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.