The study of traditional Japanese poetry quickly leads any devotee to discover that its heart lies in sharing and harmonious collaboration. The renga and renku forms that predate haiku and tanka have been practiced as a social activity for centuries, where two or more participants take turns offering short verses in response to preceding verses. If one’s partner is slated to compose a treasured moon or cherry verse, one is obliged to write a quieter verse just before it so that the moon may shine its brightest or the blossoms may smell their sweetest. It’s a dance, a leading and following that generates a graceful flow. Renga and renku grew out of the waka tradition. Waka later became known as tanka, which are the featured poems in this book. Renga and renku also begat hokku, the starting verse that became an independent verse form we know as haiku, which we find in the rengay verses that harmonize with this book’s tanka sequences. Through all of these poems runs a deeply respectful and responsive sense of collaboration, the reader further collaborating with the author of each individually penned verse to “finish” the poem in his or her mind and heart.
It’s this spirit of communion we find in A Shared Umbrella, even in the book’s title. Beverley George and David Terelinck take turns leading a poetic dance and invite you to join them. What follows are ten tanka sequences written responsively between two skilled Australian writers. Interspersed are thirteen collaborative pieces known as rengay, a modern, Western form of linked verse limited to six haiku and haiku-like verses that develop a central theme. Yet they are like tanka, too, in that any pair of three-line and two-line verses becomes a sort of tanka, written by two poets instead of one, harkening back to the tanka-like effect of adjacent verses in renga and renku.
In this book’s rengay, as with the tanka sequences, the verses play off each other with delight or somberness, taking care to truly respond to each previous verse, making a larger whole, rather than merely taking a turn. For example, in the rengay that concludes this collection, we move from distant time zones in the first verse to a phone call in the second verse that erases distance. That second verse also has an armchair, which connects in the third verse to photos in which two people have elbows locked together. The shared umbrella in the fourth verse shelters them, with the implication of their elbows still being locked, as they trace lines together on a map. From there we are told that this friendship has never lost its way, which connects to following a good map and to the bridging of distance. Indeed, the travels shared here are both literal and figurative. And in the final verse we are back home, in separate homes, reveling in the gifts given to each other. The cup or book or pen that one friend gives to the other is not simply used but cradled.
Cradling unfolds throughout this book. There’s a cherishing of one poet for the other, of one poet for the other poet’s verses. This cradling is felt one verse at a time as these writers consider what is offered them, respect it, extend it, and sometimes surprise us with fresh interpretations and new directions. Thus we see harmonies, threads of connection, convergences, mingled breath, healing, travelling in tandem, and umbrellas that are shared. I draw these commonalities from the titles of the collaborations that follow, even while they also explore other themes and moods.
Ki no Tsurayuki’s famous preface to the Kokinshū, the first Japanese Imperial waka anthology of 905, begins by saying that “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.” Hearts are revealed over and again in the links between each of the verses here. It is said that a goal of Japanese linked verse is to taste all of life, to go here and there to reflect every aspect of what it means to be human. We find that full tasting of life in these poems, in every successive verse, as each poem reveals the human heart, not just in a generic sense but the very personal hearts of these two poetic dancers. Another goal of Japanese linked verse, perhaps a deeper one, is harmony—and it seems no accident that this book’s opening sequence has that title. Its first two verses speak of blending and alchemy, the gifts of friendship, and how “differences forge the spaces in which harmonies reside.” These poets are not afraid of differences in their celebration of harmonies. The most important harmony is the one between the hearts of Beverley and David, two poet friends who have found, in their poems, a shared umbrella.
Michael Dylan Welch
How to Order: To order this book, you can pay David Terelinck via PayPal at email@example.com. Prices are $16 AUD within Australia, $18 AUD (or $20 NZD) to New Zealand, and $20 AUD (or $16 USD) to the United States, United Kingdom, and the rest of world (all prices include postage and handling, which makes this a superb deal). Read a report about the launch reading for this book.