Three-Part Harmony: Tanka Verses

Three-Part Harmony, Tanka Verses

Three-Part Harmony, Tanka Verses - a tanka collection released by Keibooks 2018

Press Release

7 June 2018

In Three-Part Harmony, Tanka Verses, Debbie Strange has taken her previously published tanka and strung them together like notes on a staff to create a new set of trios that together form a seamless symphony. Each tanka poem stands on its own as a fully developed verse full of meaning and music, but joins together with the other members of its trio to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Each verse is like a musical instrument with its own unique voice, but blends in harmony with the sounds of its mates to form a richly sonorous tapestry of sound and image. Readers who loved her previous book of tanka, Warp and Weft, Tanka Threads, will be delighted by her newest collection. For those who are new to the poetry of Debbie Strange, Three-Part Harmony is an excellent introduction. 

I am
the black
and holy roundness
of stone
and water

f i n a l l y
the river trail freezes
our ski tracks
the only graffiti
in this whitewashed city

ease me down
into cool waters
plait my hair
with green willow roots
make of me your anchor

fence posts
wearing prairie crows
and dust shrouds
we strum the rutted road
with barbed wire fingers

along the arroyo
my every bone thirsty
for one last taste of you

“Debbie's tanka are all richly layered, with every word carefully chosen. In her triptychs, she explores the interplay of natural and human worlds in a very deep way, more so than would be possible in individual tanka. The quality of individual tanka is consistently high, and the interweaving of themes between the sets of tanka is also impressive. I highly recommend this book!” — Ken Slaughter, Past Vice-President, Tanka Society of America

“Debbie brings her own brand of magic to her tanka. One can’t help but be mesmerised by her adept use of language to help take us through her inner and outer world of beauty.” — ai li, editor and publisher of the cherita, still, moving into breath and dew-on-line

“Strange is an acute observer and gives insightful, lyrical and honest accounts of the world around us from the tide-pool at our feet to luminous bodies in distant stellar realms. She tackles the traditional topics of tanka with fresh and lyrical metaphors. Her songs flow from thrush, robin and bittern, from wind and storm, and the cries of human emotion.” — David Terelinck, author of Casting Shadows and Slow Growing Ivy

“Victor Hugo said that a poet is like a mage. Ever since discovering Debbie’s tanka online I have been entranced by her singular originality of imagery and eloquence of language. Her tanka are hauntingly memorable. It has been my good karma to meet such a gifted artist in poetry.” — Sonam Chhoki, Principal Editor, Cattails — Journal of The United Haiku and Tanka Society

Three-Part Harmony, Tanka Verses
by Debbie Strange
Introduction by M. Kei
Afterword by ai li
ISBN 978-1986077934 (Print) 138 pp
$13.00 USD (print) or $5.00 USD (Kindle)

Available in print and ebook at and other online retailers.



Three-Part Harmony, Tanka Verses - Review by Maxianne Berger in GUSTS, Number 29, Spring/Summer 2019:

Three-Part Harmony is Debbie Strange's second collection of tanka "triptychs." As in her first book, Warp and Weft (Keibooks 2015), she has organized individually-published tanka into sets of three that "share harmonic themes." The overall effect is enriching both for the tanka so placed and for the reader's experience with them.

The topics of the individual poems cover many aspects of being human. Each tanka in "boreal forest" examines our habitat: "gray reindeer moss" in the first, "cloudberries" in the second, and the title's "boreal forest" in the third. Each tanka also includes our human presence: "no other sound, but breath"; "amber beacons/[...]/call us to taste the light"; and"habitat/we were not meant to own."

Another grouping, "quadrants," concerns illness. The first tanka earned 1st place in the 2016 British Haiku Society Awards.

tracks of birds
meander through snow . . .
the surgeon
marks her left breast
with a cross

It illustrates Strange's fearlessness in juxtaposing strong, clear images to human challenges — physical, emotional and existential. It is also one of 19 tanka in the book that has been specifically honoured. The remaining 289 tanka appear in 15 anthologies and issues of 34 journals, blogs, and webzines published between 2013 and 2017. How Strange organizes these into her triptychs is in itself a topic for a lengthy article. In this review, however, I'll examine an aspect of poetry that has long intrigued me: how meaning and resonances change according to context and co-text.

