Kyoto Sakura Tanka

Poems and photographs

Andrew Lansdown

Rhiza Press (Capalaba, Queensland), 2016
(hardcover, 144 pages)
ISBN: 9781925139419



Back Cover Blurb

Kyoto Sakura Tanka is a beautiful collection of poems and photographs that pays tribute to the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto, during the cherry blossom (sakura) season.

This unique book takes readers on a fascinating journey through Japan’s heartland, introducing them to subjects ranging from birds, bamboos and blossoms to omikuji, origami and shishi-odoshi, in settings ranging from canals and gardens to castles and temples.

All the poems are written in a form traditional to Japan, an ancient poetic form known as tanka (or waka).

Kyoto Sakura Tanka is Andrew Lansdown’s fifteenth published collection of poetry and his first published collection of photography.




Sparrows at Kiyomizu-dera


Suddenly they come

and as suddenly they strike—

the flock of sparrows

tearing the blossoms apart

in the temple cherry trees.


        © Andrew Lansdown



To Their Surprise


The spring cherry trees

wave their pretty handkerchiefs,

beckoning the bees.

And to their surprise, humans

also come to gaze and hum.


        © Andrew Lansdown



Well Suited


Little but lovely,

Otsu’s Buddhist temple where

Basho is buried—

and well suited for one who

wrote the world’s littlest poems.


        © Andrew Lansdown



The Unheard Stags


Maybe it’s because

I walked with my beloved

that I never heard

among the herds of Nara

the lonely belling of stags?


        © Andrew Lansdown


Reviews of Kyoto Sakura Tanka


Erin Thornback Reviews Andrew Lansdown

by Erin Thornback

Through a series of visual and textual explorations, Andrew Lansdown’s Kyoto Sakura Tanka creates a striking depiction of the bicameral, separating his collection into kami no ku (the poet sees) and ashimo no ku (the poet wonders). The fundamental basis of Lansdown’s series is rooted in the Japanese tanka, or traditional waka: a five-line piece of poetry divided into mortas, or syllable counts, of 5/7/5/7/7. Yet, in this series, Lansdown once again takes up the themes of nature, transience and master Bashō’s doctrine of fueki ryūkō – ‘permanence and change’ – only to position himself against his chosen poetic tradition.

Lansdown’s self-assigned task in this collection is twofold: he is disruptive to form and yet desires to remain meaningful. Notwithstanding bold innovation, Lansdown’s tanka captures the precision of haiku in its brevity while simultaneously preoccupied with fresh visions of the Imagist tradition as a means of cognitive exploration. Each poem takes the reader on a poetic detour of Kyoto, which furnishes new significance for this microcosm of Japanese culture and tradition. Of course, small details and Lansdown’s exquisite precision of language are not definitive, yet they are specific enough to keep abreast of fueki ryūkō as a necessary innovation to the waning presence of the tanka in contemporary poetics.

Take for instance, Lansdown’s ‘Volcanoes’:

There are volcanoes
among the mighty bamboos,
extinct volcanoes
with water in their craters
where once other bamboos stood.

This perception of the ‘bamboos’ awakens us to a dual significance in what remains once the bamboo undergoes metamorphosis. In the heavily codified realm of traditional Japanese poetry, waka’s select poetic words allude to a multitude of connotations and prescribed associations. Within ‘Volcanoes’, ‘bamboos’ embody the perpetual vitality of nature itself or are presented as ‘extinct volcanoes’; nothing more than an awareness of the impermanence and delicate im / perfection of things, characterised in the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. This idea is also demonstrated in Lansdown’s ‘Off-Pivot’:

Shishi-odoshi –
an off-pivoted bamboo tube
lifting with the load of water, 
falling with the load of itself.

The ‘shishi-odoshi’ is an imperfect metaphor for the realisation that things are lost to us even as they are found, characterising the traditional subject of seasonal change and awakening thoughts of the transience in and of nature. This motion of ‘lifting’ and ‘falling’ is similarly presented as involutional, the motion from past to present, present to past, which thus allows the past of the classical tanka form and Lansdown’s contemporary poetry to embrace and inform each other in the dynamic immediacy of present vision. This is literally and figuratively realised in the accompanying photography. In this way, Lansdown’s poems offer an aesthetic ideal that uses the uncompromising touch of mortality in ‘Volcanoes’ to focus the mind; and, in ‘Off-Pivot’, to provoke a sharp, intuitive discovery in order to get the essence of life and fueki ryūkō, infused with tradition and abruptly disturbed by ‘the haunting hollow bamboo sounds punctuating the temple garden’ (‘Shish-odoshi Hauntings’).

Of the haiku, Lansdown adopts hyperbole and repetition as a kind of foil to the elegant poeticism of the tanka, and a contrast to the worldly realism of ‘vulgar’ rhetoric, only to then re-poeticise them. Set within the language of common speech and his perceptions, Lansdown utilises the poetic diction incorporated in the haiku to entice the reader to review the everyday life of contemporary Japan through aestheticized eyes, thereby authorising new subject matter as worthy of the grand tanka tradition:

Sakura, Susan …
as with the cherry petals, 
so also her cheeks –
a pink flush in the whiteness
and my regard as witness.


