Book Review: Tancho, J. David Cummings

by ravenswingpoetry

(courtesy of Ashland Poetry Press)

Tancho, J. David Cummings, Ashland Poetry Press, Ashland Ohio, 2014

“The [camera] lens has done what it always does:
it has stopped the moment, made a door
in time.”

As J. David Cummings says above about a Japanese sergeant’s camera, the same can be said about each poem in his book Tancho, released this month by Ashland Poetry Press.

The book’s central theme is the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in August 1945. Certainly much has already been said about their resulting tragic human toll: in photographs of the ruined cities and their dead in both flesh and spirit; in print and film; and in testimonies of the living survivors of the bombings. Cummings joins this dialogue with a book of starkly honest and sensitive poems from the unique perspective of an American man whose former profession dealt with atomic weapons.

Like the camera of which he wrote in the lines quoted above from “Nagasaki Journey, Sergeant Yamahata-san’s Last Assignment”, many of the poems capture images or single moments in photographic fashion. In fact, the poems in first section of the book, “Forgotten City”, are based on photographs appearing in Nagasaki Journey: the Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata, August 10, 1945. The very first poem begins with the image of a torii, a type of Japanese gate that is symbolically a demarcation between the sacred and the profane, and contrasts the still-standing gate with the ruined landscape around it:

“It stands among a sea of broken things.
The Shinto shrine, gone. The maze of streets, gone.
The garden, the garden path, gone. The trees, gone.”

The reader travels with Cummings into more photographic poems about broken things and burnt people. For example, “The Corpse of a Very Young Child” describes the subject lying on a pile of rubble:

“…the head
twists right at the same time jerking back
as if trying to rise up, the burned face
turning, pitching into the dirt,
and the last breath breathes in the dust,
the last cry is given to the earth.”

However, Cummings treats these horrific images with a beautiful and empathetic sensibility that still preserves their tragic feel without becoming maudlin. In “Corpse”, he compares the dead young child to “a stone cherub/blown from its pedestal”. We see a similar treatment to the image of a dead boy lying in a house in “Were He a Boy, Sleeping”:

“…He seems to be sleeping,
and the light dapples him.

There are butterflies
warming in broken sunlight—
wake up, child, wake up.”

Like a Virgilian tour guide, Cummings continues to describe these photographs of the dead and the living, the injured in both body and soul, and ruined cities and gray countryside until we arrive at the second section of the book, “Hiroshima Haibun”. The poet then transforms from mere observer to active protagonist when we find him in that section’s first poem, “Koji-san”. The title subject is son of a Japanese woman who as a girl was trapped in her cellar during the Hiroshima bombing – and the poet asks him:

“…if it was hard to get to Hiroshima
from Osaka. ‘No, you take the Bullet Train,’
he said. ‘It’s just a few hours ride.’”

We then follow the poet through a chain-link construction of poems in which he rides on the Bullet Train from Osaka to Hiroshima to visit Peace Memorial Park. He allows the reader to see through his eyes in poems as he travels to Aioi Street, the Genbaku Dome, the memorial tomb, the Children’s Peace Monument, and the Peace Bell inside the monument.

During this journey, we see vivid detail into which the poet infuses the same stark honesty mixed with empathetic sensibility displayed in earlier poems. For example, in “A-bomb Dome”, he speaks of Genbaku Dome in two different ways — first, these lines that describe the top of the dome:

“Yet a brooding settles on the ragged shape,
the open dome of twisted girders like wrought filigree,
its interior sky a blue quilt of tortured forms,
and its blown-out windows like notches a razor-light
had cut into flesh…”

which are later followed by these lines:

“But then, when you circle to its sunlit side,
it seems a harmless thing. No more than a worn and broken
structure empty of its life, its voices, its industry:
shell of brick and concrete half-walls wanting to fall…”

The Hiroshima Haibun section ends with “The Gift of Memory and Forgetting”. Upon seeing the visitors to Peace Memorial Park and especially the children ringing the Peace Bell, the poet expresses his anguish:

“year after year, word by word,
Hiroshima evaporated into the silence…

I want for some other way of memory
one that holds a bit of forgetting, a bit of hope…

I suppose the Park is a good remembering, the bell is,
each year the offered poem—
never enough, Koji-san, never…”

The third section of the book, “An Implicate World”, contains only one poem. In “Folding the Crane”, the poet describing the process by which he folds an origami crane. The reader watches as the folding form taking many shapes, many of them unsurprisingly animal-like – a frog’s mouth, a fox with pointed ears – but at one point it disturbingly takes the shape of a nuclear warhead. Near the end of the poem, he bestows a sense of the sacred upon the finished crane with these lines:

“was she not
soul itself just before the journey
light and form and vulnerability
caught in the fine steel net of the real
a seed set down in this soil
the very first of her kind?”

