Twenty-five Examples of Tanka Prose & an Editor’s Thoughts about Tanka Prose

By Bob Lucky

TP or Not TP, That Is the Question

After agreeing to serve as guest editor for an Atlas Poetica project, I relearned that I never wanted to be an editor. I wanted to be a lumberjack. Not really, but there were days when working on the poets’ submissions that I would wander from room to room, occasionally picking up a ukulele and singing “momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be editors”, while my mind wrestled with choices I had to make. I liked the prose in that one but not the tanka, or the tanka in that one and not the prose. This one was overwritten, that one a little flat. I’ve come out of this experience with a profound respect for editors, as well a concern for their mental health. I suggest all writers send the editors of the various journals they submit to a virtual pat on the back.

I wanted to present a variety of voices — and there is at least one writer in this collection who is publishing tanka prose for the first time — but as the publication deadline approached, I was just hoping for a critical mass. The truth is there aren’t a lot of us tanka prose writers out there. It is a growing community, but, as there are some tanka writers who never attempt tanka prose, haiku writers who never write tanka, and vice-versa, and haibun writers who suspect tanka prose of being just a little too big for its breeches, we needn’t worry about booking Madison Square Gardens for a convention.

I challenged a couple of MFA students to check out the form and give it a shot. Silence is not always golden. A few people did write and ask what tanka prose is. It was then I realised my situation: I’m a writer of tanka prose, not a historian or a theorist. I know what I like to read and what I want to write, but I’m loathe to make any grand pronouncements on the form. So, as submissions came in, I was shocked to discover that I’m a closet purist. I rejected a couple of pieces because they contained both tanka and haiku. Perhaps purist is the wrong word, but certainly there’s a conservatism in me that I need to be aware of.

The process forced me to examine my own aesthetics, such as they are. I prefer a narrative of some sort in the prose over pure description. I’m attracted to pieces with a sense of humour. I like authors who try to make sense of their encounters with the Other. Memoir is popular in haibun and tanka prose, but it’s hard to do well, and I favour pieces that come to some understanding of the past rather than merely recount it. Often the prose is the setup, the tanka the epiphany. I love when that happens, when the light goes on and I immediately re-read a piece. I want to believe that the tanka should be able to stand alone, but sometimes it won’t or can’t, and I don’t lose sleep over that.

Those predilections and beliefs are what guided my decisions for the most part. Atlas Poetica is a journal of tanka of place and that was always in the back of my mind as well, though tanka prose is always set somewhere, so I didn’t worry too much about that. I received a lot of good and interesting tanka prose that I couldn’t use for one reason or another, and I now have a better understanding of that standard phrase of rejection “it doesn’t fit our needs”. What may be frustrating to writers of tanka prose, and that includes me, is that those needs are in flux as the form itself evolves and constantly defines and re-defines itself. (For some excellent work regarding the form and its development, please see the brief bibliography below.)

In the last couple of years, much has been written on the form from a descriptivist point of view. That’s the best coign of vantage in my opinion. It would be a shame if the English-language form were to die in its infancy, strangled in the strait jacket of prescriptions. The idea is simple enough: combine prose and tanka, or prose poetry and tanka, or free verse and tanka, or images and prose and tanka. There will always be quibbling about the relationship between the tanka and the other constituent parts; there will always be aesthetic questions about what comprises a good tanka and what exactly the prose is supposed to be doing. In the end, a tanka prose piece that connects to readers, however it may do so, will serve as a guide to other writers.

My hope is that the pieces included I’ve selected will connect with you. They all did with me in various ways. When I read good tanka prose, I want to write good tanka prose. I can see the possibilities and I’m inspired. That’s how our garden grows.

Great Book by Gary LeBel

O wooden spoons, O mixing bowls, O spice rack, O loyal cookbook with your egg-smeared pages: how many evenings have you pleasured us since we bought you new with a dust jacket (long lost), fresh-married, DINKs, ‘dual incomes, no kids’ in the jargon of the times?

You, too, are a ‘Great Book’ I’d slide somewhere between Plato and Rabelais. Is cooking any different from writing verse or a story, or painting a landscape? After all, one can be the architect of a feast or only ‘go through the motions’ like a machine, but the tongue always knows the difference, sensing joy in the taste like a kiss acknowledged and returned.

