmed dead ‘neath their sand.

White chrysanthemums off set the dark sky above yet in his fond dream it had been her spread white frock beneath a sky of azure.

Elsewhere the world burns With flames of hate rekindled Across other sands Where cedars famed of old No longer now bear witness

He picked one sweet bloom held tight its fragility whispering her name as if to conjure the dead for she knows him now no more.

All the world’s on fire With the fire of greed, say I, With the fire of hate Who will to nirvana go? Who will bury all this woe? The corn is golden The woodlands are all at peace In Picardy now Poplars continue to bow To those interred at their feet.

Written 17 September 2007 The chrysanthemum is a religious symbol in Japan and white is the colour of death in Buddhism.

Written in northern France while thinking of wars past and present there and in the Lebanon, a country famous in antiquity for its cedar trees.


Baie de Somme In the Baie de Somme desolate marshland harbours sanctuaried birds. Eyes at rest on green flatland, we too find respite.

The church bell for mass competes with amorous doves, to announce morning. Mournful gulls reclaim the sands. Last night's revellers sleep on.

The seascape's pure jade, smooth as lapis lazuli. Black cormorant fish and in the distance, mist rises. Is it real, that other shore?

Are those clamorous doves not the kalavinka birds; the gulls, white lotus buds? Little bell, ding dong, ding dong, do you sing Amida's song?

As in the pure land the houses of Cayeux sur Mer are decked out with net. Flowers take the place of jewels for the summer festival.

Amorous revellers still doze on, to be refreshed in sleep's oasis. competing clamour of life falls away, ding dong, ding dong.

Egrets on the mud, sociable along the shore, show off their fine plumes. Forget old wars, here at last this is sanctuaried land.

And still the white gulls blossom along the sea edge as the tide is turned. The doves spread their wings and fly languidly toward the West.

Holiday makers decorative, like fire flies, promenade at dusk. Their defiance of grey skys prompts the shy moon to peep out.

This poem and the six which follow form a sequence all written in France in August and September 2002. All seven poems employ the tanka syllable pattern. In principle, each verse can stand alone as can each block of four verses. Many of these poems contain allusions to a variety of Pureland Buddhist symbolism. This first poem includes the kalavinka birds who live in the paradise of Amida Buddha far away to the West, a paradise protected by seven encompassing nets of jewels. There are also allusions to the Somme as a venue of some of the most fierce fighting in the First World War.

Across the water, tranquil estuary by day, neon lights glitter. field birds went home at twilight gulls stay up late for tit bits. At the water's edge they pause, shall he take her hand, become young sweet-hearts? The exquisite moment past they share sweet spun candy floss. The litter of night the morning tide will remove so worry not now what fire flies will do by day when the moon has gone away.


Loire in August


Life has her reasons; existence knows its own way; our role is minor: like servants at the big house though poor we live amidst fine things

Brown heads, downy soft, dandelion like kitten fur, perfect transient spheres; and then, gone in a moment only dead brown stalks remain

See the pebbles strewn across the rough dirt trackway: no work of art they; and yet... What more can I say? There's fine beauty in them too.

Dandelion clocks half blown away by the wind are you less perfect in your asymetric charm? Decay is perfection's crown.

Sunflower heads now ripe, bending under the fullness of August's excess seem ragged and past their prime yet somehow still opulent.

Seeking perfection? Surely this will miss the point. the seed heads simply distribute on the wind their own Amida wisdom.

No verse could capture, the full moon at Apremont that summer evening, but the memory remains like a bond between old friends

Too clever for a dandelion simpleton, seed already shed. wind, seed, head and all are gone dancing gaily in the west.

Along the Loire, around river and canal gentle fen extends. The hand of man and nature long have here worked side by side.

On Mount Madeine, amid bilberries and firs tree black horizons, row upon dark row, recede, into charcoal sunset mist

A rough cobbled road, ends abruptly at the water. How old it must be! Fallen cut stones lie around: the old bridge nature took down.

Over to the west pink traces still edge the clouds as evening falls. Such beauty given freely what mind could not awaken?

Midges swarm in the heat, untiringly cascading above reflective water. Larger beings philosophize along the margins of life.

