Distilling Experience

by Margaret Chula

Every poem is a distillation of a poet's experience. When writing a tanka, we have only five lines in which to evoke that experience. How do we begin? What details should we include and what can be omitted without sacrificing understanding and credibility? And how do we present the lines so they create the desired emotional impact?

I considered these questions as I reread my tanka sequence In the Shadows in preparation for writing this essay. Although I always review a sequence to ensure that it succeeds as a unified piece, I hardly ever reflect on my process of writing. In reviewing In the Shadows, I was fascinated to discover what had been subconscious--intonation, various word choices, links and juxtapositions (especially between one tanka and another)--and how much had been craft.

Distillation involves extracting the essential elements. To illustrate how I moved from experience to tanka, I have included prose passages with each tanka. These not only tell the story of my father's death and burial, but also discuss craft elements such as my use of parallelism, contrast, juxtaposition, alliteration, dissonance, repetition, allusion, etc.

In a future essay I will talk about how a tanka sequence works as an ensemble and how being part of a sequence affects the order of the tanka and also their content.

In the Shadows

A Tanka Sequence by Margaret Chula

Refrigerated for days
my father waits for me
to lay him to rest
in the cemetery
of the Sorrowful Mother.

I begin the sequence with the startling image ofmy dead father refrigerated in a mortuary across the country, three time zones away. 'My father waits for me' implies a subtle feeling that he is still alive and waiting for me the only child of five to ever visit him. On our final visit, he had asked me to bury him--he had no one else in his life who would. When I asked if he wanted to be cremated or buried, he said, 'Just put me in a box in the ground next to my father and mother in the cemetery on the hill.' That Catholic cemetery was called "Mater Dolorosa' (the sorrowful mother, the Virgin Mary). I included the name of the cemetery because my father was finally buried next to his mother by his sorrowful daughter. The phrase 'lay him to rest' was also intentional, to resonate with the child's bedtime prayer 'now I lay me down to sleep.'

my strong father
helpless now in his new suit
and perfectly knotted tie
     hands clenched round a white rose
     coffin filled with regrets

My father was a carpenter and a semi-pro baseball player--strong, healthy, a physical person. The only time I saw him wearing a suit was in his wedding photo. If it had been his choice, he would not have been buried in a suit and tie. The clipped rhythm of 'a perfectly knotted tie' emphasizes the impersonal perfection of the funeral director doing his job. 'Clenched' freezes us for a moment and its initial hard 'c' creates a tension, which is then released by the flowing phrase 'round a white rose' with its soft, generous 'r's'. The effect is echoed more quietly in the next and final line by the 'c' of 'coffin' and the 'r' of regrets.

When I got the news of my father's death, I invited my four siblings to put something into his coffin before the service: a note, a poem, a keepsake, etc. For most of their lives, they had been estranged from their father, so I offered them an opportunity for some closure.

As one of my sisters leaned over the coffin to place a white rose between his clasped fingers, his embalmed hands unclenched! She screamed and backed away--a dramatic moment. But I chose not to include it because it was too macabre and would have changed the tone of this stanza. I just put the white rose in the tanka and let the reader decide who placed it and why. And the 'coffin filled with regrets'? Whose regrets are they? His children's, his--or perhaps both? Some mystery is good in any poem.


So many mourners
for such a silent man.
      Two ladies from bingo
      come over and tell me
      what a card he was!


Daddy was not a conversationalist. He had few friends, and most of them had died in World War II or from a lifetime of drinking and smoking. Of his seven siblings, only one was alive, so I was surprised when the funeral home filled with mourners. One of Daddy's few pleasures was playing Bingo once a week. After the service, two elderly ladies came up and told me how funny my father was. I had never thought of him as humorous, and was both heartened by this revelation and saddened because I had never known this side of him. These ladies had unwittingly evoked the  bingo cards. Later I realized how funny this was and decided to include it to add some humor to the sequence.

I bury him
on the winter solstice
when shadows move toward light.
     How bright the red poinsettia
     how black the crows.

Daddy died on December 15 in Massachusetts. I postponed the burial for nearly a week, as I wanted to bury him on the Winter Solstice, both the darkest day of the year and the turning point when days become lighter. I reinforced the opposition of shadow and light in the third line by contrasting the bright red poinsettias with the black crows in the final two lines. This stanza is also about color--the only colors in the snowy landscape were that red poinsettia and the black crows on the bare branches. Can you hear those crows cawing in the burial silence?

Forty-nine days
after my father's death
the ground hog comes up
sees his own shadow
and returns underground

In Buddhism, the soul lingers in the body for forty-nine days after death before it is released into a rebirth. This date fell close to February 2, Groundhog's Day. The groundhog has a choice whether to rise up or to return underground. Whether souls are reincarnated or not, I do not know, but the corpse has no choice but to remain underground.

Those wildflower seeds
embedded in the paper
of a sympathy card.
     I tear them into strips
     and plant them in the shadows.

I use the word 'card' again here in the final tanka--not the humorous person nor a bingo card, but a sympathy card embedded with wildflower seeds. My father loved flowers and picked them toward the end of his life--not only from fields, but from other people's gardens.

Corpse, groundhog, seeds--all underground. I use the parallel of those seeds 'embedded in the paper' and my father enclosed in his casket underground. Planting the seeds 'in the shadows' alludes not only to the time of the year (early spring), but also to my grief. Yet, I wanted to end this sequence with hope and regeneration. These seeds from the sympathy card will germinate, grow, and eventually produce flowers.

With thanks to John Hall for his insights and editorial comments.

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