All the time spent deconstructing the kitchen today, tasting each step, disobeying the recipe’s ironclad measurements here and there with cavalier imprecision,

but grinning all the while because the woman I’ll serve tonight is the same one I served when I had hair, before my teeth became mere teacups for silver, and I had my wits about me,

though she’d beg to differ how much there ever were of those . . .

Now as then
some thirty years later
with the same left feet
we slowdance after dinner
to ‘Tarde’

Following in the Footsteps by Rodney A. Williams

When their children were younger, the four of them joked about how they all loved following in the footsteps left by dinosaurs . . .

With the tide falling, this whole shelf of conglomerate rock becomes exposed. Across thin slurries of a light grey mudstone – located near the drop-off into deep water – footprints from creatures long extinct remain preserved, despite erosion from sea and sand over millions of years.

Sharing a passion for enquiry, their son and daughter used to kneel down here beside their parents, to study prints left by animals – no larger than dogs – which had passed this way in a group long ago.

More concerned now about losing their footing, while still hopeful of spotting a Cretaceous claw or bone, fifteen years later this middle-aged couple keeps an even closer watch on the rock surface. Near the dinosaur footprints, they rediscover the remains of a tree stump petrified in the rich metallic brown of rusting iron, in sharp contrast to the dozen shades of grey across the sedimentary strata.

Strolling over to the rock-pools, the man and woman admire blood-red anemones with tentacles swaying. Both remain alert to the threat posed by a blue-ringed octopus, possibly lurking in crevices under water: small in size, lethal in venom. Still they crouch to search for crabs hidden under sandstone pebbles. Their older boy and his younger sister remain the keenest of crabbers too, the husband nods to himself, even into their early twenties.

Smiling at this chance to relive old joys, he is startled to find his wife weeping. Tears drip from the tip of her nose into this last tidal pool. Baulked by her silence, he knows that he must not press too hard.

Sobbing, she explains at last that he has always had his work, his source of satisfaction. Her own paid job offers few rewards. While she can value the role she has played in raising their children, they have both left home now. Yet they are each so eager to explore, to experiment – he reminds her – both finding a calling in science, in research: fields of endeavour owing far more to their mother than to him, he affirms, drawing her cheek in close to his collarbone. While each of their children continues to look beneath stones, any sense of accomplishment she feels now herself – she sniffs – comes from following in the footsteps left by others:

shellfish trails swirl
across a film of sand
over stone
in a tidal pool . . .
reading coded sorrows

Renovation by Anne Benjamin

We are renovating his father’s house, neglected for years since the old man’s death. His father, my father-in-law, was a particular man, a brilliant doctor and exacting parent.

at the gatepost
awaiting restoration
a crouching lion
the guardian’s claws
now weathered away

The rooms are small, the kitchen dark and the house is turned in upon itself. We live amidst the dust. Tradesmen move around us. Their tools screech and pound all day. A carpenter is making furniture. He sits on the ground outside the house, holding the heavy teak firm between his bare feet.

he works
tongue and groove from teak
making our bed
we chisel against the grain
to match our contrary selves

We have built a new room. The space is airy and looks out into the green curtain of a sandalwood tree. On the wall, my husband hangs his father’s clock, finally repaired after many years. It has a resonant chime. My son and I watch as he winds the clock, adjusts the weights and taps the pendulum into motion, just as his father did for all those years.

the clock
silent for years
begins to chime
the pendulum swings
between fathers and sons

The Company of Strangers by Claire Everett

this wall of silence
I have built around me . . .
only the ghosts
of the lovers we once were
can pass through it

How much longer can I hide what goes on behind closed doors? The next time a stranger shows me a little kindness, will that be when I break down? It could have been then, when the cashier helped me pack my groceries. Someone else’s mother. The madness of wanting her to tell me everything will be ok.