A break in the brush brings the eye to trodden gorse behind the tree frieze. Later we see them - red deer in the distance, nostrils up.

Up river we go, enjoying late summer fruit and vistas of calm. Only the cool morning mist warns of autumn yet to come.

We shared a hut there and ate the wild bilberries gathered on the hill like hermits drinking nectar from a cup forever full.


Three Crosses Yet never alone, beneath the sky bridging sun though it fall and die. Never alone, mocking moon, never in all our long days.

Carnal jealousy foremost among blind passions keeps us wedded here. What wounds we inflict for it what senseless grief we suffer.

Will you make a cross and nail yourself upon it? Far from religion that is but the world's own way commuting into Hades.

Life is so simple yet blind passion never stops digging like the mole: when our life's like a smooth lawn piles of dirt, mole's work, appears.

Sentient beings are too serious by far to want to be saved. Quan Yin can rest from her play and sing solitary songs.

Down in the hollow three crosses are still standing by the damp green ferns. Nature will reclaim them soon but after we are all long gone.

Random miracles, like chimes of wind bell, keep her company. Our sins turned into blossom perfume her hidden bower.

Wounds in the sage's side, deep carnal penetration, are you bleeding still? Life and death are ever new. We who yet live rise again.

Here in the hollow three simple wooden crosses witness earlier faith, but the tree clad slopes remember a more ancient holy lore. On the middle cross, starkly hangs Christ crucified making passers pause. Empty crosses left and right invite one to a dire choice. This poem was written after coming across three crosses in the depths of a forest in France while on a walk. Evidently the site had been significant long in the past though it was now completely overgrown by coniferous trees. The three crosses stood in the deep dark of the forest now, though, presumably, they once stood in open country. There are allusions in the poem to the faith of the people who erected the crosses, the Pureland faith of Caroline and myself, and the ‘faith’ of people who nowadays live busy, secular lives.

The old religion, keenly knowing all our ill, celebrated death. The modern world looks away outfaced by that earthy creed. We pause in respect; bow to continuity in the line of faith. One thief has faith, one has not, Amida will take them all.


On Mount Madeleine Sudden summer rain catches us berry picking. Jewels from the sky translucent or of silver mingle with earth's dark blue pearls.

After the descent a mellower clime awaits in the warm valley. Some gods are fierce, some softer, some give us pause, some hold us.

Mountains hereabouts have a timeless quality in their dark green cloak. How relaxing it can be to find one's irrelevance.

Within her green screen she considers our courtship singing endless song. Stream goddess in the valley have you always been so coy?

Clack, clang, the goat bells' dischordant celebration halts us in our tracks. We cannot help admiring their shiny flanks as they turn.

Ash keys hang thickly, above sinuous white trunks. and, along the hedge, dappled fruit of summer's end, wild apples fill a bent bough.

Berries from our bag, trophies of the mountainside, taste so exquisite. What sophisticated gain could match that sharp tastefulness?

Berries, black and full, fall to a gentle touch. when you dare the thorns. Happy berries we that fell into this beauteous spot.

Ahead in the mist, looms the crag, Mount St Vincent. Slowly we ascend Through wet leaves, wet under growth, wet earth, wet rock, wet world, oh. Reaching a shoulder the summit must be quite close, but we are deceived. Criss cross ways fool us once more, then, at last, the one true steep path! Giddy from the height by ancient path ascending we reach old ruins of the summit hermitage braving the fearsome abyss Who prayed on this spot beside the wet precipice so close to heaven? What power of old coerced those souls and ours to venture?


Summer’s End In striped livery, with an insistent message, hover flies attend portraits of intensity focussed on a single spot.

Great pans of beetroot ferociously bubble spattering red juice like a gory sacrifice as the chutney is prepared.

The grasshoppers chirp late into the evening competing with frogs. "Summer's almost gone", they sing. Are their hearts heavy like mine?

Tasks of summer's end: fruit to preserve, wood to cut, living close to earth.. These days will live on with us when to cities we return.

Recent wet weather has brought out swarms of house flies. spiders replenish their larders before winter. For which ones should I lament?