The consonance of ‘cherry’, ‘cheeks’, ‘whiteness’ and ‘witness’ is used here to emphasise the ephemeral beauty caught fleeting in the sakura blossom and Lansdown’s wife, Susan, to whom the text is dedicated. Normally, of course, this sort of cloying reiteration would be very obvious. It stands out here, however, as an evident anomaly within the minimal scope of 31 syllables, where its imagist inclination depends on verbal economy, the reverential ‘pink flush in the whiteness’ resonating with ‘regard as witness’. Lansdown employs the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word, but hypostasises love and consciousness as qualities of nature itself. Through the alliteration of ‘Sakura, Susan’ he reveals that both figures are invested in an immense environment, not distinct from it, but, as determined in the adjoining poem, in a mutual, inexplicable process of eternal blending and appreciation of natural beauty:

She’s beyond white
in purity, so she’s quite
beyond seeing –
the Kyoto bride trailing 
confetti through the cherries.


The result is a vision of human presence framed against an interfusional setting, that is, nature is not presented as an otherness distinct from Susan, but as a shifting perceptual field that is so ‘beyond white in purity’, that it is ‘quite beyond seeing’. This quiet process, whereby humankind and nature appear perfectly continuous and productive of each other, displaces consciousness into all things – human and inhuman – in such a way that cognitive and emotional qualities ordinarily belonging to the human are seen to anticipate an amorphous and embracive environmental unity of seeing and feeling. In unifying nature and the human, the marriage Lansdown celebrates is rooted in the Japanese concept of ‘furyu’, which literally means ‘in the way of the wind and stream’; Sakura and Susan presented as within a liminal zone, which the reader, as ‘Witness’, must occupy to realise Lansdown’s vision of the ‘Bride’.

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 kubeautifully 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’.

The collection does, however, allude to the cadences of other poets, such as ‘Imagine’, which is dedicated to Arakida Moritake:

A master’s haiku
moved me to imagine them
among the cherries:
butterflies like petals resting, 
petals like butterflies wafting!

Placing Moritake at the centre of this poem, the reader cannot help but find the subtle allusions and tells of his most famous poem:

A fallen blossom
returning to the bough, I thought –
But no, a butterfly. 

Taken together, these cadences concentrate each line of Lansdown’s ‘Imagine’, bringing every word and its allusions into focus and opening up his poem as an accessible Kyoto that is gradually expanding.

In ‘Issa’s Style’, the lyrics are an evocation, the poem in pursuit of master poets:

In the old pond near
Basho’s grave, a small turtle
rides a big one’s back: 
a subject suited perhaps	 
more to Issa than Basho.

The image and poem conflate into an act of philosophical perception; the culmination of the turtle riding one’s back presents a jocular regress to life’s transience and the problem posed by the ‘unmoved mover’ paradox (‘it’s turtles all the way down’). Essentially, the poem suggests it’s Basho and Issa all the way down, Lansdown unintentionally working himself out of the hierarchy, but eternally in pursuit of a place within it.

But as in Aiden Coleman’s review of Lansdown’s Inadvertent Things – Poems in Traditional Japanese Forms, there are instances within Kyoto Sakura Tanka where the writing borders on the kawaii and the extreme use of rhyming is out of place in the grand tanka tradition, as in ‘Newly Flowering’:

The newly flowering 
cherry will keep its pink ruff
intact for days yet – 
so, let the spring breezes cuff
and the wild sparrows play rough!

Yet, if it has been Lansdown’s intention to inspire fueki ryūkō and encapsulate Wabi Sabi, then he has been successful, but perhaps to a degree near on saccharine. It is poetry which easily moves between subjects and awakens the world of invisible spirits where cherry blossoms come alive and humans have the power to morph with nature – but it lacks the unexpected and falls into formulaic poetic devices such as couplets and juxtapositions.

Throughout Kyoto Sakura Tanka, Lansdown has aspired to capture the transience of nature and evoke the delicately personal experiences and perceptions of time within sakura fragments of tanka, immaculately captured in his camera lens for the reader to experience and relish. Towards the beginning of the collection comes one of my favourite tankas, ‘Tricky Kitsune’, a poem which I think encapsulates the fueki ryūkō of Lansdown’s collection, and is evocative of the transient nature of Kyoto and humanity within the waka tradition:

Would ghost-foxes
appearing as young women
dress in fox masks? 
How like the tricksters to work 
concealment by revealment!


© Erin Thornback

Cordite Poetry Review, February 2017



Poems exhibit delicate strength

by Brian Peachey

Kyoto Sakura Tanka is Andrew Lansdown’s 15th published collection of poetry and his first published collection of photography.

It is an elegant publication, in a beautifully crafted hardcover edition, which makes it an ideal gift. Even more so, because the contents were created by one of the finest poets in Australia.

I have fond memories of his previously published books of poetry. His 1996 book of poems and stories, Abiding Things, has an early touch of Japan with the first poem, The Japanese Gardener. But the five-line lyric tanka poem of Japan, which has since become a fascinating adventure for him, had not then grabbed his attention.

In his beautiful book, The Grasshopper Heart, published in 1991, he moved closer to Japan with Five Haiku. On the blank page before the contents, he arranged five lines from Isaiah 55:12, which in my limited ability to judge seems to come close to a tanka.

In Kyoto Sakura Tanka, Lansdown soars to new heights. Not only is the book a delight to read, but his scholarship adds great value. The book should be in all school libraries.

Cherry blossom viewing  (hanami) has been practised in Japan by emperors, courtiers, samurai, priests and commoners for nearly two millennia and cherry blossoms (sakura) have been invested with many forms of aesthetic, cultural and religious significance. Several of my tanka (also known as waka) allude to this:

Of Petals and Poets

The waka poets
weighted the cherry petals
with sad sentiment …
Nonetheless they sail the air
as if unburdened with care.

The poem Kyoto Autumn Maples, which is a sequence of six tanka, won the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Prize.

To Their Surprise

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


© Brian Peachey
News Weekly, June 17, 2017




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