A Hundred Gourds 2:4 September 2013
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Review of Margaret Chula Just This

By Susan Constable

book cover

Just This, a collection of tanka by Margaret Chula,
Mountains and Rivers Press, Eugene, Oregon, 2013,
92 pages; 8-1/2” x 5-1/2”, perfect bound.
Price $16.00 from the publisher at
ISBN 978-0-9793204-9-1

Just This is Margaret Chula’s second full-length tanka collection. Visually attractive, both inside and out, it’s comprised of 100 poems, following the Japanese tradition, and is divided into five sections of twenty tanka each. The book begins with an informative introduction by Ameilia Fielden, a well-known Australian tanka poet and translator of Japanese poetry, and concludes with a useful index, alphabetically arranged by first lines.

Each section of the book begins with a waka from The Ink Dark Moon, Tanka by Women Poets of the Japanese Court. These poems, written by either Izumi Shikibu or Ono no Komachi, were translated into English by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani.

The Japanese influence in Just This is apparent, not only in the translated waka, but also in several of Margaret’s own poems. This one, written for Murasaki Shikibu, is one of my favourites:

growing profusely
by her Kyoto grave
purple murasaki berries
I want to swallow one
    dye my heart purple

The indented final line substitutes for punctuation after Line 4, provides a slightly longer pause for the reader to contemplate what’s come before, and adds emphasis to the poem’s conclusion.

Most of Margaret’s poems are written with a similar two-part structure, absolutely minimal punctuation, and reflect on both human life and the natural world. Having lived in Kyoto for 12 years and with a passion for gardening and flower arranging, it’s understandable that many of her tanka include botanical images and scents. The following one, which actually opens the collection, exemplifies this structure:

late summer
in the garden
just before dusk
touching leaves and flowers
as I never touched you

Typical of the vast majority of her work, this tanka uses everyday language and focuses on common images. There’s more to it than simple description, however, for we feel the passage of time in the opening line and the poet’s sense of regret in the final one. Although there’s some room for interpretation, there’s a strong sense that death has intervened.

About 25% of Margaret’s tanka use indentation to either replace punctuation or to separate two parts of the poem. I must admit that I don’t understand the reasons for some of the visual formats she employs. For instance:

first date
   at the drive-in
     a bag of popcorn
   between us
all those unpopped kernels

Does the arched left margin signify an arm draped around the poet’s shoulder? Or does the white space on the left represent the outline of the popcorn bag? Or perhaps there’s a crescent moon outside the car window. Two of my favourite tanka in the collection, however, use this same arc very effectively, in my opinion.

yesterday’s desires
   what were they?
     a vase
   without flowers
holds only itself

months after he’s gone
the bar of Ivory soap
   in his bathroom
     still holding
the shape of his hands

In the first one, I see the outline of the empty vase and, in the second, the edge of the bar of soap worn smoothly away. But it’s the simplicity of words, the clear imagery and scents, the rhythm and sounds, as well as the emotional aspects of these tanka that grab my attention. It’s not by accident that these things all come together to make a cohesive whole. It takes talent as well as a lot of practise to draw readers into your experience in order that they share your emotional response to a situation.

Whether she writes about loss, grief, love, regret, or aging, Margaret does not hide behind her poetry. Instead, she reveals much of herself in the themes she explores. Of course, what is written may not be the entire truth, but since what she writes is believable, we tend to trust what she has to say.

reaching the age
of being ignored
what sweet delight
when a mockingbird
answers my call

my parents and in-laws
moving toward senility
there’s no one
I need to impress

Those who have reached “a certain age” will relate to the first tanka immediately. Perhaps it wasn’t a mockingbird, but we know the word choice is perfect for this poem.

Although the second tanka concerns the sorrow of age-related illness, Margaret takes an honest look at herself and shares her sense of discovery and sense of humour.

Just This is a collection of tanka that makes the art of writing them look deceptively simple. Even though I’ve read the poems numerous times, I continue to find new insights and hidden metaphors. Like the collection itself, I’ll end with the title poem – a memorable tanka that leaves us reflecting on our past and recognizing what brings joy to our own lives. Perhaps it’s the most important message of all.

from the garden
a handful of lilacs
and mint for my tea
lilt of a Mozart concerto
just this, just this

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