The Uses of Tanka

by Naomi Beth Wakan

In Heian times,

tanka were sweet confirmations

between courtier lovers

of deeds done and to be done.

And also of court rapists,

for dark chambers and

many layers of kimono

hid identities, so seducers

were never quite sure that

they had entered the right woman.

Even in such cases of mistake,

the next morning the maiden

would receive a token tanka

speaking of her long hair perhaps,

and other matters, and it would be

attached to the prescribed branch

from say a flowering cherry.

She, in return, whether mad with anger,

sulking, or perhaps with a small smile,

would be obliged to also write a tanka,

in response, commenting on the situation,

and send it along with maybe

a late-blooming plum blossom.

A few years later both women,

whether seduced, or once loved,

might be found writing more acerbic tanka

complaining of neglect, or at least

that the dwelling he had provided

for them was not up to par.

Tanka-writing would also be called for

when noblemen, at time of banishment,

(maybe for a political misstep, or

for the seduction of the Emperor’s favourite)

thought sadly of the Capitol

they would be leaving for say

the beaches of Suma (always a good place

for writing mournful tanka of exile).

These days, I write tanka

when my haiku get uppity

with the conceit that they have

nailed the moment to the page.

I slap them with two extra lines,

reminding them that all things pass,

particularly the “here and now”

and even if things don’t pass

as quickly as we would like,

it’s all illusory anyway.

Yes, tanka are useful for times

such as these.

From And After 80, by Naomi Beth Wakan, Toronto: Bevalia Press, 2013, pages 58–59.