I can feel the warning tremors. The foundations are beginning to crumble. Carrying this burden through streets of a thousand faces, I look for refuge in the eyes of strangers.

standing room only
on this bus to nowhere,
the warmth of strangers . . .
each time he leans towards me
a deep breath of his cologne

Losing the Way by Marjorie Buettner

“In the spring the full moon shines for the warrior who has lost his way.” (old Ojibway saying)

For those of us who have lost our way there is no light in any season to guide us and strangely so we have grown accustomed to the dark, companions now in the absence of all else. Perhaps it is the true warrior spirit then to drop your weapons and leave when you know the battle is over, when you know you have no enemy but yourself, when you know there is no other place to go. And so you carry this darkness with you wherever you go and it is a constant shadowy companion, someone to tell your secrets to, like a ghost lover: there but not really there, almost touching, almost light . . .

this strange absence
of all touch makes me feel
there are so many ways
a heart can break

Wandering by Barbara Taylor

grandpa’s special place
his seed trays stacked tall
under green shade
the faucet’s slow drip
through rainbows

No. 27 was a modest home, just a hop-skip from the sandy beach. The real estate agent had his eyes on it, often hassled Dave on pension day in the bank but he knew this house-proud elderly couple would never leave.

Joan carefully folded the daily grocery list before placing it in her husband’s shirt pocket. Dressed in clean blue jeans, always neatly pressed, he kissed her on the cheek. “Back soon, dear, will you miss me?” She hugged him, laughed, “Of course, you mug, but clear out now, give me space to do the cleaning. Be quick, young Billy’s coming. Remember, bring back bread, milk. The paper!” Closing the garden gate, he waved.

She waited. We waited. Police searched rain-splashed streets, the promenade, local parks. A bloke from the corner store said Dave had bought sweets. Hours became days, days became weeks, months, an endless inconsolable stream of stress and sorrow . . . not easy to move her out, away from their long established life there. “I was raised to believe in hope,” she’d argue.

Autumn’s chilly winds blow in from the shore. In the nursing home she stays by her window, watching. Raindrops drizzle down stained glass. At breakfast this morning Joan sobs as rumours spread: Today, a skeleton was found in dunes. By afternoon, the police confirmed their grisly findings.

the mossy slate roof,
their old house ruins,
a planned-for parking lot
for high-rise apartments

A New Day by Jan Foster

On the beach of Brampton Island just before sunrise, I face the first anniversary of my daughter’s death. Maybe here I’ll find some respite from the turbulence of grief.

cool sand
on my hot skin
a blessing
after the night
of fevered tossing

The horizon blends sea and sky in a pastel palette of dawn light. Pinks, mauves, blues, the colours of sugared almonds, her favourites. A curlew’s call drifts on the still air.

on a quiet beach
with the clamour
of memories

In the silence, I find the peace I’m searching for. If there is a heaven, it must surely be like this. As the sun breasts the horizon with a burning energy, I know that wherever she is, she is whole and at peace. It is enough.

waves whisper
creeping ever higher
up the sand
erasing forever
yesterday’s footprints

Side by Side by Joanne Morcom

Her last wish was to be buried beside him, even though Wild Bill Hickock never wanted Calamity Jane near him, in life or in death. So says our tour guide, pointing out two graves in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.

“Why not?” someone asks.

“Because she was butt ugly,” someone else answers.

Everybody laughs but me.

ghost tour
we sip from a flask
to steady our nerves
toast the dead
in the dying light

~ South Dakota, USA

Tsukubai by Autumn Noelle Hall

In Sampan hat, a gardener furrowing white sand around the black boulder, sweat-scent swirling from worn leather gloves, now pauses, rake at rest, to watch a glomerata wasp inject her eggs into a fat caterpillar. A nearby cedar’s wind-swept branches, manicured wishes to whisper. Lone goose trail across water-sky, a bridal veil wake.

Pouring into the stone basin, a bamboo pipe. Oblivious to the Tea House dragon sleeping on the sunbaked roof, a couple wash hands. With reservation, they enter, sit at right angles on barely touching tatami mats. Their eyes do not meet. My intentional walking, aware, sandal thong between my toes. In one fluid motion, I kneel, draw breath to belly. “Here, now — Matcha only — green tea.” Steam cloud obscures, bamboo whisk blurs. Waiting for their cup to be filled, they study its celadon cracks.

water striders
climbing pine
on the surface
broken portrait
in green tea

~ May 2010, at the ceremonial tea house in the Shofu-en, the Garden of Wind and Pines, at the Denver botanical Gardens, Denver, Colorado.

Talking to Another Artist by Belinda Broughton

Are the flowers of your still life carved out of balsa, painted day-of-the-dead when you wanted them to touch the tablecloth translucent poppy-petal skin, like the first time you ever touched a breast or a penis? Is your landscape disinfectant and tiles? Have your portraits turned into chess pieces and taken to answering questions?

