REVIEWS

Just This

new_coverjust_this_back_cover

THE OREGON POETRY ASSOCIATION

Read Penelope Schott’s review of Just This on The Oregon Poetry Association’s website


CHA: AN ASIAN LITERARY JOURNAL | SEPTEMBER 2014

Ready for Close-up: Review of poetry by Yong Shu Hoong, Margaret Chula and Wen Yiduo
by Mags Webster

Just This - Margaret ChulaStagnant WaterThe Viewing Party - Margaret Chula

Yong Shu Hoong, The Viewing Party, Ethos Books, 2013. 134 pgs.
Margaret Chula, Just This, Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013. 92 pgs.
Wen Yiduo (author), Robert Hammond Dorsett (translator), Stagnant Water and Other Poems, Bright City Books, 2014. 87 pgs.

In Just This, her book of tanka, otherwise known as the Japanese “short song,” Margaret Chula writes “I dream of doors / opening, closing,” and each five-line lyric is indeed like a door, opening to offer glimpses of bereavement, illness, change, love, ageing and acceptance, before softly closing again.

The book, dedicated to the memory of Chula’s mother, is organised in five sections, twenty-five tanka apiece, the arrangement typical of classical Japanese collections. Each section’s title page features a translated waka (the original name for tanka) by Ono no Komachi or Izumi Shikibu, the preeminent female poets of Japan’s imperial Heian period. Composed over a thousand years ago, these waka not only set the tone for the following sequences, they also signal Chula’s deep understanding of and homage to the unique status and achievement of the female poet at this time in Japan’s cultural history, a golden age when their voices were sought after and revered. Indeed, when she writes “I spend the day / reading the diaries / of Heian women” Chula is acknowledging the artistic and spiritual traditions bequeathed to succeeding generations of poets all over the world.

Just This begins in the garden, late summer, just before dusk—a time and season prefiguring the passing of things—and ends full-circle with the garden’s “handful of lilacs / and mint for my tea”: simple gifts suggestive of resurgence and renewal. The collection reads like a personal odyssey through the sensual world, where memories are triggered by everything from the sight of a surfacing koi (“all mouth and whiskers / suddenly / I long for your kiss”) to jars of cosmetics (“rubbing in face cream / I feel my mother’s bones”). The tone is elegiac: through the work threads the voice of a mature woman, seasoned by love and loss:

once again I hear
your voice
in the summer rain
rising with the river
yet now there’s no tumult
of water over rock

Chula references family illness and bereavement without sentimentality: “it’s snowing again / and Mother is gone.” Yet though sometimes she may be direct, she also has the minimalist’s gift for allusion. This is where the light and shade of the lived experience permeates the pages most powerfully, especially in the closing sequence of poems where she delivers a poignant reference to the inevitable effect of time on a woman’s body:

walking the path
through the dark garden
the moonlight
shines 
on the flower
with no scent

With the tanka arranged two, three or four to a double-page spread, suspended in white space, this is an elegantly sculpted and well-paced collection that blends the quotidian—Bloody Marys, googling, co-worker, consignment shop—with the lyrical:

yesterday’s desires
what were they?
a vase
without flowers
holds only itself

There are variations on layout and line indentations that offer texture to the poems, the sign of a confident poet. Indeed, Chula has written in Japanese poetry forms for over thirty years. Her work has won many awards, and with this collection it is easy to see why. Her descriptions are intensely sensory—”the ferment of apples and grief,” “the smell of Mother in winter,” “jingle of bracelets,” “lilt of a Mozart concerto”—and when she sustains this specificity-within-simplicity, her work lifts from the page, becomes plangent. Tanka, like haiku, puts language under the microscope; it is a miniaturist art. Chula has an acute eye for the detail beneath the detail.


ISSA’S UNTIDY HUT

Just This by Margaret Chula: Small Press Friday
FRIDAY, JUNE 28TH, 2013 | Issa’s Untidy Hut

When and if the lyric poem approaches the beauty of a fresh blossom, we are in the presence of a master craftswoman.

When it comes to tanka form, Margaret Chula is that.

There is a deep richness in the finest of poems in this new collection, Just This, by Margaret Chula, a plumbing of the dark fertile soil of emotional depths fully, sensually experienced, with a delicacy as breathtaking as it is powerful.

every leaf, weed, blossom
curves to the sun
my shears straddle
the dark place
between limbs

Always, there is a closeness to nature, as in all fine tanka.

felled by a typhoon
yet these maple leaves
turn a brilliant hue
middleage and married, why
do I blush when I see you?

How perfect it is that the question itself contains something like an answer.

swimming side by side
tails waving in unison
two silver carp
oh, to be that close again
two lovers, drifting

There is something so right about this image, analogous in a beautifully precise manner. There are as many definitions of love as there are of poetry and, yes, this is one of them.

once I gathered
dandelion flowers
for a spring bouquet
now I boil there jagged leaves
and drink their bitter tonic

Here is the other side of the very same coin, one side struck and minted with the image of two carp, the other with a cup of bitter brew.

circling
my mind’s disturbances
incense smoke
in the meditation bowl
nothing but dust

Meditation ultimately brings us all to this point, of dust in the bowl – how the smoke entwines the unsettled mind, once again question and answer as one.

Mountains and Rivers Press consistently presents some of the finest work in brief and Eastern forms. Their lineup of poets is as marvelous as it is formidable. I see some Cid Corman titles that I believe I need to be reading. Others also.

But, for the moment, here is a marvelous collection of wondrous tanka by Margaret Chula. This is just but a taste – there are well over 100 poems to connect with. Get this volume direct from Mountains and Rivers – after all, it is Small Press Friday.


 

POETICA: CRITIQUES OF POETRY AND POETICS

Book review by Joel Weishaus / Review


 

FAST FIVE: INTERVIEWS WITH GREAT WRITERS

Interview by Drew Myron, July 2013


 

ADDITIONAL PRAISE FOR JUST THIS

What a moving and beautiful collection. Thank you, for your sensibility, and your artistry. In sympathy with the form, I confined myself to five tanka per day and it was often hard to stop. I love the poignant recurrence of your mother, your deft attention to the groundless perennial states of longing, and your resonant sympathy with flowers and weathers. The fragrances in here alone woke up some deep associative levels of mind, and made me resolve to be ever more alert. – Charles Goodrich

Margaret’s tanka truly Izumi Shikibu’s lineage – descendants! This book brings me huge pleasure. – Jane Hirshfield

I’ve just read the Margaret Chula poems that Don Wentworth posted. Stunning! She writes big, timeless. Timeless: as in fully present. – Charlie Mehrhoff

Just This is breathtaking in every way, as I knew it would be! Supremely, of course, it is a collection of tanka to savor, to study, to go back to in memory and in print, to recommend, and to give. – Carol Purington

Maggie, your book is wonderful! I’m just scratching the surface and loving it, and will take it with me to Colorado along with a few other friends whose books I want to read. Your tanka are exquisite, so honest. Much admiration. – Carole MacRury

Thanks for sending the West Marin Review a copy of your beautiful new book. It’s delicious! – Doris Ober

Just finished reading Margaret Chula’s new book of tanka Just This for the second time. Out of 100 poems I couldn’t find one cull. Amazing. – Johnny Baranski

This morning I received your new book Just This in the mail. I spent this afternoon sitting near the open window of my studio listening to the rain fall outside while reading your lovely book from cover to cover. Very touching and beautifully written! I think it was cathartic for me to read as my mother passed away in 2010 and I could deeply relate through your expressive words. Congratulations on a wonderful collection! I am honored to contribute the portrait. – Marq Sutherland