Now dark has fallen. All has settled into calm. Labelled chutney pots, Stoutly arrayed, wear their fine regimental uniform.

In the fading light we wash the day's dishes outside while the sweet sly cat takes the opportunity to raid the kitchen for snacks.

Pleasantly tired at the end of a long day we smile and relax. There's hot chocolate on the stove Namo Amida, Namo...

In a few days time we will depart for the east thence back to England. This old house will be empty but we'll have such memories. Namo Amida. Faith has infected us all. Namo Amida... like the plaintive oriole from a hidden haunt you call . Joy will go with us spring up and spring up anew source unquenchable. Mysteriously it comes secretly it leads us on. Summer's all but done and melancholy sweetness quietly pervades. Yet there's a light around us that's unmeasurably kind.


Jura Diary Jura's limestone faces watch our progress up the gorge. The lake's flat surface faintly ripples where fish break, rising from their water world.

Descending we pause by a monumental cross to see the vista. The far horizon is white. are those clouds or higher peaks?

Many shades of green make a balm for tired eyes: lake, banks, trees, hills rise. Here life's motion is slower so we too pause to write verse.

In forest clearings lush natural gardens boast pink autumn croceus. The taste of wild strawberries is sharp as the precipice.

The hornbeam's tough bark is coated with shaggy moss. 'Midst the fine veined leaves pagodas of winged seed pods are summer's reliquaries.

Oh, silent mountains are you sad to see us go, or indifferent? Your sadness hangs eternal as wraiths of mist on blue hills.

September the first: a corner of the year turns. In a somber mood we watch the brown leaves drift down and sense autumn in our bones.

Soon the hills will change taking on winter's colours and we will be gone; timelessness in our pockets bilberry stain on our tongues.

At festival time in a high mountain village we stop for the night. Amidst alps, above the crags, cow bells play atonal tunes. Here the roofs have teeth to impede cascading snow during winter thaws. As yet, green sward covers all, but there's a chill in the air. Sat on the step we wait for La Poste to open to send home our news. Things move at a slow pace here. We may be waiting some time. We talk of feelings, happy and melancholy, the past returning. Forecasting the heart's quick turns is harder than the weather.


Night Watch In bleak solitude, tending a bright fire of coals, the watchman sits long. A friend comes by and pauses to share a word in the warmth.

As the small hours come memories flit through the dark like stars coming out. The moon god takes possession of his glittering domain.

Two old frames of men lean over the bed of fire shutting out the night. The flickering coals also speak of warm life surviving.

Friends all departed the conversation goes on between his own voices huddled together perforce under his warm outer wrap.

An intimate pair the two stalwarts compare notes on times long gone by. Then out of the closed darkness old Jason comes carrying logs.

The comrades he knew, the enemies he fought with, women he loved. What they made of him, he them, will it endure life’s winter?

An upsurge of joy, a friend well met in the night, promise of heaven. There’s no better paradise than friends meeting heart to heart.

He regards the flames, each unique, gone in moments, diamond-like, and rare as the chance undertakings that made of him what he is.

The fire animates conversation and jesting camaraderie. Share your memory and dream, for dreams outlive the teller.

Tending the hot coals as one might a love affair on which all depends he wonders was he ever so true to a paramour.

Fireside company lights up the dancing shadows Jove’s animations. Yet visitors shall move on and once more he sits alone.

Throwing in a stick, the excitement of a love flames up in his chest. He watches it burn away crumbling to ashes and smoke.

Constellations turn, silent solitude thickens worries of the day drop away and make new space for old cherished reflections.

There is a faint glow on the far horizon now betokening day. New demands begin to whirl, but his soul prefers the dark.

In the colourless monochrome of midnight pricked with silver dots, once in a while, high above, a shooting star will intrude.

Soon the fire will die and the watchman go to rest. As others awake he will continue his dream while they burn coals of their own.


Waiting Two grey heron fish by the bridge at Valigny, likewise two grey men; atop the water haze hangs like frosted passion waiting

A Collection of Tanka  

Poems written in English according to the Japanese syllabic pattern

A Collection of Tanka  

Poems written in English according to the Japanese syllabic pattern