My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.
Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, Third Lesson
Stravinsky made this observation in 1942, but Japanese artists have always been perhaps the most aware of its kernel of truth. Much of the poignancy of traditional Japanese art comes from this strict adherence to and simultaneous transcendence of formal constraints. In the hands of a master, an artwork is all the more profound the more it is constrained— either by form, or content, by word choice or instrumentation or style.
Michael Boiano may not be native Japanese, but he is nevertheless such a master.
In the abstract his poems are true classical tanka: adhering to a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7, drawing on references to nature and the changing seasons, and relying on juxtapositions for their power and simplicity. Reading through Gaijin Diary, however, these formal constraints fade into the background as each poem emerges like a small universe, complete in itself despite the reader's limited knowledge of the whole.
The book is divided into two sections, roughly grouped by theme: “Gaijin no Nikki / Gaijin Diary” and “Aki no Niwa / Autumn Garden”. While the predominant focus in the first section is the daily life someone not always welcome in the place he calls home, the second is preoccupied with the joys, anxieties, reminisces, and regrets of a man far from the one he loves. Apartness-- and the tension between self and other-- is spun like a web throughout, binding the collection together.
Boiano's tanka exhibit a depth of self-awareness that sparks pangs of recognition
in the reader, like a person who startles at her own reflection in an unexpected mirror. His narrator treats life and death, joy and transformation and isolation, with the same quiet fortitude and gentle humor; each poem dwells with such delight on the simple beauty of nature and the changing seasons that the narrator muses, “at times I cannot recall why autumn unsettles me”. But he is unsettled, we come to see in glimpses. Who could fail to notice the way picnickers find “the spectacle of my pale face” far more interesting than the brilliant autumn colors? Even at home he is never quite welcome:
I watch my neighbor
smile warmly, bowing deeply
to a passerby,
startled by a graciousness
he has never shown to me.
Despite the precariousness of life as a gaijin in Japan, however, Boiano's poems find comfort in moments of domestic peace and the small routines of daily life. Refilling a bird feeder for the sparrows or enjoying a quiet hour in a cafe becomes a moment of self-reflection:
Warming my cold hands over my cup,
I gaze through
my foggy windows
and feel, not unpleasantly,
all the autumns of my life.
These flashes of the universal within the mundane allow Boiano to build a comfortable intimacy with the reader. Even so, no one ever gets too comfortable—always at the periphery hovers the question: “With what should I fill myself for my winter survival?”
Heian lovers used to exchange waka, an early form of tanka poetry, before parting in the morning after a shared night. The second section of Gaijin Diary picks up the thread of this tradition, with poignant meditations on togetherness, separation, and the inevitable loss that comes with the passage of time. So many of the poems in this section are about tension— tension in “the moment between glances” and in “stillness beneath sound”, tension between what is and what could be, between nearness and unbearable distance:
above the midnight rice fields,
a will-o’-the wisp:
lights of the last Shinkansen
fly south, through the night, toward you.
Boiano, master that he is, leaves these tensions unresolved: it is for the reader to recognize the missing whole in her own experience. But even despite the sharp ache imbued in so many of the poems, Boiano's narrator retains a sense of deep-seated optimism in his life and the ever-present beauty of nature:
In a sky of ink
an orange three-quarter moon.
So much like my heart:
the portion that still remains
shines brightly, undiminished.
It is this undercurrent of humble joy, together with the wide-open form of the tanka themselves, that prevents the clearly personal poems from alienating the reader.
The title Gaijin Diary might prompt us to ask whether this collection is ultimately concerned with a question of identity— of belonging and community. And certainly it is, to an extent. But the power of tanka is its grounding in nature absolutely, and through nature in the absolute. Boiano’s poetry is not only the expression of an outsider who, because of his awkward not-quite-fitting-in is able to see the habits and
hypocrisies of his neighbors down to their depths, nor is it simply the familiar sigh of a lover who can't quite comprehend his beloved's distance. More profoundly, it is the gentle, resigned questing of a soul who, like all souls, has awakened into a profoundly alien world which nevertheless feels like home.