with the alchemy
of ravens . . .
alone, in a clearing
my heart picked clean
– Robin Anna Smith (USA)
UHTS Fleeting Words Tanka Contest 2019, First Place
There are a few short poems that inspire me deeply due to their brevity and brilliance. The beauty and the dimensions of our imagination are endless as one can grasp the attention of anyone through its majestic power and subtlety. This poem is one of them.
I loved the opening line of this wonderful tanka that pauses my thoughts and lets me feel the colours and the hues of dusk that tickle my slumberous senses to fully grasp the overall picture of that dusk.
The second and third lines, ‘with the alchemy/of ravens . . .’, is beautifully embedded in this dynamic poem and this may be the crux of the whole theme of this tanka. The word ‘alchemy’ depicts the magical power of the dark that purifies our thoughts and heart through contemplation and maybe through meditation. Ravens here depict the sign of intellect that pass through the trials of time before getting into proper shape. This is the experience of wholeness where a person walks alone in this journey as it varies from individual to individual. This highest level of personal experience also touches the spiritual boundaries where a person wants peace at heart, which is the ultimate goal of life. This only comes through the self-awareness that is reflecting very clearly in this tanka and brings one’s thoughts and feelings together to enjoy the subtle experience of wholeness.
Looking at the technicalities, the ellipsis placed after the word ‘ravens’ makes it significant to ponder in our day-to-day experiences before we finally get to the path of our ultimate destiny. By uniting the first and the last lines, one can understand the ultimate purpose of life.
– Hifsa Ashraf (Pakistan)
The power behind this tanka lies in its imagery and the connection between its two parts. Also, the poem packs in a lot of substance within five lines, while allowing the reader to imagine and fill in blanks.
I like that Robin embraces the more metaphorical and free approach to tanka that many western poets don’t delve into. Some western adherents of tanka practice it as a longer haiku and don’t utilize its more abstract and imaginative side.
Let’s break this tanka down line by line. “dusk gathers” sets the time and scene. We can feel that this poem will contemplative.
“with the alchemy” is a surprising line and makes the reader excited to see what will happen next in the tanka.
“of ravens . . .” is highly symbolic. In Native American culture, the raven is sacred and in some tribes, was the creator of the world. This could be the connection to alchemy. Also, in many cultures, ravens are seen as mystical creatures that are either seers, magical beings, or harbingers of something to come. The ellipsis makes the clear sign of this part of the tanka ending and shows that this process of alchemy and dusk gathering is gradual.
“alone, in a clearing” is concise but delivers substantial symbolism with the clearing being like the poet’s sense of being alone. The comma puts more emphasis on the word “alone” and allows the reader to feel it more.
With “my heart picked clean”, Robin does not say, but as a reader, I can imagine the ravens picking the poet’s heart clean. Maybe this could be part of the alchemy mentioned earlier. Alchemy is about transformation, and the process of cleaning one’s heart can be said to be a type of metamorphosis.
In terms of the format, this tanka follows the traditional Japanese rhythm faithfully. Looking at its sound, the letter “c” is most prominent. It reminds me of the clicking of beaks. In this case, ravens’ beaks.
A tanka packed with imagery, symbolism, and feeling, it’s clear why this poem won first place in the UHTS Fleeting Words Tanka Contest.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky (USA)
– Painting by Claudelle Girard