Postcards from the Dead Letter Office
By Dawn Manning
69 pp. $14.99
Tanka, Dawn Manning explains in her introduction to these poems, is a very old form of Japanese lyric poetry, dating back more than 1,300 years. It is more expansive than the later haiku form, boasting 31 sound units (called on) compared to haiku's mere 17. Those 17 syllables are admirably concise. But a 31-syllable tanka, Manning points put, "can feel long, so it is more accurate to think of a tanka as a five-line poem that can be said in about two breaths."
And that is the form of tanka on display here, in what amount to suites - 14 of them - with a more conventional poem serving as emcee for each (except one introduced by double tanka).
Among those introductory poems is a cherita, consisting of a one-line stanza, followed by a two-line stanza, and concluding with a three-line stanza - five lines in all, just like tanka. "The Mummy's Cherita" concerns Ötzi, the Ice Man found on the alpine border between Austria and Italy. It is the prelude to a suite of Tyrolean tanka, one of which gives a good idea of what these little poems are like:
I lost the knell and bleat
of the goat path,
felt my way along
a braille of edelweiss
to the rock face of a canto
A lot is packed into those 25 words, the sound of the goats' bleats and bells (which fall silent), the texture of the meadow (felt though unseen), and the resistance of that mysterious canto.
Manning weaves an intricate tapestry out of the bits and pieces of human performance and the tension that so often marks it, putting precise images and phrases into concise but intricate counterpoint. Consider one of the Venetian tanka in the suite titled "Dead Letters I":
we feel our way through
cathedral ribs arched along
canals like beached whales,
each one of us a Jonah
seeking out a second chance
You won't find a better snapshot of religion's cultural dimension than that.
These poems have surprising emotional and topical range. The last of the autumn tanka that make up the suite titled "Dead Letters II" can serve as representative:
lay down your sugar-rimmed skull
in my empty bed,
my moon - my
moth-eaten flame, my
cracked song of frost.
This is the concision of the crystal.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue." E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.