This Hunger, Tissue-Thin

First published in Ribbons (need to confirm the issue), 2008. Originally written in February and May of 2008.

Larry Kimmel. This Hunger, Tissue-Thin: New and Selected Tanka 1995–2005. Preface by Sanford Goldstein. Introduction by Linda Jeannette Ward. Afterword by Larry Kimmel. Baltimore: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007. 177 tanka, 978-0-6151-8246-9, 6 by 9 inches, 120 pages, perfectbound, $17.95 from Lulu [no longer available].

You may have noticed that a regular number of tanka book reviews seem intent on praising the book as the best thing since sliced pivot words. Or they use the book to launch into another definition of tanka or a discussion thereof, bent on determining that this or that book takes the poetry in this or that terrific and splendid new direction and how wonderful the poet is for doing so. And how even more wonderful the reviewer must be for noticing, even if it might not be true. Unfortunately, amid all such posturing and belly-rubbing, the real art sometimes lies neglected, along with the purpose of that art—to enjoy the poetry, in whatever form that enjoyment might take. In that spirit, I take a more pleasure-seeking approach in this review of Larry Kimmel’s new book (notice that I’m not loading you up with subjective assessments like saying “fine” new book—you can figure that out for yourself from the poems that follow). Now, Sanford Goldstein’s preface will tell you that Larry’s book is “one of the seminal tanka books of the past decade,” which may well be true. Please take Sanford’s word for it. But even while introductions are obliged to say such things, such a claim can set the reader on edge while reading the book’s poems, judging whether the assertion is true or not. It’s possible, while trying to analyze the book’s “bestness,” that readers won’t feel enough of the poetry itself. Better, it would seem, to let the poetry wash over you—or at least better to let this happen sometime. As Novalis said, “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”

What follows, then, are a few cherry-picked tanka that leapt out at me from the ten years—quite a sustained effort—of Larry Kimmel’s new and selected tanka from 1995 to 2005.

again tonight

along the color-ribboned river

I feel its frail insistence—

this hunger, tissue-thin

behind my breastbone

This is the book’s title poem. It paints a picture of the poet’s yearning through the symbol of the river’s inexorable churn towards the sea. Words such as “color-ribboned” and the title phrase have poise and character—they’re “Velcro words,” as my writer friend Sheila Bender would call them. We don’t know what is gnawing at the poet, but we don’t need to know. We can resonate with the feeling of the yearning’s faintness and apply it to all our own faint yearnings. It was my pleasure to first publish this poem in Woodnotes #31 in the autumn of 1997, and in his afterword to his book, Larry writes that it was, in a way, the first tanka he ever wrote. He first penned the words in 1960, and says that it became a tanka 35 years later.

all morning

the mood of the otherwise

forgotten dream—

the backs of maple leaves

turned silver under water

I hope you are drawn, as I am, to the striking image in the last two lines, with the added mystery of something felt not in real life but in a dream. What does it mean? We can just float there for as long as we like to find out.

for fifty years

though all the weathers

of the mind,

I have loved the world with my eye

. . . if nothing else, that

Larry’s is a poetic eye, and I sense his appreciation for the world despite the hint of stormy weather in his life. His eye often matches mine, and perhaps yours too. Yet his eye also sees things that I wouldn’t, and I’m grateful for these new visions.

The previous three poems come from the first of the book’s six sections. Here are two from the second section:

cold stars, white moon,

the crunch of snow underfoot—

how it pierces

to recall a kindness

rudely refused

fist poised to knock

I hear two voices within—

the irises nod

and whisper as I retrace my steps

along her flagstone walk

In both poems, the reader succumbs to powerful and clear visual images. In the first poem, Larry responds to the image with a subjective assessment—not an assessment of the image, but of himself. He presents this appraisal in the context of winter’s chill, which finds its natural echo in the piercing chill of the refused kindness. This fits, as Larry says in his afterword, how he writes “out of an inner landscape.” The second poem is more narrative. Larry doesn’t need to add commentary or subjectivity, because the anecdote he describes tells us all we need to know of his feelings, that ache of desire with a hint of rumour. Larry does well with both approaches to the tanka art.

when I think

that we may never

meet again . . .

this hillside of aspens

endlessly fluttering

Doesn’t this poem take you back to the waka tradition of ancient Japan? Doesn’t it make you feel like Izumi Shikibu or some of the old Imperial anthology poets who wrote of lost or denied love? Today’s tanka, including Larry’s, isn’t bound just to this sort of poem, but I’m glad to read poems like this that connect to the rich tradition of love as a subject for waka and tanka. Tanka poetry testifies that love hasn’t changed for thousands of years, and it’s somehow reassuring to know this.

touch . . . touch . . .

the skipping stone hits

the farther bank . . .

suddenly I am old

and understand nothing

What a leap! Not just for the stone, but for the poet. I am reminded of the stunning last line of James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (please look it up).

Many of this book’s poems are in sequences. Here’s one such poem:

magnolia petals

cluttered around the ruins

of a sundial—

my helplessness

before a woman in tears

The poem’s fourth line is the title of the sequence. By itself, this tanka conveys something of Larry’s emotional or romantic life. But as part of the whole, more than I can discuss here, the poem contributes to a rounder picture of desire, eroticism, concern, caring, and love.

As I said at the start, it can be tiresome to respond to yet another tanka book with the question “what is tanka,” and “how does this book answer that question.” Better for the tanka scene to move beyond such repetition and dwell, repeatedly, in the poetry, absorbing all its effect. Does it sing, does it charm, does it make you care? After all, isn’t that far more important than whether some wag thinks it’s tanka or not? The book’s introduction, by Linda Jeannette Ward, will tell you that Larry’s is “a strong voice speaking without self-conscious intention.” Take that if you will—it seems a valid observation. And prefaces, introductions—and reviews—have their place. As does criticism and evaluation, at the right times. But it’s always the poetry that matters most, and Larry Kimmel’s This Hunger, Tissue-Thin gives us a generous helping of exactly what matters in poetry.

I could easily write about a dozen or more poems. Here, to close, are some miscellaneous phrases that caught my attention: “all I know of love / wouldn’t fill a sonnet”; “the tilt / of her head to undo / an earring”; “the wee crystal ball / from my son’s marble bag”; “a muslin of rain”; and “when did my heart / become a fist?” I won’t tell you to jump online and buy this book. That you must decide for yourself.

past midnight

I sit on the stoop under stars—

on a light wind

the scent of pine pitch

from the day’s work