The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations

 The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations

Winner of the 2019 International Women's Haiku Contest

The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations - released by Sable Books, October 2020:

"The Language of Loss contains tanka and haiku of exceptional quality. But it is the remarkable way in which the poet links tanka and haiku that elevated The Language of Loss into the winner's circle. The poems on each page come together in a conversation of many layers. That these conversations will deepen and change for each reader is due to the author's expertise. I am delighted to congratulate Debbie Strange on her winning collection."

"These exquisite poems illuminate the skill of the author in pairing haiku and tanka in conversation, one page at a time. On one page, the long ago past talks to the recent past. On another, the sorrow of the natural world is juxtaposed with that of the human world."

—Roberta Beary, final judge
author of The Unworn Necklace, and Deflection


The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations - Review by Jenny Ward Angyal in Ribbons, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2021:

This beautiful little book by Debbie Strange is the winner of the 2019 International Women's Haiku Book Contest, sponsored by Sable Books and judged by Roberta Beary. The subtitle is important: "Haiku & Tanka Conversations." Only a minority of short-form poets write both tanka and haiku masterfully, but Debbie Strange is certainly among them. The thirty-two "conversations" in this book, each composed of one tanka and one haiku, bridge the supposed divide between the genres, demonstrating, with grace and power, that they share solid ground despite their differences.

The conversations are spoken in the "language of loss" —loss of loved ones, family and friends; of home and health; of time and certainty. The tone is elegiac, but elegy speaks of love, as well as loss. The effect is both cathartic and uplifting as it invites the reader to deep reflection on the human condition.

For Debbie Strange, that human condition is rooted in the larger world that created and sustains us:

a star tortoise
carries the universe
on its back . . .
are we slowly moving
away from each other

dark matter
we never plan
to be alone

The tanka refers to the myth, common to many cultures, that the world is supported on the back of a giant turtle. The real Indian star tortoise is a strikingly handsome creature, the pattern of its carapace reminiscent of Indra's net of stars, with every point connected to every other. Ironically, it is threatened with extinction because of the exotic pet trade; the upper verse leads one to ponder what will happen if humankind unwisely destroys the world-turtle. The juxtaposed question in the lower verse of the tanka seems very personal, suggesting a difficult human relationship. Or does it refer to the expanding universe, in which every point is moving away from every other? Or both?

In the next breath we move to "dark matter," that mysterious "stuff" that comprises most of the matter in the universe, but which we cannot see—a bit like our unconscious minds. While we "never plan to be alone," most of us will be engulfed by the "dark matter" of loneliness at one time or another. This eight-line conversation between tanka and haiku weaves together human nature and the nature of the universe. Breathtaking, it leaves the reader pondering just what we are:

we are kin
to birds of passage
in far-flung places,
never quite at home

windblown seeds
refugees try to cross
the border

Of course, we are literally "kin to birds of passage," since all life on Earth is related. But we are also kin in a psychological sense, "never quite at home" anywhere. Even those who spend their whole lives in one place may feel that deeper sense of dislocation, of not knowing just where they "fit" in the larger scheme of things.

The haiku responds with an image of refugees as "windblown seeds." All across the planet, human migrants are trying to cross borders as violence, climate change, and famine drive massive dislocations. These migrants carry seeds—their genes, language, and culture—to new lands, where they may or may not take root. But in a deeper sense, we are "refugees" from loss, uncertainty, and fear, trying to "cross the border" into an illumined understanding of our true place in the universe and the meanings of our lives.

The book's very last conversation reflects on both illumination and the end of life:

bind my body
with spanworm silk
lay me down
in a shaded garden
until I turn to earth

drying moth . . .
not everyone makes it
to the light

This tanka displays a classic beauty, with its perfect form, rhythmical lines, subtly chiming sounds, and stunning images. It expresses a wish relatable to anyone who loves the Earth and feels herself already a part of its ancient rhythms of living and dying.

The haiku is more challenging: what are we to make of that bald statement, "not everyone makes it to the light"? Perhaps the poet is saying that death is just a final annihilation, and all our yearning, wondering, and seeking come to no more than the dust on a dead moth's wing. Many moths die because they are mesmerized by light that plays them false—singed in a candle flame, picked off by predators, or exhausted by endless circling. Perhaps the key, for human beings, is to discriminate which sources of light are worth flying toward. Or maybe there is no celestial light guiding us "home." Earth is our home and it is enough that we end—as the tanka says—by "turning to earth."

