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Wind on the Heath
Though mainly a prolific personal essayist, Naomi Beth Wakan admits that poetry in the form of haiku, tanka, and free verse has occupied a large percentage of her waking hours and many of her sleeping ones too.
This exceptional collection, Wind on the Heath, includes poems written when Wakan was in her twenties along with many written in recent years, thus spanning roughly sixty years of inquisitive thinking and creative writing.
The foundation of Wakan’s work is her dedication to living an examined life, which Wakan describes in this way:
Seeking in the darkness
a crack through
which we may glimpse reality.
Her poetry, superbly presented in this life-spanning collection, allows readers to see the flicker of light showing through the crack. This is poetry to live by.
Naomi Beth Wakan, essayist, psychotherapist and poet laureate, has spent a lifetime pondering what it means to be human. Whether writing in longer lyrical verse or Japanese five-line tanka, nothing escapes her gaze or her questioning mind . . . These are poems that speak to human nature, our existential aloneness, the fleetingness of life, the pitfalls and hurdles we all must face, and, as quoted from “Watchers,” one of her earliest poems this collection offers readers a crack through which they may glimpse reality.
Known worldwide for her insightful instruction books on writing short form poetry, here is a celebration of Naomi Beth Wakan’s own poetry—new and selected from over sixty years of her writing. This important collection of haiku, tanka, free verse includes old favorites . . . and stunning new work . . .poems that sneak up on you. Wakan’s voice is string and clear. Many of these poems linger.
In an early poem from her twenties, Naomi Beth Wakan asks, “Is there life I am living unlived?” The poems in Wind on the Heath, written over the next sixty years, answer with a resounding “No!” From Japan to Gabriola Island, from inviting conversational narrative to impeccable haiku and tanka, from finding new love to losing a breast, these are poems that celebrate abundant life in all its frail and blazing glory.
Plato said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. The poems in Wind on the Heath are all about the examined life. Naomi Wakan, essayist, psychotherapist and poet laureate has spent a lifetime pondering what it means to be human. Whether written in longer free verse poems, Japanese five-line tanka, or 3-line haiku, nothing escapes her gaze or her questioning mind. She writes with clarity and honesty and does not shy away from the toughest subjects like cancer, aging, relationships. This is a poet who lives her life with eyes wide open. Nothing is beyond reach of her pen. Her poem ‘A dreamer of small dreams’ shows the humble and ever-reaching mind of a poet with an ongoing quest to examine the life she is living. What is clear from this collection of poems is that she was born inquisitive and has remained inquisitive. Whether she is writing about sex or how to cut a rose, these poems offer a bittersweet look at life with irony, humor, deep reflection, and a healthy dose of cynicism. Her poems speak to human nature, to existential aloneness, the fleetingness of life, the pitfalls and hurdles we all must face, and as quoted from “Watchers” one of her earliest poem, this collection offers readers a crack through which we may glimpse reality.
The first part of the book consists of a selection of poems from four of her poetry books each listed under individual book titles. The last portion of the book consists of newer poems written between 2018 and 2020. Haiku and Tanka are interspersed among free verse poetry in both sections and are frequently written in sequences surrounding a theme. However, tanka, whether alone or written in a sequence are individual five-line poems that can stand alone, unlike free verse which is written in stanzas that move in progression. Her haiku are distilled moments of her life. She excels at the five-line tanka form that speaks to the human condition. Tanka, which dates from the Heian era, 1300 years ago, is one of the fastest growing poetic forms worldwide today and the author’s natural rhythm, wit, and appreciation for the fleetingness of life comes to life in these short poems. Tanka itself means ‘small song’ and were frequently sung in ancient times. Reading the poet’s tanka one recognizes immediately the ease and natural rhythm with which she brings together the two parts of the tanka form, always with a pleasant twist or small epiphany at the end, typical as well of her free verse. One comes away from all her poems with a sense of satisfaction and familiarity as we acknowledge the warp and weave of our own lives through the words of this poet.
The opening poem titled “Virgin in a Tree’, inspired by a Paul Klee drawing, sets the pace for the rest of the book by acknowledging how little we appreciate youth, until it is gone. From then on are poems that turn the common into the extraordinary, whether the poem is free verse, haiku or tanka. This is poetry where words are not wasted, where each word earns its place. The last poem in the book titled ‘Endpapers’, ends with a truly poignant haiku.
across the skylight
I also drift along
The tenor of this poem is reminiscent of the famous Japanese death poems.
Naomi Wakan has the extraordinary gift of speaking to her life and at the same time opening our eyes to our own lives. I highly recommend this book.
one does not write
because the goldfish play
at the bottom of the waterfall,
but because not everyone
can see them.
The tanka, haiku and free verse in Naomi Beth Wakan’s remarkable collection range from poems published in the 1960s and 1970s to new poems written between 2018 and 2020. In her preface the poet states that while she’s “…basically a personal essayist …” poetry writing has occupied much of her time. Living in Japan for a few years in the 1980s sparked her interest in Japanese poetry forms, which she describes as “…the perfect vehicle for exploring Jung’s four aspects of a human being – sensing, feeling, thinking, and intuiting.” These four aspects are wonderfully articulated in the collection’s tanka, such as this one from a sequence titled A SET OF BEDSIDE TANKA
before I leave bed, I prepare
a list of things to do …
the day, willfully, takes off
in another direction
Wakan mentally prepares a to-do list every day, even though she realizes that the best laid plans often go astray. Yet it’s important to make plans and try to carry them out, come what may. This is flexible thinking, very useful for all aspects of life, especially creative pursuits.