The triptych "we are here" also begins with an honoured poem: "each moment" was awarded 1st place in the 2016 Mandy's Pages Tanka Contest

<we are here>

each moment
here on earth is numbered
so why not
fly too close to the moon
and hang our hats on stars

deep twilight
and noctilucent clouds
could there be
anything more magical
than sharing these with you

summer solstice
and a strawberry moon
we will not see
another in our lifetime
but we are here, now

We immediately see the common thread of the night sky paired with an invitation to treasure the moment. The last tanka (always the one to give the triptych its title) came into being as the response to a tanka by Mokichi Saito (Red Lights 13:1, 2017, p.58; trans. Sanford Goldstein & Seishi Shinoda).

I too watch now
the golden sun
setting beyond the river,
watch it as if new,
as if immaculately new

In each issue of Red Lights, editor Marilyn Hazelton invites poets to "meditate" on a specific tanka by Mokichi and to "also reflect on the color red." We recognize that red in Strange's "strawberry moon." Her tanka couples easily with Mokichi's. But unbound from Mokichi, as the final tanka in "we are here," in the company of two other poems, there are shifts in nuance. Directed by the title, our reading focuses more intently on the carpe diem aspects: "but we are here, now" (my emphasis). Co-text and context work their magic, and we are transported elsewhere. Debbie Strange's Three-Part Harmony transports the reader elsewhere on each and every page.


Three-Part Harmony: Tanka Verses - Review by Patricia Prime in Atlas Poetica, Number 37, 2019:

Three-Part Harmony: Tanka Verses is a companion volume to Debbie Strange's Warp and Weft: Tanka Threads. This collection of triptychs celebrates the author's love of music and fascination with shadows and light. The title of each triptych is taken from the closing poem of each set.

Debbie Strange's voice is big in reach and complexity, but subtle in rhythm. It works immersively and cumulatively, with direct appeal to emotion, reeling in the reader with its sentiment and simplicity, as we see in the following verse from "ululating" (23):

the rushes that held nests
of marsh wrens
I close my weary eyes
and turn into a song

The tanka form a series of intersecting arcs rather than a settled horizon and suggest that the dynamic of the collection, and the logic of the tanka sweep across codes of communication. The poems make cumulative sense as they layer up and with re-reading and immersion, the narrative and dramatic threads become clearer.

There are several principal areas covered by the poems: nature, family, the city, weather; and, above all, ways of seeing and remembering. It is part of Strange's project in these volumes to devise modes of seeing, remembering and reconstructing her memories. Though the poems may be assembled from remembered fragments and glimpses of life, the depiction of nature is her primary material. Her language is verb-driven, so each image is energetic, reflecting the effort of seeing and recollecting. In this verse from "the ministry of moonlight" (29), the poet recalls the healing that night brings:

there is healing
in the ministry of moonlight
the dark lifts
with my spirit at dawning
I am reborn to rise up

Language plays a large part in many of the triptychs. For example, in "an infinitude of sky" (72), we see the vastness of the sky and the ancestral bones laid out before us on the land:

big sky morning
ancestral homesteads
felled by wind
hollow bones whistling
songs I used to know

In "this stolen land" (73) we witness the vision of spirits roaming across the stolen land in search of a lost Cree warrior, the mountain with its bleached skulls and the weather-beaten bones hidden among the thistles. The language of the sequences yields patterns and affords ways of seeing and imagining the poet's life, her surroundings and history of place. These elements tie the triptychs together with an allusive web, denser with every re-reading.

Multiple visual devices anchor the book. Each poem is titled from a word or phrase in the final verse. "crosses" (79) is focussed on loss: the broken-heartedness of mourning, flowers left on a grave, crosses in a roadside ditch. Various poems recall the tenderness of love. In "our hands" (82), love is illustrated by hands: "warm hand", my hand in yours" and "our hands, together". The poems are minutely detailed, the objects in them tied elaborately into the whole to form a complete story.

In the poem, "dust and bone" (109), for example, the poet writes about love, ageing and being together even in death:

when at last
we turn to dust and bone
my hair
an eternal waterfall
will still flow over you

Debbie Strange's verse is gentle, yet musical. It will sweep you up with its energy and variety but will deliver up its intricacies only on repeated exposure. Poetry begins with song and listening, but Strange's work will yield most to the reader free to flip back and forward between the pages.


Three-Part Harmony: Tanka Verses - Review by Jenny Ward Angyal in Skylark, Number 12, 6:2, Winter 2018:

The Wind's Elegy

mistral winds
strum tattered rushes
in our redemption's marsh
red-winged blackbirds sing
the threnody of air

~ from 'the threnody of air'

Debbie Strange's new book rings with the sound of threnodies — songs of lamentation for the tattered rushes of this world — but the sorrowful songs echo across 'redemption's marsh,' a place where life quickens and where writer and reader may find meaning and beauty among the tatters.

