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

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