Zen Mercies Small Satoris

by Marianne Bluger, published by Penumbra Press, 2005




There is no room for error in the tight world of the tanka, and so I opened Marianne Bluger’s latest book with keen anticipation.


There is plenty of fine writing in this spare and modest collection.  For Bluger, tanka are “little epiphanies” and “moments of heightened awareness.”  True; but her poems also have a curiously expansive quality:


On our way

to the shore – a wasp

flies in

& down the road a mile

out again


A simple image; but it recalls Bede likening life to a sparrow flying in and out of a Saxon mead-hall on a winter night.  Her tanka is modern, however - the car is in motion, so that the wasp, involuntarily, exits far from its point of entry. Add to this forced dislocation an implied sense of entrapment and danger, and the travellers’ own progress towards their destination, and you have a passably complex statement. Many of the tanka have that quality.


Trips are a major theme for Bluger. However, the poet’s larger, over-arching voyage is her battle with cancer, and the book relates that narrative.  The first section begins with glimpses of daily life, often laced with wry humour:



that theory again:

the drunker I get

the clearer

shines the moon


The second section continues in a similar vein, referring as well to family relations. Next come travel pieces, a sequence on writing, tanka on the death of her father, and travel again. Suddenly the tone darkens in “The Heat,” with a sense of nostalgia, foreboding, and loss. That unease explodes into naked terror in “A Plunge of Sky,” with the opening haiku:


Eyes widening

in the dark – my spine


in agony I touch

the root of madness


In this section, Bluger grapples with the ultimate challenge – facing death with courage.  Fear gives way to wonder at the beauty of nature and to memories:


Awakened by pain

in a hospital room –

my hometown

in the moonlight

fresh snow has fallen


and to an irrepressible intelligence:


Poor woman

weeping to hear my case

is terminal

doesn’t know how I am:

basically curious


Once home, the poet writes:


It’s dawn

beached by light

the survivor

gapes up at the moving

clouds to learn


Throughout the eighth and ninth sections, Bluger describes her home life with clarity and poignancy. The poems attain a rare intensity in speaking of the preciousness of marriage and home, the strains imposed by illness, and the naturalness of death.


After dwelling briefly on correspondence with soulmates in Japan, Bluger continues, serenely, to chronicle the final stages of her illness.


The last section in Zen Mercies contains some of the most moving poetry I know.  The author has abandoned fear, turning instead to a profound sense of unity with nature. Here are just three of the texts:



inside me cascades

with that willow

trailing chartreuse fronds

in the swollen stream




bending in wind

& my blown mind

becoming that

rolling cloud pond



I am being

blown slowly away

my bones

washed clean

in a river of wind



These tanka bring to a close an astonishing tour de force:  Bluger has created a narrative of rock-solid strength and profundity with the wispiest of texts.  The book’s value lies not in technical virtuosity, though it has that; it is the spiritual message and human story that count.  The ephemeral moments of daily life give rise to universal truths while continuing to support and nourish them.  That, surely, is poetry at its best.


Heather Ferguson