Hooray for the small

Leaves: tanka anthology of Nature, edited Amelia Fielden, Ginninderra Press, 2022, 43pp. 

This beautiful little volume edited by Amelia Fielden and assisted by Liz Lanagan collects the work of 35 poets. Wrapped in a glorious colour photo of winter blooming wattle by poet photographer Neva Kastellic, this B5 volume sits comfortably in your hand, in your pocket or on your bookshelf. Each poet presents two tanka (except for Fielden who, as editor, has three) so that’s 10 lines per poet. But there’s never a sense of poets clamouring or competing for attention. Instead, Leaves presents a diversity of voices and a kaleidoscope of views.

The poets are mostly Australian, along with Japanese-Australian poet Saeko Ogi and a guest poet from California, Neal Whitman.

In the preface, Fielden tells us that the expression meaning ‘leaves’ in Japanese kotonoha is a homonym for ‘words’ which also alludes (in the way that everything connects to everything else) to the tanka form itself. A form, she continues, that can be traced back to 10th Century poet, Ki no Tsurayuki who begins his seminal work thus:

‘Japanese poetry has the human heart as seed
and myriads of words as leaves.’ 

Generally, the poems are not of pristine idealised nature but rather nature in urban settings, nature exposing our foibles or nature butting up against us such as, for example, a currawong competing with poet/grower for an olive crop or a caterpillar rescued from being blended into pesto. Nature also provokes, as in this witty piece by Jenny Stewart

cut a little
says a wispy native shrub,
but not too much ...
make a decision
you with the rusty shears

There are references to popular culture: my own piece on Elvis  (which I’m delighted to have included in this volume) and Kate King’s tanka referencing May Gibbs’ children’s tales of the gumnut babes Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the scary gang that stalk them 

knobbly seed pods
pounce from spiky bushes —
we still recoil
from those gumnut tales
of Big Banksia Men 

There’s also the achingly contemporary, in Rachel Colombo’s tanka

lonely cherry tree
in the wintry Kyiv street
a bomb explodes
days later buds burst
showering pink blossom.

And of course, poets talk about the craft of poetry, as in Amelia Fielden’s tanka

in full thrum
cicadas emphasising
the summer days —
less is more, I tell
my tanka students

At the launch of Leaves, one of the poets quipped that tanka was ideal for our times: small, memorable, a poem you can hold in your hand, perfect for the short-attention-span days of twitter and instagram. Yet these poems have depths that you will want to return to as each ‘leaf’ offers a different insight to nature and the human condition in these challenging times.

Leaves, tanka anthology of Nature is available from Australia’s finest small press, Ginninderra Press

The Port Kembla Mermaids

edge of concrete pool, green water
The woman waddles over the warm cement to the end of the pool. She’s put on a little weight over winter and she’s puffing a bit. She closes in on the deep end, fits her goggles and looks down into the familiar green, the Ionian Sea. Then up on the balls of her feet, head down arms together. The whistle releases her. Push forward and belly slap into the cold—

The water holds her up.

Some of their spines are bent with scoliosis, some grind in their hips or knees. One is lost and her sisters take her by the hand, bring her to her place in the relay. This is their time, a couple of hours on Thursday morning. They love each other, these women, these ariels and ursulas, dorys and madisons. They love each other but once in the water they compete.

The water is a return.

As a teenager she’d lean through the pool with perfect efficiency, head turn for a kiss of air, bow-wave rising from the bridge of her nose. All effortless speed, she was born to this. Dolphin Girl her Dad called her. Bronze in the State and would’ve gone to the Nationals but they couldn’t afford the fares. And then there was Frank and that was that.

The water tells the truth.

Today her arm won’t extend, her hip’s stuck and the kick only works in one leg, the other just drags. And she’s gasping for breath. She moves in awkward esses down her lane. Halfway and there’s the wash as her rival passes. 

The sky is empty. A flight of gulls dip low over the pool then rise, buffeted by the easterly. Supposedly they carry the souls of sailors now doomed to chase bin scraps. 

Men. A few watch from the concrete benches, old blokes sunning themselves, leather bellies over tiny speedos—they yawn and scratch like a lounge of seals. 

The water holds her up. 

She’ll be damned if she stops. Slowly, the body remembers, rhythm returns to her breathing, arm comes higher. The lane marker straightens and the water holds her up 

—and at the end the mermaids are cheering. 

A short piece dedicated with affection to the Port Kembla Mermaids. And for music this morning, what else but Song to the Siren? A 1984 cover of the Tim Buckley song featuring the guitar of Robin Guthrie and voice of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) – and lots of hair gel.

This piece was written on the lands (and the Port Kembla Mermaids swim in the waters) of the Wadi-Wadi people, traditional owners and custodians of the Illawarra.