Mine have. They gleam like wine glasses and are not nearly neurotic enough. They are storefront dummies in conversation with neon. I think it’s because I don’t love them. It would be all right if I still had faith in their skin but I am besotted by the skin of trees and smitten by wind-circles under the herbs in the dunes.

the dirty studio window
spring’s urgency
a twitter of wrens
amongst bright new leaves

Winds of Change by Cynthia Rowe

The beach is not as I remember. The foreshore tucks under palm roots which dangle over the sand. At one end of the narrow esplanade, boulders have been heaped in an effort to prevent erosion. The wave flow has altered; the strip is narrower. The water has become sludgy and, in the distance, I can see Double Island, shrouded in mist and sea spray. I scuff my way along, enjoying the feel of sand between my toes.

a seagull swoops off
hefting pizza –
the palm-fringed island
where Japanese tourists
eat rice with a spoon

A rubber ducky thumps around the point and across the choppy cove, slowing while the lifesavers look for sharks and box jellyfish. Perhaps they are looking for a crocodile which has ventured down the creek and out to sea? The men are clad in wetsuits, peculiar to the north, made of red pantyhose fabric.

The boulders block my path. I climb to the narrow road, slither down the diminished dunes back onto the sand. There are few gulls today. The rubber ducky churns back across the cove, fades into the distance before disappearing behind the headland.

receding tide
a bluebottle tangled
in seaweed
this flattened shore
dotted with crab holes

Holiday Paradise by Dru Philippou

on the hillside
a prospecting hole
the tailings’
magical glitter of
iron pyrite and goethite

Bikers speed up the rutted road that dead-ends at the Cabresto Lake Campground. In the back of a truck, children in goggles shield their eyes from the dust, while constantly checking cell phones. Grandma is seated in the front seat. Her candy pink fingernails gleam through a small dog’s white fur. At the Hell’s Canyon curve, a chip bag floats over the edge. The driver slows down. A man in flip-flops is jacking up his Northstar Pop-up Camper to replace a ruptured tire. Behind, an overweight man on an ATV yells at him to let him through. On this Labor Day weekend holidayers, pitched in city hysteria, invade the campsite.

by crackles from a radio
a camper
discovers a night
of falling stars

Mendenhall Glacier by Cherie Hunter Day

I lag behind
the others trekking
on the glacier
a shimmering blue expanse
growing between us

Jabbing crampons into the ice, I am breathless. My lungs ache in the cold air. I pick up the climbing technique. At the top of a small ridge I return my ice axe to a loop in my harness, turn, and smile for the camera. Later when I look at the photograph I see that my hardhat is slightly askew. I look for other telltale signs of weakness and find none.

after a chest x-ray
showing congestion
in both lungs
the lush green leaves
of the liquidambar tree

Warming up a bit yes – no by Stanley Pelter

there are concerns
about stuffed polar bears
that decorate xmas stores
quizzical smiles
edge a severe winter freeze

I know our goddam planet is warming up fast. No, I have no idea how fast. Yes, I do listen to TV experts, read wandering journalists ever-changing predictions in sassy newspapers. No, I do not know it is just about on us. Yes, I am scared some mornings. Come a sunny afternoon, fear dissipates. Then I am indifferent. What about you?

I blame it on biorhythmic blips.

No. Don’t give me that devil’s red-eye language, anti-clockwise structures or god’s antibody, heavy black hole electro . . .

OK. No.

Yes – No. Polar bears will sink, seals drown, water levels rise to new benchmarks for beaches. Mark my words. In no time at all. Just mark my words.

Mark your what?

Clichés, of course. I’m warming to them. What’s yours?

Breaking up children’s game. Scratching patterns in ice flows. Attracting mini-dictators who fail to confront adult quarrels in an adult way. Rooting out clumps of adverbs.

Mine is heads or tails, outside via in, rows of tree stakes that wave lines across fields until straightened by being driven past, angels sandblasted on cathedral doors, long, thin stained glass windows with mostly abstract designs that replace . . .

Don’t forget furred-up, wartime kettles clinging onto last spits of crazed water, weather beaten knots of noose rope pressure, bodies swaying under cloud dismembering sea waves, repeated flukes, green eye-shape buttons that never do up, Croats with curved throat slitting knives..

