Turning My Chair

Turning My Chair

Pat Shelley

Pat Shelley was one of the foremost pioneers for tanka poetry in English, and this book, Turning My Chair, is her crowning achievement. It features 90 of her finest tanka poems that she called little songs of celebration, interspersed with a dozen of her minimalist line drawings. With her careful selection and sequencing of poems and artwork until just before she died, the book was published in the spring of 1997, three months after she passed away. Winner of a 1998 Merit Book Award for tanka (for books published in 1997) from the Haiku Society of America.


I tell my guardian angel

I’ll happily die

in April

alas, each April comes

and I tell her I’m not ready


I leave these poems

testament

that I was here

also these white roses

azaleas and chrysanthemum


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1997, perfectbound, 64 pages, 7 x 10 inches, ISBN 978-1-878798-16-2


  • Illustrations by the author.

  • “‘My tanka,’ Pat Shelley intones in this book’s preface, ‘have no order in terms of literal time . . . and drift along as if time were all of a piece.’ At once moving and joyous, these poems reveal a life deeply felt. Written in the venerable Japanese tanka form, they brim with piercing images, with wry observations. Her poems are consistently honest, authentic, and self-assured. For many years Pat Shelley was a librarian in Saratoga, California. An artist as well as a poet, she served as tanka editor for Woodnotes, and won the 1995 Chime Award [from the Haiku Poets of Northern California].” —from the back cover

  • “My tanka have no order in terms of linear time. They are little parts of my life. They start where they start and drift along as if time were all of a piece, and I don’t know what comes first—young days, old days, sorrow, joy, the present moment. What comes next may have already happened, and I haven’t got there yet.” —the book’s entire introduction

Pat Shelley, a slight, private woman of patrician bearing and taste, was born in 1910 in San Francisco, and spent her girlhood there and in Los Angeles. She and her first husband, Perry Richmond, raised their two sons, Ted and Ron, in Pacific Grove. “My children come first, you understand . . .” she often said. When her marriage ended in 1947, Pat moved to San Jose and took up her next love—books. She later became the Saratoga Library’s children’s librarian, where every week with puppets and stories she enchanted the local children. All her life she also enjoyed pen and ink sketching and watercolors. In 1952 Pat married Richard Shelley. Their romance never ended. Even after his death in 1980 his spirit stayed close to her. At the Eichler house they shared in Saratoga, Richard created the garden that often inspired her poetry. After Richard died, Pat dedicated herself to her writing. In addition to her poetry, she also published many short stories and wrote a novel as well as a history of Saratoga. Her books include two volumes of poetry, As I Go in 1976, and Glass Eye in 1982. Later, in 1992, Pat published The Rice Papers, a book featuring tanka and haibun. That book included her artwork, as do all her books. Pat’s poetry also appears in several anthologies. Zen poems, haiku, and especially tanka matched her aesthetic of a spare delicateness combined with a touch of romance, a keen sense of loss, and a wry humor. “Tanka,” she once wrote, “is about our everyday lives in their smallest happenings, a little song of celebration.” Indeed, her poetry celebrates warm relationships with her pets (finches, a cat, and several dogs) as well as with friends, family, neighbors, and nature. Pat was still living in her Saratoga home when she died on December 28, 1996.

Biographical sketch by Patricia Moran Machmiller, and photo by June Hopper Hymas, both from the book.