Just This


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

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

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

by Mags Webster

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 organized 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 Mary’s, 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.