That’s why this goddam place is warming up. There is just so much going on, going on, going, going gone.

we casually attend
an ice age meltdown
on a birthday card
pastiche butterflies
gasp for breath

Where Would You Begin? by Francis Masat

I love to watch Navy movies. But I always wondered how the dead boys’ He will find them, sunk to the bottom. I’ve read that the sea will give up its dead, but it always makes me think.

April 15th –
carried on the breeze
the Symphony plays
“Festival at Baghdad”

What about my grandparents buried facing West? If their He comes from the East, will He notice them? And Uncle Steve, whose pieces were left up the Seine by fish from Normandy? Or those in the 9/11 planes? When they condensed, did they rain into the Hudson? Or what about our Pat, her ashes now spread by floods? How will her He know one grain of sand from another? Or Sgt. Jones in a sealed coffin, most of him melted onto a Baghdad street?

old war clip —
again and again
alive – dead, alive – dead, . . .
medals hanging
in a frame

I guess that a He or She has all the time in the universe to finish their work. But still, where would you begin?

under a cloud
an eagle circles
with a vulture –
from the meadow
a dove’s song

A Short Con by Terry Ingram

the empty lot
where they held camp meetings
now a highrise
faint strains of songs
float in the rain

My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, my grandmother his choir director and pianist. When I was a child they took me with them to old fashioned tent revivals.

I had a job to do. Before the congregation was exhorted to be saved, I was asked to sing a hymn. As I sang “I Come to the Garden Alone”, I stepped from the altar and walked down the center aisle, pausing halfway to turn and face my grandfather, and while still singing, gesture for the crowd to step up and accept salvation. At the hymn’s conclusion I would fall to my knees and bow my head.

While the sinners and faithful surged forward, other children were dispatched from the back of the tent to escort me outside to play, providing a swift and efficient exit.

Soon I grew older and was no longer asked to accompany my grandparents.

They preferred singers under eight years of age.

in green celluloid visor
au naturel
my nudist grandfather
a doubly defrocked preacher

Mint Tea from a Beaten-Copper Pot by Amelia Fielden

Morocco :
gold-spiced memories
of your birth
by the river Bouregreg
eucalypts shading your sleep

A peaceful suburb of Rabat one hot Sunday afternoon in early July, 1971.

You are only ten days old, my precious daughter, Miriam.

“The King is dead. Long live the revolution!” from the radio a voice bellowing in Arabic and French, over and over.

Alerted of an attack on the royal birthday celebrations by his Japanese colleague, ‘monsieur’ has rushed to the embassy in town to make cable contact with the Foreign Office in London.

I cancel Fatima’s weekly outing. She locks our high wrought-iron gates, bolts our cedar doors. Then we feed the children, drink mint tea, and wait.

And drink mint tea and wait.

And wait.

The King is not dead. As peasant soldiers under the orders of disaffected army officers burst into the coastal compound, sniping at panicked guests and golf-caddies, Hassan, 11, has secreted himself in a turret bathroom of his summer palace.

He is to survive this, half a dozen further coups and assassination attempts, and will die of heart disease at the age of 70, many years on.

The revolution is short-lived. Rebels take over the Treasury – but not the Post Office – and there are several days of skirmishes through the centre of Rabat. Eventually Royal Moroccan troops loyal to their despotic ruler prevail.

The French-educated leaders of the coup are executed, swiftly, publicly. Nothing more is heard of the soldiers they commanded.

The merry-go-round of diplomatic functions starts up again.

But this is no longer my ‘paradise on earth’.

spilling over
tall white-washed walls
screams and gun-shots

A Troubling Whiff by Guy Simser

Nothing inflames memory as does “scent”. Take 1944 coal for example, when dad taught me to stoke the furnace: Use both hands to yank open the heavy iron door. Haul your heavy load from the pile carefully so that nothing falls to dirty the floor. Then, standing sideways to the pit, heave your load Deep into Hades! I watched a burst of flames and pungent smoke puff up the chimney with a woof. Went upstairs and washed my dirty shovel hands, smiling with accomplishment.