Finally, we arrive at the last two poems in the journey in the final section of the book, “Messenger”. “Grus japonensis” and “Tancho” both refer to the red-crowned crane: the first the Latin scientific name for the bird and the second its Japanese name. The cranes were once considered good luck birds, messengers of the gods, and symbols of immortality but were hunted by poachers and reduced down to a couple of thousand in the wild.

The two poems reveal a shift in how the birds are perceived. In “Grus japonensis”, the horrified poet asks this question about those who nearly hunted the bird to extinction:

“What had changed in them that they should
exchange the dream of peace for gain,
these malign one hundred years since?”

This is followed by his question of surprise while watching a man feed grain to a group of the birds:

“A single farmer, standing alone somewhere
near the edge of the great Kushiro Marsh,
the Akan at his back, Hokkaido
winter in his bones. What possessed him?”

Besides the camera-like quality of his writing, Cummings also successfully employs many other effects in Tancho. First of all, this book is a journey of contrasts, such as the first image of the sacred gate among the ruins. We see him use contrasts again and again in this book: for example, in “Words”, he describes one man’s testimony of the beauty of “the/sky overflowing with stars” and the “ice-black nights” against the “many small fires—elf fires—rising/from the smoldering bodies”. Secondly, as contrasts in form, Cummings alternates free verse or poetry in a modified sonnet form with haiku, thus turning the entire book into almost an extended haibun – take, for example, these lines from “Aioi Street in Shadow”:

“Then I came to the first bridge of the perished
and watched a long time the water flowing.

Bridge with a human
shadow flashed into stone—who
watches me pass today?”

Thirdly, Cummings weaves in several thematic threads that slide in and out of the poems in the book and successfully tie the whole manuscript together. One thread is the hibakusha (survivors of the bombings and their children) — we see them wander throughout the book just like they wandered the streets in the days afterwards like “muga-muchu” (“as if dead though alive”, as Cummings explains in the notes at the end of the book). They are either forgotten or mistreated by society, and Cummings demands fairness for them in several spots in the book — for example:

“But those who have lived on
in the ruin of their bodies, that name
a shaming whisper, where is their monument?”
(Hibakusha, page 32)

Another thread is Cummings’ own tie to the atomic story that he slowly reveals. For example, in “Bullet Train” he says “not once while it [the train] rocketed south and west/did I think of my time with the weapons.” We see a climax in this sub-plot in “Folding the Crane” when he speaks of an encounter with his former boss:

“he says, there’s a Moscow nuke and your name’s on it
and he barks a quick laugh, his eyes moist and shining,
and he eyes me sharply and I have no idea
what he sees I fear the worst
therefore…

therefore, I am become Death again
cold logic has it…”

Finally, we see the red-crowned crane, and an understanding of its significance unfolds throughout the second, third, and fourth sections of the book. The image of the crane first appears in “Children’s Peace Monument”, then again in multiple poems, including “Saduko-san” which speaks of the girl whose statue stands in the park and the last three poems in the book, “Folding the Crane”, “Grus japonensis”, and “Tancho”, the title poem of the book.

Through these poems, we come to understand why the crane is so significant. There is the legend of how the girl immortalized in the park tried to fold 1,000 paper cranes in hopes of a final granted wish for good health, before she died of leukemia caused by atomic bomb radiation fallout. The real cranes are nearly wiped out by poaching, and they are barely returning from the brink. And it is with these cranes that Cummings ends the book as they lift into the sky in flight, calling out:

“telling you this is the real,
singing the great impossible,
telling you everything…”

until the call blends into the chime of the peace bell.

“A bell sounding peace,
the wheel of snow wings, turning
the light toward us.”

The reader comes to understand through these unified effects – the horrific images after the bombings, the wandering of the hibakusha, the poet’s connection to the nuclear story, his journey to the monument, and the presence of the cranes – that this book is the story of a country almost destroyed, just like the sacred and legendary crane in the title. This understanding is achieved successfully through poetic form and craft, strong and unforgettable imagery, and the weaving in of strong thematic elements discussed earlier. Honestly, I was very hard-pressed to find any weaknesses in his construction or in the conceits upon which it is based.

What impressed me the most, however, is the poet’s success in allowing the reader to enter the world of this book – one that is foreign to Western readers and those not completely familiar with the story of the bombings – without becoming lost. While he provides a thorough explanation of unfamiliar references at the end of the book in the Notes section, I easily understood the poems upon first read without seeing them. Additionally, the information in the Notes allowed the poems to open up for me on an even greater level. I confess that I frequently research unknown references in poems with a Google search; however, I found the need to do this very few and far between while reading the book.

Cumming’s Tancho is a very strong release by Ashland Poetry Press and is a proud reflection of both the press and the poet. This book is a long time in the making, with early versions of its poems written in the 1990’s. This, and the life experiences and development in the craft of the poet, make this a mature, substantial collection of poems marinated in time, history, and a humane sensibility that hopes, as the poet says himself, “war would die”.

– N.I. Nicholson

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