These three conversations are just a small sample of the riches to be unearthed in The Language of Loss. The book is a testament to the synergy that can happen when a master poet brings haiku and tanka into dialogue. It is also a beacon, illuminating what the human spirit can create during its passage through life and loss.


The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations - Review by Kristen Lindquist in Frogpond, Volume 44:3, Autumn 2021:

Debbie Strange is a widely published, award-winning Canadian poet from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her book, The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations, was the winner of the 2019 International Women's Haiku Contest, judged by Roberta Beary, as well an an honorable mention in the HSA 2021 Merit Book Awards (see page 146,) judged by Ce Rosenow and Bryan Rickert. Strange's experience shows in this thoughtfully curated, assured, and masterfully evocative collection of 32 tanka/haiku pairings, arranged one pairing to a page.

As a poet, I couldn't help but wonder at the time and creative effort that must have gone into putting together this exquisitely well-crafted collection. The tanka and haiku were presumably not written together or to specifically go together—I know I've seen some of these haiku, for example, published on their own in various journals—so every pairing gave me pause as I parsed it from a technical standpoint and imagined what went into each choice Strange must have made as she constructed this book.

As a reader, I found myself marveling with each turn of the page at the layers of meaning and emotional resonance created on at least three different levels: first, the conversation between tanka and haiku in each pairing on the page; then, the internal juxtapositions within each poem per se; and finally, for all but the first and last pairings, the associations made with the pairing on the opposite page. There's so much going on here, and it's a great pleasure to spend time with each page-spread to let it all sink in.

The theme of loss echoes relentlessly, yet beautifully, through this most aptly titled book, giving it a thematic and emotional consistency that hits us in the heart and in the head. For example, Strange pairs these two poems on one page:

farm auction . . .
we have nothing
left to lose
except these thistles
rooted in our hearts

empty nest
on the for sale sign
mourning doves

One could write an entire essay discussing the swirl of images and feelings present in each of these two poems, as well as between them, culminating in why "mourning doves" is the perfect fragment for the haiku and the best possible final line for this pairing. We pick up on failure of a way of life, the loss of home, a sense of shared family pain, an image of a fallow field overgrown with thistles, grief . . . and then we move on to the pairing on the facing page:

crafted with love,
this table you made
from ash trees
planted for the children
we never had

deep canyon
our prayers sink
to the bottom

More shared family pain, more mourning, and unanswered prayers, and a sense of home that's still tinged with sadness . . . Read together, the two pages thus encapsulate what could be construed as an entire family saga! This is only possible because of the combination of genres: the one-two punch of the longer, more emotionally explicit tanka leading into the terse containment of the haiku, like the two parts of an exclamation point. That a collection redolent of grief and loss could be thus represented as a series of exclamation points speaks to Strange's remarkable abilities as poet.


The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations - Review by Colin Blundell in Blithe Spirit, Volume 31, Number 2, May 2021:

The title of Debbie Strange's neat little book is well-chosen because, although the tanka and haiku relate to various personal losses, we are left free to consider the nature of 'loss' in the abstract and then to meditate on the exquisite variety of moments related to particular losses, with which we are not being asked to identify, either with person or manner of loss; the truly engaging thing is that we are invited to observe delicate conversation pieces involving a great variety of concrete images. The conversations and the feelings they inspire take place for us in the silent space between a tanka and its associated haiku on each page. The guiding principle is that we most eloquently feel loss in silence rather than in any more dramatic way.

we offer her
to the warm earth
in a silence
more eloquent than any
language of loss

The haiku response to this across the silent space where we are left to feel whatever we feel is typically lodged at a tangent coming from some other place in the same way that a haiku should function in a haibun. Then we are left to make the conversation for ourselves.

gone too soon
sakura blossoms
my old friends

It is most interesting that each tanka serves as a virtual 'present moment' from which the haiku is derived in the silence from which all true haiku are born when the writer is 'sitting quietly doing nothing'. This haiku can be read in a number of ways: cherry blossoms in spring are like old friends who often disappear without letting us know; they are gone too soon as when the petals fall from the tree; blossoms and old friends merge together.

wavering veils
of snow geese in transit
remind me
of the way life comes
together . . . falls apart

The extraordinary image for a passing flight of birds, 'wavering veils', turns the pedestrian phrase 'in transit' into something new because it's so out of its normal context. It serves to remind me/of the way life comes... (here one can pause if only for an instant)—a well-judged caesura because life not only comes/together but, in the next line, it also 'falls apart'...