Later, during summer holidays, I cleaned high school boilers. An eager little wage-earner, I crawled through the large door to scrape baked tar and ash off the walls. Tar and ash! That smell taints you, my girlfriend said, even though each day after work I had whipped myself pink at the Finnish sauna. She was right. It takes time to cleanse oneself of this.

At university I joined the army. A few years after graduation came marriage and my battalion’s NATO posting to West Germany. We sailed the Atlantic for nine days with wives and children to Bremerhaven, where our special-use train chugged dockside right on schedule. There, young and old with hand luggage and wobbly legs, lined up to board for our final destination.

that steam whistle wail
and clickity-clack of track
a flashback
to an old soundtrack . . .
that shoah archive film

Our train departed on the minute. A whiff of cinders seeped through rattling coach doors. As troop conducting officer, I inspected our lunch being prepared in large metal pots on swaying coal stoves. Stovepipe fumes overwhelmed the stew aroma. Our plates were served on schedule according to our movement order. The system worked.

Once in Werl, we acquainted ourselves with our hosts and their culture. So much to learn, but what struck me right away was the importance of coal. With so many deposits buried under foot, Germans had become proficient in its extraction and use; and yet they appeared to have become inured to that tainted air of tar and ash. I wondered, just when, had that conditioning occurred.

by dachau ovens
we squeeze each other’s hand
that whiff of tar and ash
our munich guide eyes her feet

Off Westminster Bridge by Owen Bullock

The bannister well-worn, the wood above the bar and in the ceiling hand-carved. A man places an order. After he sits down, his soft English accent says into a cellphone: ‘I’ve just got to get a suit and then we’ll go out and get smashed’.

While he’s eating, his phone goes off. He replies in fluent Spanish and I realise he is Spanish. He finishes his meal and leaves the rest of his pint; he’s drunk just over half of it.

mirror in the stairwell
and a mirror opposite –
the narrow pub
and patterned wallpaper
go on for ever

Florentine Studies by Charles Tarlton

morning in Florence
the shops still closed
before Vespas clog
the narrow streets
of the Quattrocento

When I visited Florence, Italy, in 1969, I stayed in a pension altro Arno, a huge house of red stone behind high walls. From the balcony of my room you could see into the garden of a neighboring convent and, then, up through the cypress trees, a section of the old city wall.

A very large green, blue, yellow, and red parrot lived along a rusted pipe that extended from the ground to the roof, running by all the rented balconies. He could hold on with both feet and scurry up and down the pipe to wherever there was food or interest. He talked incessantly.

from his perch
this old bird
an ancient bird
sings the same song again
always the same song

That year the Arno had overflowed. I was scheduled to view Machiavelli’s letters and manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, but the library basement was still flooded and my visit cancelled. There I was in Florence for two weeks with no responsibilities at all. Sitting at a café in front of Michelangelo’s David, I made plans.

In the anfiteatro at Fiesole a company from Rome was performing Machiavelli’s play, Mandragola, a politically ironic and bitter sexual farce. Sitting next to me on the ancient stone slab seats was a professor of biology from the University of Florence. He spoke perfect English and, over a coffee during the break, he explained to me that the Italian (really Tuscan) of the play sounded old and distant to him, the way Shakespeare must have sounded to me. I told him that I really couldn’t understand the Italian, anyway, but that I had studied the play so intensely in English that I always knew what was happening.

Cesare Borgia
once butchered enemies
at a banquet—
later at dinner
I look for a corner table

a child of fortuna
Borgia tried to ride the wind
over mountains
not even Machiavelli’s favorite
was lighter than air

In the street where I was staying was a rosticceria where, for a couple of dollars, you could buy roast chicken, hearth baked green lasagna, and fried zucchini flowers. Around the corner you could buy a gallon or so of Chianti for another dollar. I thought about staying there forever.

Chianti is vino dalle colline
Arezzo, Pistoia, Siena, Pisa
in the hilly geography
of princely ambition

Up on the Belvedere I watched the fireworks on San Giovanni’s feast day, as D. H. Lawrence had done, in dismay—flash, boom, and confusion, ending in an orgasm of endless explosions. I looked around for Lawrence’s frightened dog underneath the parked cars; he was not to be found.