The book offers 105 'three-part harmonies' — tanka triptychs that the poet created from 315 of her previously published tanka. It is a fascinating process, as if the poet had broadcast fistfuls of tiny gems across a tabletop, nudging them with a brush-tip to reveal the constellations of her own thought. This volume is a companion to her previous book, Warp and Weft: Tanka Threads, also composed of triptychs. Debbie Strange says in her 'Author's Note' that her new collection 'celebrates a songwriter's love of music in both the natural and human worlds, as well as a photographer's fascination with shadows and light.'


curls of clouds
become passerines
each autumn
the low-angled light
invites me to follow

snow geese
scribe an ancient mystery
across the moon
their soft murmurs
catching winter's breath

a starling
m u r m u r a t i o n
sifting the sky
she recalls the moment
her life changed shape

This triptych is a fine example of how beautifully the poet has selected and combined her poems to create a larger whole. Birds fly through every verse as autumn light gives way to winter moonlight and then to shifting cloud-shapes. The murmurs of snow geese and the murmurations of starlings add soft music to the poem. But it is so much more than striking images of the natural world. Each verse offers a touch of mystery, something to ponder. Where does the low-angled light lead the narrator? What mystery do the snow geese write? And in the last verse the poet aptly likens the ever-changing shape of a flock of starlings 'sifting the sky' to that pivotal moment when one's life itself 'changes shape'. Three exquisite tanka, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts as we journey from following the light through ancient mystery to a life-changing moment.

Change engenders loss, and so those moments when our lives change shape are often wrenching.


jars of dew
on the veranda
I will consecrate
my baby's body

she carries
the weight of a curl
in her locket
all that remains
of their stillborn son

all night long
the wind's elegy
for autumn
in a musty trunk
unworn baby clothes

This stunning poem is understated, unsentimental, and profoundly moving. The opening image — 'jars of dew' — speaks of everything that is fresh and delicate and ephemeral. And 'the weight of a curl' — a curl literally weighs nothing at all, but its emotional weight is immeasurable. The wind sings an elegy for the death of an infant and for the approaching death of the year . . . but the year will turn, and the voice of the wind carries music as well as mourning, wonder as well as sorrow.


spilling off the backs
of breaching orcas
the way we burst
into this life

beluga ghosts
undulate beside our boat
sea canaries
and whalebone harps
singing the horizon

a pod of orcas
rubbing bellies on stones
at low tide
another rare wonder
that cannot be explained

As if the first three lines were not gorgeous enough, the poet juxtaposes a striking thought, likening 'the way we burst into this life' with 'starfields spilling . . .' Two miraculous events held together by five slim lines. Light in the first verse morphs into music in the second, 'singing the horizon,' which we can read as the literal horizon or as the metaphorical boundary beyond which we cannot see — a reading that is reinforced by the last two lines, 'another rare wonder that cannot be explained.'

Sorrow and loss, beauty and wonder — what are we to make of it all? No simple answer will serve, but poetry points a finger at the moon.

the ministry of moonlight

a tamarack
unfastens the moon
we rise up,
pressing our backbones
against night

on the cusp
of my sixtieth year
I cast off
my spent carapace
in the moon-damp night

there is healing
in the ministry of moonlight
the dark lifts
with my spirit at dawning
I am reborn to rise up

In the first verse, the moon is unfastened, creating a feeling of dislocation, and 'pressing our backbones against the night' feels like a defensive posture taken up in the face of some unnamed threat. Perhaps that threat is the final one — death — for in the second verse the narrator reflects on her own aging. But at that cusp in time, she chooses to 'cast off my spent carapace,' making room for new growth. And in the beautiful and uplifting final verse 'the dark lifts' and the narrator is reborn. This tanka is exquisitely constructed — lines 2, 3 and 4 can each serve as a pivot, making it possible to read lines 1-3, lines 2-4 and lines 3-5 each as a coherent unit of meaning. Truly, 'the spirit rises'!

Readers of Three-Part Harmony can savor 101 more of Debbie Strange's beautifully made tanka triptychs. In the song of prairie winds and the glimmer of moonlit seas, readers will discover expressions of wonder, longing, and memory; elegies for people, places, and the planet; and profound meditations on what it takes 'to become who we really are.'

river stones
polished to a soft sheen
in sharing
the weight of our worries
we each become light

~ from 'points of light'

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