Erin Thornback Reviews Andrew Lansdown

By | 13 February 2017

The nature Lansdown exalts throughout his poetry is similarly given visual engagement through the accompanying photography. In this collection, the first to contain a series of his images, he evokes for the reader the exact vision that inspired the accompanying poem, literally leading the reader ‘through the cherries’, all the while identifying the inspiration and the degree of interfusion present in the lyric. In ‘Night Canal, Gion’, he writes:

Like the faces
of loved ones, cherry petals
on the canal – 
passing into and out of 
the last reflections of light.

The adjoining image sets up a point of focus, strongly indicative of his title motifs, cherry petals and Kyoto, while the tanka complicates and illuminates the poet’s vision. On the surface, the photograph appears to simply record a moment of startling receptivity: the light dispersing as people go in and out of focus, until their reflections flow down the ‘night canal’. Upon closer inspection, the poem emerges as a record of profound dislocation – the blooming cherry blossoms, the opaque reflections, loss of light, and lack of stability as faces pass in and out of view, serving to suspend and preserve fragments in time. The transcendental nature of the Sakura blossom and humanity represented within Kyoto Sakura Tanka preserves Lansdown’s memory and the fleeting moment, which is no longer available as perception, but immaculately, captured in a photo as it is swept up by the canal. This constant revivifying of the cherished tanka tradition with the literal imagist precision of photography is what epitomises Lansdown’s collection and his utilisation of Bashō’s doctrine of ‘permanence and change’. What Lansdown accomplishes in his series is an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. This is perhaps never more realised than in ‘Wonderment’:

Fingerlings of fire
burning in the still water 
of the stone basin – 
I wonder, did they drop down
from the reader paper lantern?

Lansdown identifies the natural as a vital continuum of interactive forces within the tanka. The ‘still water/ of the stone basin’ cannot be viewed as something other than fish, and the ‘Fingerlings’ of ‘fire burning’ colour cannot be viewed as anything other than pertaining to the ‘red paper lantern’. This personification imbues the photograph with motion to form a still point of oceanic calm and penetrating insight.
The insight of which Lansdown speaks is between the word and action, the place where poetry unfolds:

Beside the blushings 
of the cherry blossoms, they 
are so small and plain, 
the little scarlet buddings 
of the Japanese Maples.


In between these lines, a quiet listening in anticipation, a kind of potential action on the brink of realisation unfolds, as the reader waits in suspense of the Japanese Maples flourishing.

Another scene shows the relationship between the human and the natural worlds:

The spring cherry trees
wave their pretty handkerchiefs,
beckoning the bees. 
and to their surprise, humans
also come to gaze and hum.

(‘To Their Surprise’)

While this poem creates a pleasing image, it’s Lansdown’s precision of syntax and perception of the places he dwells that stays with the reader, the intimate qualities of a diary laid bare through his visual journal. As each poem progresses, it feels natural to connect each photograph with the intended poem; each sequence linked by the subtle colours present in the image and reflected on the neighbouring page. ‘To Their Surprise’ is just one of the instances where this symbiosis advances the text’s tranquillity and elegance, the subtle shift between the kami no ku to ashimo no ku beautifully realised in the poet’s observation of the visual and sky blue reflected on the adjacent background.

However, there are instances within Lansdown’s Kyoto Sakura Tanka where it is desirable for these microcosmic poems to be left wanting of an image. Rather, their fragmentary nature invites suggestion and implication, so that the reader can interpret the tanka in light of their own experiences. This not only reflects Japanese grammar, but is also a poetic culture in which the experience is felt to be as important as the subjective frame around it. This lack of breathing space between the images and the language cuts off the reader as an equal participant in the sensory experience, and limits the potential of the text to truly capture and inspire fueki ryūkō, as in the tanka string, ‘Resignation’, ‘Aspiration’ and ‘Speculation’:

If it’s not because
the koi in the temple moat
are too big to kill, 
why does the heron regard 
them with such resignation?

It has the grey robes
and the meditative pose: 
perhaps the heron
on the temple bride rail hopes
to become a Buddhist monk?

Is it a heron
spring to return a priest, 
or is a priest 
reincarnated a heron …
or perhaps purely a heron?


Taken as a whole, this sequence brilliantly captures the possibilities of the heron, and the image resonates with mimetic constructs. However, this long poem borders on the merely observational, lacking depth – or is simply cut off from that possibility due to the multitude of evocations. As in ‘Speculation’, the heron is betwixt human and natural realms, living in tension with its anamorphic possibilities, unable to progress beyond the question mark, or as Lansdown demonstrates, in ‘Draught’:

Even unloaded
cherry petals sit too deep 
in the water, so
they cannot pass on the flow
across the stone basin’s rim.

This poem describes in the most pragmatic terms the way the poet and the poem form a relationship, and is beguiling in its mysterious ability to evoke essential connection, sometimes not necessarily for the better, as the water ‘cannot pass on the flow’.

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