In this collection, Boiano takes a traditional Japanese poetic form and fills the allotted syllables with English. Tanka are a form of Japanese poetry less well known in the West than haiku; they are also composed of groups of 5 and 7 syllables. In Japanese, of course, it is characters — words — which are counted, rather than the syllables, so performing within this restriction is particularly difficult in the syllables of English, which are a looser fit to meaning. Boiano uses many short words and carefully crafted natural rhythms to good effect. The classical tanka starts with an image and then, midway, shifts to the poet’s reaction to that image. This poet follows that tradition in many of these poems, though he is not bound by it.
Gaijin Diary is a book in two sections, with five tanka per page. The first section, Gaijin Diary, is mostly poems about living in Japan. The second section, Autumn Garden, contains more love poems, a traditional theme of tanka. A generous glossary is a useful end to the book.
Gai-jin are two frequent syllables among the five or seven in each line of the poems in the Gaijin Diary section. Gai meaning 'outside' and jin for 'person', i.e., foreigner. The poet not only offers observations of his time in Japan, but many tanka specifically tell about his experience as a foreigner. Many are modern in setting and wry.
A cop asks my friend
‘Why are you with this gaijin?”
She ponders us both,
then smiles as if the question
had already been answered.
Others are more domestic, more traditional in spirit and theme.
No frogs sang this year
and my favorite tanuki
never came again.
How this neighborhood has changed,
beyond the reach of wild things.
Most of the Autumn Garden section is about the absence of a beloved, one of the common traditional subjects of tanka. Autumn was mentioned a few times in the Gaijin Diary section, but here forms a stronger theme. Many of the tanka could have been composed in any of the centuries since the form has been written in Japan.
Autumn’s chill breezes
haunt me with thoughts of endings
until one pale noon
a word or two on a card
takes the coldness from my heart.
We become familiar enough with the resonant elements of his life that when we encounter them again in the Autumn Garden section, their significance slips easily into the heart.
Vanished one by one
the things I’d come to cherish,
landmarks of my life:
a neighbor, a dog, two trees,
a couple of friends, and you.
Tanka have been a popular form, and have often been published in collections of 100, but this book gives us 195. It ends with a number of poems about New Year’s, with the lovers still apart. The last page shifts form in the reader’s imagination.