Only the Bulbs

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 5:4, December 2004, page 15.

Only the Bulbs. The Grand Central Station Tanka Café. New York, New York, 2004. 32 pages, 24 tanka by six poets, with two illustrations. Available for $4.00 postpaid from Allen M. Terdiman, 2 Indian Cove Road, Mamaroneck, NY 10543.

The Grand Central Station Tanka Café, a tanka group that meets monthly in New York City, seems to be closely modeled after the same city’s successful Spring Street haiku group. Both groups have small but dedicated memberships, and both publish annual collections of the best work by their members—and both sport the inviting size of 5½ by 4¼ inches. The newest book from the Grand Central Station Tanka Café, titled Only the Bulbs, is dedicated to the son of member Marian Smith Sharpe, who died of cancer in 2004 in his 46th year, and this difficult event pervades the tanka of Marian Smith Sharpe, which starts out the collection:

IV lines

relieve his pain

release oxygen—

my son’s bruised hand

touches my own

Each of the six poets in this book offers four tanka, one to a page. Death or absence appears throughout the book, continuing in at least one of Peggy Heinrich’s poems:

Fresh sea breeze—

limbs of the mimosa

you planted

now long enough

to wave

Not all the poems are about death, but this theme will likely strike most readers prominently. Dorothy McLaughlin provides a further example:

past the high-rise condo

that replaced their first home

we follow the hearse

bring Mother’s body

to Father’s grave

Here’s a selection from Pamela Miller Ness, an implied death:

First frost—

surrounded by catalogues

I chart

the spring garden

she would have planted.

Christine Shook’s four tanka are not about death, but this poem talks of a passage from one world to another, a kind of dying:


before the dream ends

I lie still

trying to return

before it slips away

Retired doctor Allen M. Terdiman weighs in on the subject of death to close the volume:

you were twenty three

when you died with no diagnosis—

forty years later

I talk with you

about every patient

Many other poems are about death, but a significant number are not, adding balance and range to this understated anthology. Somehow, too, the book does not feel dark or depressing, and makes for a pleasing though sometimes sobering read, complete with illustrations by Merrill Ann Gonzales and bios of each contributor. The cover illustration of bulbs is complemented by the final illustration of a bulb in bloom, giving the book, as with the book’s title poem by Marian Smith Sharpe, a relieving sense of hope:


covers the oak

and fallen birdfeeder—

only the bulbs

are safe