Aotearoa/Angleland, John Gallas

New Walk Editions, 2021    £5.00

Playing with form

Aotearoa/Angleland may run the risk of irritating tanka purists. Its ‘tankas’ — thirty of them set in the author’s native New Zealand and thirty in his adopted England — are tanka (the correct plural) in that they mostly follow a five-line, 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.

Gallas’s poems largely ignore the practice of most English-language tanka poets, who tend to use fewer syllables — because 5-7-5-7-7 can seem too wordy in English. Instead, the latter focus on retaining the spirit of Japanese tanka as brief poems conveying love and/or other heightened emotions or contemplativeness.

However, here Gallas broadly uses his strict syllabic form as a vehicle for playfulness and, in passing, to capture the essence of place. In ‘Lowestoft Harbour’ one can admire the jaunty verb and macrocosmic description:

Lowestoft. Midday.
Two lifeboats leave the harbour
burbling side by side.
Far out, against the world’s blue
wallpaper, I watch them part.

Meanwhile, ‘Fiskerton Station’ (with its nod to ‘Adlestrop’) is typical of this poet’s drollery:

Yes, I remember
Fiskerton — the name because
there was a small owl
standing on the platform with
a paper bag on its head.

As ‘Fiskerton Station’ also shows, though, adherence to strict syllable count sometimes entails prepositions (and possessive adjectives) hanging awkwardly at line-ends — but then again, that could apply to any syllabic form and doesn’t hamper the sense of mischief that even, in one poem, extends to a paean in Esperanto to the Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy (readers will find the Esperanto easily intelligible).

The New Zealand poems often include indigenous terms, for which a glossary might have helped. Nevertheless, they also possess an engaging liveliness. In ‘Flutterby’, for example, ‘A wee pīwakawaka / perks and zips away /to more promiscuous grub-trees.’

Gallas does occasionally (as in ‘The Waterfall’) write poems closer in spirit to Japanese tanka, with a shift before/to the final two lines. It’s sometimes argued, however, that attempts to mirror the original form constitute a kind of ‘Japonisme’, i.e. outdated cultural appropriation. It’s a blessing, then, that Gallas’s poems avoid this, and are quirky and enjoyable.

Matthew Paul