White Wine by Gerry Jacobson

We sit in the shade, beneath the vine. On a geological conference tour, we’ve stopped for lunch at a vineyard, somewhere in the old Transvaal. We sample the local white wine.

it’s delicate green
through a glass lightly
sauvignon blanc –
I taste the terroir –
chalk and clay and flint

I turn to my neighbour, say hello, excellent wine! Dark haired man, dapper white suit. On his lapel badge I read Professor X (a long Greek name, tricky for me to pronounce). I ask his first name.

“Oh!” he says “I’m Dionysius!”

~ Transvaal, South Africa

Red Marble by Marilyn Hazelton

In rooms of El Escorial, the palace from which Felipe II directed the Counter Reformation throughout Europe, martyrs gaze toward heaven as blood streams from their wounds. Hand pressed hard to mouth, I pass the kind of depictions that sent me stumbling into the world decades ago, stripped of faith.

art justifying
with little mercy
a cell phone rings

Somewhat later, I follow men and women in their Sunday best through the public entrance of Felipe’s private cathedral. The guidebook in my hand tells me that my companions’ stunted growth came from malnutrition during Spanish Civil War childhoods. At 5‘, 3”, I am tallest, at 66, the youngest. Together we shuffle past a guard, his arms crossed, eyes half-closed. I am startled by the beauty of the ceilings and walls.

angels lift saints
toward heaven’s blue
so thinly painted
that good life

We wander down the main aisle to sit or kneel. A velvet rope divides sanctuary from pew. Steps of red marble veined with white, as if to remind the faithful of the body and blood of Christ, lead to the high altar. I remember that the basilica is modeled on descriptions of Solomon’s Temple. Also, Felipe’s Inquisition tortured or executed those accused of being “secret Jews”.

in the Temple
emade as cathedral
grips the hand
of doubt

A woman in a red and white dress, her hair tinted the color of sunset, pauses before the velvet rope. She reminds me of my mother years after giving birth to eight children. I watch, mouth open, as she slips beneath the flimsy barrier. Blending with the marble, flatfooted, she pulls herself up each of the seventeen steps. Finally, her back to the altar, she stands at Felipe’s private entrance to the cathedral, the open door of his bedroom. From his bed, the dying king could see the host raised and chalice lifted.

each morning
bread and wine
what did that ritual
have to do with living?

This intruder in a gaudy dress raises her arm and waves Hello!!! to a ruler described as keeping “his smile and his dagger” very close. What can I do but adopt her as una madre? She turns, renavigates steps of privilege and slips beneath the rope. As the guard walks rapidly down the aisle in panic, mi madre española pats her hair, smoothes her dress, and rejoins her friends.

saint nor martyr
I rise
to light a candle
for all spells broken

Step on a Crack by Keitha Keyes

asleep in the river bed . . .
we look down on them
from our four star balconies,
sipping fine wines at sunset

After dinner we walk into town. We pass noisy pubs with people spilling out onto the streets. We feel uneasy. I wonder if we would feel this way if the people were white. I remember our schoolyard rhyme “Step on a crack, marry a black.” Prejudice learnt in kindergarten.

The next morning our tour starts early. It’s still very cold when our coach arrives at a large tin shed in the middle of nowhere. We arrange deckchairs around the perimeter of the shed and peer inside.

A campfire. Aboriginal women sit cross-legged, painting on small pieces of vinyl. A man lounges in the red dust. Masses of blankets on the ground. Bulges under the blankets move, children’s tousled heads emerge. Blond streaks in their hair. Recently I found out that one of my German ancestors was “given comfort” by an Aboriginal woman. I wonder if I am related to any of these people.

An old man plays the didgeridoo, another claps sticks together, three women stomp around a pole to demonstrate a corroboree. Their bare breasts are decorated with bright red, yellow and orange circles. We are told they will pose for a photo if we buy one of their paintings.

in morning shadows
wisps of smoke from a campfire
huddles of blankets . . .
elders sit in silence
tour guides tell their stories

Rare Treat by Pat Prime

The thin air of Tibet gives me a splitting headache and I toss and turn all night in my hotel bed. Today we are going to the Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama.

But I’m unable to go. Our translator, Daisy, knocks early to say we’ll be leaving in an hour. When she hears I’m not well, she comes inside and gently takes my hand. She asks, “Would you like the oxygen tank brought in?” I tell her no, it’s only a migraine, no breathing difficulties. I need to stay in bed in the dark for a while. Daisy asks my friend if she still wants to go, but she says she doesn’t want to leave me and will stay and write postcards to her family and friends. Daisy says she will come back after lunch and see if I’m better.

