Collected Tanka – From The Depths
From the Depths gives expression to Margaret Grace’s impressions and yearnings at home and away. Almost half of the tanka sets relate experiences encountered abroad; yet, deeply personalised, they are much more than descriptions of travel. The sea and her loved ones are other recurrent themes, forming some of the strands to which the poet refers in this summary tanka:
woven through my life
these strands of golden
the threads to pull myself
out of dark spaces
Amelia Fielden, MA, poet and translator
This book demonstrates the author’s mastery of the tanka form and takes it a step further as the individual tanka in each set explore depths and promote the poetic sets to a higher level and intricacy not possible in a single tanka. Her opening set, ‘Paradise Regained’ is an example of Margaret’s skill as a poet. With references to Milton’sgreat works, she takes us in a moment form the bleak image of a single leaf in an urban setting to a sense of the universe and an awakening to beauty in birdsong of a new day. The poet’s art lies in being able to achieve this in sixty-one words, drawing on a series of images as metaphor.
Review by Patricia Prime, Editor Kokako, New Zealand
Published in Atlas Poetica, USA, a Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka, Autumn 2012
From The Depths is a collection of twenty-two themed sets of tanka by M L Grace. Almost half of the tanka sets relate to the poet’s experiences on trips abroad. The sea and her family are also recurrent themes. The sets are arranged chronologically from leaving Australia to travelling overseas and back home again.
In her introduction, Carmel Summers has this to say about Grace’s work: “All these tanka have a strong sense of presence, of being in the moment: a sense so strong that the reader feels that they too are sharing the experience. This is a great accomplishment for any poet and all the poems in this book have this quality.”
The first set, “Paradise Regained” has an easy flow of topic and mood. One gets the feeling of being with the poet on her journey from “paradise lost” to new longings to take flight: “such longing / I take flight / on the raptor’s path and wing/ my way from paradise lost.
The tanka sets portray a strong sense of place. Grace, who lives in Australia, admirably brings a local flavour to universal themes. Her excellent use of specific names gives the collection a noteworthy character. The tanka sets carry the reader through an album of evocative images and impressions ― especially from the 2004 Bali Writers Festival, with this verse from “White Feathers and Painted Demons”
in farewell I reach out,
touch the stone
where carved in stone
to this tanka from “Ban Ko Noi” (a village in Thailand):
home from the river…
a monk’s orange robe
waves from a makeshift line
As we journey on, Grace takes us to many more exotic places including Kanchenjunga, with its “layers of grey mist / ridge upon ridge / veiling / Kanchenjunga”.
In “The Dragonfly”, Grace makes connections between the beauty of nature in the simple observation of a dragonfly and the deepening of the day, yanking the legend of Buddha down to earth:
has not come… this day
I catch the Buddha’s stony eye
another lesson not learnt
and in “On the Narrow Road North”, one of the book’s longer sets, she continues her intent scrutiny of things both sublime and ordinary as she follows Basho’s footsteps in Japan:
rain in Edo ―
bright yellow quinces
glaze the morning…
if my heart could shine
as bright just one more time
Ordinary things supply small, powerful metaphors. She asks: “who wore the kosode / this netsuke secured” ― representing the delight in an ancient intricately carved artwork and the act of seeing it herself.
In a later verse, she closes “the door / that Basho opened” which stands for the end of her journey following the same path that Basho took. Then there’s the wickedly glorious sketch of the farmers’ market in “Food… Glorious Good” and the lively description of:
that saucy woman
on the cooking show…poured
into a black dress
bosom rises and falls
behind soufflés and gnocchi
In “Stalked by a Bird” Grace declares “in this garden I feel / the gentle breath of Thoreau”, but to take this as the whole story is to risk missing the urgency with which she claims our attention, and the feeling that bursts through the shapely lines and metre. “Conversations with Mother” takes her close to tears as her mother nears the end of life and she looks for her once more “when the jam won’t set / or I can’t find my glasses”.
“Photos in the Mind” takes the poet back to some of her experiences whilst travelling:
“Himalayan stars and me / sharing an old man’s apple”; the “Waimarama / sea swirling around our feet”; “a whale breaches”; she sees a “Rajasthani woman” and “an old monk”. These little scenes mine her smooth contemplative terrain with explosive feeling.
The sea is one of Grace’s major themes in the latter half of the book. “The Sea Inside” is another long set and is a group of tender poems about the way in which sea attracts her. The tone is poised acutely between the savagery and quiet reverence for it:
in this savagery
of the sea’s driving force
and wind driven spray
I catch a glimpse
In “Sweeping into Autumn”, the season of autumn occupies a place of transition and melancholy:
those long cold hours
my only companion
this sadness I feel
hearing the plover’s cry
Family relationships flicker and fade through the poem: “mother’s well-worn hands / making lemon tarts for tea”; “the warmth I once felt / curled against your body” and “you too hang on defying / autumn dark evenings”.
In another set, “The party”, the poet wishes to celebrate a 70th birthday, despite protestations. But in the midst of dinner she recalls, “she who can’t be here” and dreams about her:
I dreamed of her ― so real
I said, I thought you were dead
I’m here, aren’t I? she smiled
It’s all here in this lovely collection ― bright stitchery of exotic countries, vistas, nature, human nature, vignettes of domesticity, the sea and the Australian landscape. After several re-readings I’m still finding correspondences and nuances, and being startled by the sheer beauty and depth of these tanka sets.