In the silent space we think about the implications of all this: what do we do that's worthwhile between the coming and the going of this one & only life? Again a tangential response and equally complex in its verbal simplicity.

the time we meant
to make

What do we do between the coming and the going? Make the old family heirlooms work for us, make heirlooms for our children's children, or just make time itself work productively for ourselves...This is the kind of thoughtful conversation one can have with oneself before going back to the words of the tanka.

This is a linguistically very impressive collection. Every single one of the thirty-two pages prompts a keen meditation.


The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations - Review by Joanne Morcom in GUSTS, Number 33, Spring/Summer 2021:

This collection was the winner of the 2019 International Women's Haiku Contest and in the words of final judge Roberta Beary the poems "...illuminate the skill of the author in pairing haiku and tanka in conversation, one page at at time." The thirty-two pairs address many topics from flowers to fireflies and beyond, yet there's an underlying sense of loss, reflected in the book's title, the dedication to deceased family members, and of course the poems themselves. Here's the tanka that contains the title, and its haiku companion.

we offer her
to the warm earth
in a silence
more eloquent than any
language of loss

gone too soon
sakura blossoms
my old friends

The poet's gentle grief increases the poignancy, especially when expressed through the imagery of warm earth, silence and falling blossoms. Sometimes when words cannot adequately express strong emotions, nature is much more articulate. Another pair addresses anticipatory grief, as a mother's cognition declines. Once again, nature imagery adds richness to the poem. Very noteworthy are the references to embers and rose hips in the first line of the tanka and fireflies in the last line of the haiku. As fires die, roses wither, and night falls, so do our loved ones fade away before our eyes. Often all we can do is bear witness.

small embers
of rose hips is snow . . .
the look
in mother's vacant eyes
so hard to define

our names
escape her

In another pairing, the focus shifts to relationship issues, perhaps with a spouse. The overall tone is somewhat light, as the poet admits that she can calm everything but her significant other. He or she is perhaps wilder than the poet's horse! But the chiaroscuro reference suggests a darker undertone. It's not altogether clear if the issues are fully resolved, but relationships and life carry on regardless. Resolution may not even be desirable.

I measure
my horse at his withers . . .
these hands
know how to gentle
everything but you

I let go of the need
to appease

The poems in The Language of Loss were previously published and several have received awards. Remarkably, the conversations flow effortlessly and seamlessly, as if they were written just for this collection. Here's an achievement that both haiku and tanka lovers will doubtless appreciate. Hopefully, Debbie Strange produces another collection in the same eloquent style.


The Language of Loss: Haiku & Tanka Conversations - Review by Sandra Stephenson (USA) in the Haiku Canada Review, Volume 15, Number 1, February 2021:

How can I write a review of a book about death and marital loss published in 2020 without mentioning Covid, even if the disease and its collateral damage to family ties and mental health were unheard of when this book went to print? Is it a timely book? Yes. Can it soothe people who have experienced their own recent loss? These poems are very personal. Whispered confidences about specific troubles. The lift in them comes from the author's real affection for and inspiration from the natural world. The whistle of a wood duck, the yellow leaf, the necklace of sea foam, the antelope, the orca, the bridge. Pan-Canadian.

empty next
on the for sale sign
mourning doves

When it won the 2019 International Women's Haiku Contest, a great deal was made of the conversational presentation of the haiku and tanka in Strange's collection. They appear on the page in pairs: one tanka, one haiku. A modified renku of the writer with herself. Strange has possibly invented a new form, one that could be played with.

For example, on p. 18 there is a tanka that could be split into haiku and response, and it's followed by another haiku which could as easily be a tanka using the last two lines of the poem above it as its first lines.

a car filled
with catcalling men
follows me . . .
I long to walk alone
in the sweet evening air

city sirens
the wolves that used to
sing us home

Arranging it as she has bespeaks a solidity and a flow which give the works authority.

A Canadian living in Winnipeg, Debbie Strange fills out a missing voice in this country, and represents Canadian haiku abroad by participating. I took note of her in my review of the Wales Haiku Journal last winter. Some of her poems have a signature subtle elegance. Ten awards and 34 publishers who already printed these poems are listed in the back of the book. There's nothing I can add to these commendations.

dense fog
the softened beacon
of an ambulance

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