THE SEASONS sequence combines haiku and tanka to explore spring, summer, autumn and winter, as well as the poet’s active involvement in each one.
in the white crocus
a sleeping bee
I sort out my seed packages
anxious for spring
The LOVE sequence tells a moving story about a marriage that evolves over time in ways that perhaps only an older couple can fully appreciate and understand.
a bench under the grape vine –
a birthday offering
from my husband
countering my years of ups and downs
he made sure that it was level
The level bench, no doubt made for two, is both a solid object and a potent symbol of the couple’s love and support for each other. Also symbolic is the overhanging grape vine, suggestive of food, drink and intimate communication. All in all, this is striking imagery.
Wakan’s wry observations and subtle sense of humour are also on display in many of the poems. Here’s an example from the MY NATURE sequence.
wend our way home
in our own style …
I make a beeline
for the fast check-out
Checking out suggests end of life, an issue that the poet addresses in several tanka, such as this darkly witty one from the final ENDPAPERS sequence.
of detective stories
by my chair
as if solving murders
can help me deal with death
The book pile implies that the poet enjoys detective fiction, while also looking for answers to age old questions. Whether she finds them or not remains to be seen, although the search may be more interesting than the find.
In a tanka in the READING, WRITING AND OTHER ARTS sequence, Wakan observes that doing good may also be harmful, but a good poem is always a good poem. The poems in WIND ON THE HEATH are very good indeed (to say the least), and fans of Wakan can only hope that she keeps writing and publishing them, as she’s done with great distinction for over sixty years.
The deeply-hued colours of heather, gorse, and sky on the cover of Wind on the Heath convey a sombre beauty, but the inside pages illumine a lively life and mind. I have known poet and literary ambassador Naomi Beth Wakan, who hosted the annual haiku
gathering on Gabriola Island from 2002–2013, for almost 20 years. A gift of her work is that the person one encounters on-the-ground in face-time comes beautifully alive on the page. Playful and opinionated, witty and often wise, she holds the bitter with the sweet, seeking “to find duende in the everyday.”
Wakan identifies herself in the preface as “basically a personal essayist,” but admits that “poetry in the form of haiku, tanka, and free verse has occupied a large percentage of my waking hours and many of my sleeping ones.”
This collection, published in her 89th year, spans roughly 65 years of her life—from childhood in the carny town of Blackpool in the UK, to teaching English in Japan, to blossoming as a writer on the fertile ground of Gabriola Island in British Columbia, to the slow dance with approaching death.
The book is sectioned into previously unpublished poems written in her late 20s and 30s; selections from three earlier poetry collections, Segues (2005), Sex After 70: and other poems (2010), and And After 80 . . . (2013); samplings from her term as inaugural poet laureate for the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia (2014–2016); and new poems written between 2018 and 2020. Among the 24 longer poems that served the laureate mandate, a good number elucidate and extol the value—for everyone—of hearing, reading, and writing poetry. Thirteen pages of discrete haiku and/or tanka are identified by the italicized text on these untitled pages, and additionally, there are 27 sequences or thematically collected haiku and/or tanka, for a total of 68 haiku and 183 tanka bookwide.
Haiku and tanka themes often figure in some of the 104 longer, free-verse poems, which include the now ubiquitous (on the Canadian west coast, at least) “How to Write a Haiku.” And in the hilarious “Sex After 70,” her publisher is flummoxed when she insists—waxing rhapsodic about “how each noun condenses a universe” and how “the pause at the 5th or 12th syllable, opens so many possibilities to dwarf all orgasms”—that her next book will be on haiku.
In “Reprimand to Those Japanese Court Women” she gives snap-out-of-it advice to the lovelorn women of the Heian court, and in “The Uses of Tanka,” she writes:
These days, I write tanka
when my haiku get uppity
with the conceit that they have
nailed the moment to the page.
I’m partial to Naomi’s tanka, which with the longer poems well serve her curious, essayist mind and her love of “linking the unlinkable.”
Here are a few to enjoy:
summers long ago,
before sunscreen was invented,
when we got burned
and peeled long strips of skin
from each other’s backs
This tanka is rife with nostalgia—yet there’s a hint of something darker, with “burned” and “strips” and “backs.” And from the constrained sequence “10 Tanka for Krishnamurti,” in which the last line is text quoted from religious philosopher and teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti:
the ends of the earth
is a waste of energy
hang around the homestead for
truth may be under a dead leaf
Further regarding spirituality, from the sequence “The Meaning of Life”:
find the Gods that
will work for us.
I watch Virtue and Moir
glide across the ice
I figure skated growing up and have remained a fan. It is true that not much approaches perfection like the dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Love and relationships, however, are rich with imperfection—Naomi’s husband, sculptor Eli Wakan, has a recurrent presence in the book, and there is much to be gleaned about how a healthy, co-operative marriage can work:
is it massacre or love?
it’s hard to tell the difference . . .
he says he has no regrets
we lie together
like a knight and his lady
in a tomb effigy . . .
only the rise and fall of the covers
shows we are still of this world
This latter poem, with its prescient air, is from “Endpapers,” the sequence that concludes the collection. And that sequence concludes with the following haiku, which in a recent podcast interview Naomi cited as her death haiku (albeit the third line spoken as “I will so drift along”)
across the skylight
I also drift along
I highly recommend welcoming Wind on the Heath to your home and bookshelf, so you, too, can hang out with Naomi Wakan from time to time.