A young woman, in traditional costume, brings us some delicious soup for lunch, and afterwards I’m able to get up, shower and dress.

golden cranes
on lacquered cups
filled with green tea . . .
the fragrance of marigolds
on the window sill

Daisy and the driver arrive to take us to the Potala Palace, a magnificent scarlet and white building on a hillside, surrounded by white-peaked mountains beneath a brilliant blue sky. A monk approaches. Wrapped around his hands are prayer shawls that he presents to us with a smile and a nod of his shaven head. We gaze in awe at the more-than-life-sized golden Buddha and crowd with the Tibetans into a small room decorated with pictures of the Dalai Lama. A small shrine, brightened with yak-butter candles, wizened apples and flowers, stands before his portrait. From there, it is several flights of wooden steps down to the kitchens where nuns are preparing food.

ancient women
in the temple kitchen
fan a thorn wood fire
no one minds the smoke
drifting in and out

Waking in a Thai Village by M L Grace

Si Satchanali
a line of stone elephants
encroached by jungle
in this crumbling ruin
time has no urgency

A rooster crows and is answered by another as I lie on a thin mattress spread on the teak floor-boards and listen to the tap-tapping noise of the mortar and pestles at work, in the compound, grinding the paste for the first meal of the day. The ubiquitous kow thom, a rice based gruel with chilli and scraps of meat and sometimes topped with a raw egg.

A dog howls and pigs grunt as they forage under the house which is raised on stilts like others in this village built along the wide brown river Yom, which has recently flooded in the wet.

I crawl out from under a bright pink mosquito net and give my sarong a quick flick, checking for scorpions, before wrapping it around myself.

Slinging the sarong over a half door I dip again and again using the tin scoop to pour cool water over my body from a dragon decorated stoneware urn, washing away soap and prickly heat of the night. Water trickles through wide cracks between floor boards onto the ground below.

old wat phra prang
an ancient walking Buddha
in a stone niche
fresh flowers strewn
near a missing leg

This bibliography is lifted from the “Tanka prose” entry on Wikipedia. I would encourage all writers to peruse the essays and interviews listed below to better understand the history and development of the form and, of course, to read the tanka prose that is regularly published in Atlas PoeticaCattailsHaibun Today, Kokako, and Contemporary Haibun Online. Also, the annual anthology Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka includes tanka prose pieces.

Kunschke, Ingrid. “Tanka und Prosa,” TankaNetz (December 2004) (in German).

Prime, Patricia. “Irresistible Constructions: a tanka prose essay,” Modern English Tanka V3, N1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 214-224.

Prime, Patricia. “Talking Points: Jeffrey Woodward on Haibun and Tanka Prose,” Simply Haiku V6, N3 (Autumn 2008).

Rasmussen, Ray. “Terra Incognita—The World of Haibun and Tanka Prose, An Interview with Jeffrey Woodward,” Contemporary Haibun Online V5, N4 (December 2009).

Santa Fe Poetry Broadside 55: Tanka Prose Special Issue (September 2008).

Woodward, Jeffrey. “The Elements of Tanka Prose,” Modern English Tanka V2, N4 (Summer 2008), pp. 194-206.

Woodward, Jeffrey. “Prose and Verse in Tandem: Haibun and Tanka Prose,” Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 2 (Winter 2009), pp. 154-163. Reprinted in Haibun Today V4, N4 (Dec 2010).

Woodward, Jeffrey. “The Road Ahead for Tanka in English,” Modern English Tanka V2, N2 (Winter 2007), pp. 179-187.

Woodward, Jeffrey. “Tanka Prose and Haibun Today,” Haibun Today (Sept. 25, 2008).

Woodward, Jeffrey (Editor). The Tanka Prose Anthology. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in Keibooks: Atlas Poetica and then in contemporary haibun online 17.3 (December 2021) and appears here with the author’s permission.

Bob Lucky is the author most recently of My Thology: Not Always True But Always Truth (Cyberwit, 2019) and the chapbook Conversation Starters in a Language No One Speaks (SurVision Books, 2018), which was a winner of the James Tate Poetry Prize in 2018. Bob lives in Portugal, where he is working his way through all the regional cheeses and wines.