First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 2:3, Autumn 2001, pages 14–15. Written 16, 22 July 2001 in Belmont, California.
Like Salt on Sun Spray by Pamela Miller Ness. Swamp Press, 2001. Letterpress printed, hand-tied, 4.5 by 5.75 inches, 28 pages, edition limited to 200 copies. Available from the author for $12.00, including postage, at 33 Riverside Drive, Apt. 4-G, New York, NY 10023.
Swamp Press publications are invariably things of beauty, and Pamela Miller Ness’s new book is no exception. Like Salt on Sun Spray, a collection of tanka, is the latest publication Ed Rayher has attentively produced at Swamp Press. The book’s cover features a richly coloured painting of a sunset by Susan Frame, plus five more colour paintings inside. The poems are letterpress printed on what the colophon identifies as Magnami Pescia paper—you can even feel the letters indented into the thick paper. Beyond the fine production values, the book’s twenty-two tanka are impressive, too. This is a book of love poems, a book that speaks deeply and personally about the author’s relationship with her husband, but goes beyond the typical book of love tanka.
The small, hand-sized volume begins with a dedication—“for Paul”—and then a quote from Gary Snyder: “Range after range of mountains / Year after year after year / I am still in love.” From the first poem to the last, we see the range of spousal emotions, like range after range of misty mountains. We see romance and affection (a couple “Walking the sand / through afternoon half-light”), musings (“Have I told you I want / to return as a gull?”), eroticism (“. . . the tulip petals / spread wide. / Above the whirr of a fan / her gentle moan.”), longing (“Apart / only hours: / a rainbow / at Narada Falls / cuts this chill mist.”), regret (“Turn / back the clocks / so I / could take back / those careless words.”), caring (“Home sick / on my birthday, / reading / your card one more time.”), empathy (“Where the river widens / will you, too, see the hawk?”), and ultimately, always love, hopeful and abiding (“We love / like the rainforest: / roots / wrapping tight, limbs / climbing the sky.”).
Love, of course, is the typical province of tanka poetry. Many thousands of tanka have been written in imitation of the Japanese court poetry of old. But these poems have a literate maturity to them, going beyond merely expressing love in ways that are sometimes tired in tanka. Instead, Ness expresses love in layered, modern ways:
First snow, yet
in the cut glass vase
on your upright piano.
So much happens here. The tulips are not just tulips, but presumably gifts of love from the poet’s spouse. Yet she does not keep the kindness to herself, but shares them with him, despite his absence, on his piano. What’s more, this gift is in winter, when tulips are expensive, so we feel a deeper love than if it were spring. We see, too, the contrast between delicacy in the ephemeral flowers and permanence in the heavy cut-glass vase, and feel the contrast between the cold of snow and the warmth of tulips. We feel the contrast between the silence of the moment, while the first snow falls, and the piano’s normal sound of music. The poem has confidence, contentment, a full swirl of senses (we may even imagine sniffing the tulips), and a sense of place (a crowded apartment that allows an upright piano, but seemingly not a grand). All this in five brief lines—so many layers, in a poem of love and longing, yet with present-day touches.
Some of the poems seem more personal than others (“Midlife / midnight / she sweats / he swears / Quilt at half-mast.”), and thus may seem less successful, but the poet does not shy away from challenging the reader. Where she does seem shy is in one erotic poem that resorts to third person (“her gentle moan”), where the other poems but one are objective or in first person. Also, the five poems paired with paintings work together best, for me, when the text does not overlap the painting (I imagine the poet or artist would not have preferred to position the text of the two overlapping poems just where they appear). The paintings, though, in addition to being well executed and eye-catching, work like haiga in complementing the poems while not always overtly illustrating them. (Frame is known for her fine haiga work with various poets on Jeanne Emrich’s Haiga Online website.)
In all, Pamela Miller Ness’s Like Salt on Sun Spray is a confident and honest revelation of loving connection. The poems have a depth that withstands multiple readings. These poems of love move firmly beyond a lesser sort of English tanka that merely imitates traditional Japanese love poetry. Indeed, this book reveals many fine touches, such as the mentions of salt in the first and last poems:
Walking the sand Salt
through afternoon half-light, on our lips.
your chest Floating
flecked with white, like just floating
salt on sun spray. in August sun.
As with Gary Snyder, we feel the love, year after year, stretching like ranges of mountains, into eternity. Love is the salt of human emotion, enriching life’s taste. And with these tanka from Pamela Miller Ness, we are left floating—delightfully floating—in a state of surreal transcendence.