by Margaret Chula
Beyond/Within: A Collection of Rengay. Carol Conti-Entin, Helen K. Davie, Cherie Hunter Day, D. Claire Gallagher, Marianna Monaco, Ce Rosenow, Ebba Story, Joan Zimmerman, Sundog Press, PO Box 91, Chesterfield, MO 63006-0091, [July] 1997, 55 pages, $9.95 paper.
Imagine a spring evening in Kyoto. It is the sixteenth century, and eight poets have gathered at the palace to write a kasen renga, a thirty-six-stanza linked poem. The evening is warm and the shoji screens have been opened to the garden. The guests sit on tatami mats and drink sake as they view cherry blossoms at twilight. At the appropriate time, the honored guest (or person who has traveled the farthest) begins the renga by writing a three-line verse. This haiku traditionally compliments the host and sets the mood of the evening’s renga. Predictably, it will be about cherry blossoms, their beauty and evanescence. The host then replies with a two-line poem, which links to the cherry blossoms yet shifts to another topic. The renga party continues late into the night, each poet following the complex system of rules, till the thirty-sixth verse is completed.
Beyond/Within is a collection of modem-day renga by eight women who have come together via letters and email to write rengay. Rengay, as defined by its first practitioners (Garry Gay, Michael Dylan Welch, and John Thompson) is a collaborative, six-verse linked thematic poem written by two or three poets using alternating three-line and two-line haiku or haiku-like stanzas un a regular pattern. In Beyond/Within, the theme of these thirty-two rengay are often evident in their titles: Deep Summer,” “All That Remains,” and “Hands.” Other rengay are verbal riffs on shapes or sounds. In either case, the dynamics of linking, whether subtle or overt, give rengay its vitality. Each response adds to a dialogue that becomes increasingly intuitive and personal.
Beyond/Within opens appropriately with a rengay called “Beginnings,” by Ebba Story and Ce Rosenow. The first two verses draw in the reader with their humor:
water in the soup pot
comes to a boil
the doorbell rings twice
ticket in hand—
the high metal step
into the train car
in the chill morning air—
the sprinter’s false start
yolk from a pigeon egg
thickens on the sidewalk
cracked, calloused hands—
she throws fresh clay
on the potter’s wheel
The success of a rengay or any linked verse is the agility with which poets link to and shift away from each other’s verses—how they juxtapose images to create a new drama. In “Beginnings,” this turning occurs not only between verses, but also midway through the poem. The first three verses echo the theme of beginnings: the onions as a soup base, the anticipation of a new relationship, the onset of a journey. Then the piece shifts to beginnings thwarted: the sprinter’s false start, the yolk spilt on the sidewalk. The final verse allows the calloused hands to form a pot from fresh clay, returning us to the first verse of creation.
A rengay is never finished in the sense of having a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is a narrative on a theme with shifting plots. The voice changes with each stanza. Times change, and places. Yet the continuance is wholly satisfying.
The power of the opening verses is astonishing in “Taking Root” by Ebba Story and D. Claire Gallagher:
aerial roots of the banyan
sweep my shoulder
she combs what’s left of her hair
Awakening in a beautiful setting, the woman takes a stroll under the banyan tree, its great roots sweeping her shoulder like hair. The link to this verse is brilliant. We are wrenched from paradise to the brutal reality of cancer, catapulted from a world of abundance to loss in the space between these two verses. The poets then move into links of white nubs, seedlings, ginseng, and end with an image of a toppled ponderosa, its roots suspended. In six links, they have taken us full circle from the banyan with its aerial roots—unusual but natural for the species—to the ponderosa with its roots upended and dying.
The women in this collection are all experienced haiku writers with strong connections to nature. They do not hesitate to use words like rhizome, lichen, fiddler crabs. Paired in twos and threes and, in some cases, a woman linking to her own verses in a solo rengay, they are comfortable with each other. It is an intuitive world these women inhabit, a dance of linking and shifting with an eye to the whole. There is serendipity here, too, as connections begin to thread their way between poems. The nub of a sprouting seed in “Taking Root” surfaces later in “Chiaroscuro” by two different poets as a stick of charcoal worn down to a nub.
The process of collaboration is a fascinating one. It can take the poet out of herself and at the same time deeper within herself. By writing rengay together, these eight women have nourished each other poetically and spiritually, closing the boundaries between beyond and within.