What does come after 80?

Susan Yates

Gabriola’s bibliophile

Monday, August 26 2013

Just when you think Naomi Beth Wakan has outdone herself with another cleverly-written book, out comes another (and it’s not the last of her oeuvre, either). Nicely following on the not-too-sensible heels of Sex After 70, And After 80…is Naomi’s latest anthology of poems written in the styles she knows so well: haiku, tanka, and the inimitable free-form verse she uses “when I want to rant or whine.” I can assure you there are some marvelous reflections, musings and observations in those verses, too.

Some of the poems in And After 80…are statements – witty, wise and perceptive – and some are questions – the kind that perplex all of us as we grow older and wonder what happened to the ideals and beliefs we had in our younger years. Rhetorical questions are good grist for Naomi’s mill too, especially when they demand self-reflection and compel the reader to look more closely at human predicaments: “the goldfinch /mistaking its reflection/ for an enemy/goes on the attack/ and we, don’t we do likewise?”

I vacillate between the nature poems and the poems about human nature, when I attempt to mark my favourites in any of Naomi’s poetry collections. Both sorts are remarkably perceptive and sometimes shockingly truthful – they wake the reader from any attempt to have a “nice cozy browse” in a book of poetry. 

 The poem “Nature in General” in this anthology is one I noted immediately upon first reading and one I’ll be reading to the Grade 7 class next year – it’s a reflection on how we react to the seasons, and a slightly haunting observation of the elements in nature we might otherwise take for granted: “a rainbow/ in the valley and suddenly/ the trees are coloured/ seven-striped, surely at such a sight/ one should turn the coins in one’s pocket…I look for signs/ in the ways the bees clutter/ the pear blossom, for good luck in the robin’s nest, good fortune in a patch of thyme.”

When I was a young college student I had a book of imagist poetry (Amy Lowell, D. H. Lawrence et al) I read often; I think I gave it to someone (they must’ve been very special at the time) because I’ve missed it for many years. I find now that some of Naomi’s poems fill that gap with images like this: “It’s August/ and the shy young moon/ allows bathers/ to splash in phosphorescence/ like a flight of angels.” Portentous images sometimes belie an innocent title such as “Summer”: “children/ their hair wreathed/ in daisy chains/ press snap dragons open/ unaware of life’s dangers.”

The first signs of autumn are memorably evoked in these lines from the poem “Autumn”: “the campsite deserted save for/ a child’s flip-flop sandal/…three lonely things:/ an autumn’s bare branch/ the owl’s call/ the ribs of an old boat/ covered in branches.” 

I love the poems that have an edge to them, also the ones in which Naomi casts a critical eye on the vicissitudes of human nature – sometimes they are darkly funny: “if I read/another haiku on cherry blossoms/I will scream…/isn’t it enough to spread a rug/and lie under the branches?” Or this stanza from a poem about about fall chores: “Stacking firewood/ wondering whether it is/ a full cord/ doubts about mankind/ loom large at such times.” Oh yes, I know that feeling, but I probably couldn’t turn a suspicious complaint into a poem!

Naomi is particularly adept at reflecting on her own work, always on the alert for that old sin hubris: “These days, I write tanka/ when my haiku get uppity/ with the conceit that they have/ nailed the moment to the page./ I slap them with two extra lines, reminding them that all things pass.” A poet can only do this when her talent is truly good; here is where I suggest reading “Four Ekphrasic Tanka,” wherein the inspiring (and famous) painting is given before each tanka. 

There is one poem in And After 80…that I’ve read aloud as an accompaniment to a beautiful children’s story I love (Flags, by Maxine Trottier) and it confirms Naomi Wakan’s talent as a poet of great vision and compassion. It is entitled “Gaman,” which is a Japanese term for enduring the unendurable, and the poem is about the World War II internment camps. There isn’t room in this review to give you the whole poem, but here are a few lines: “they shaped the impossible-/ teapots from hard rock,/ baskets from scrap papers./…paintings on the back of their own evacuation notices./ Their bitterness melted down/ to make community,/ their resignation sparked/ into creativity – an insult/ transmuted into art.”

I am waiting for what comes after “After 80…” meanwhile, I recommend finding And After 80… by Naomi Beth Wakan at our well-stocked local bookstore at Page’s Resort and Marina…you can get signed copies, too!