Review: Keeping Score: Angry Tanka by Susan Burch

Cover of Keeping Score: Angry TankaKeeping Score: Angry Tanka by Susan Burch
Velvet Dusk Publishing (December 2019)

46 pages, $8.99 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage

Susan Burch is a prominent composer of English Language Tanka.  She began writing tanka in April 2013 after reading winning contest poems on the Tanka Society of America website. She loved the brevity of the form and submitted to Ribbons, which published her first tanka and encouraged her to keep writing. Since then she has placed in Mandy’s Page’s tanka contest, the World Tanka Competition, Diogen contests, the Haiku Poets of Northern California contests, the British Haiku and Tanka Awards, the TSA’s Sanford Goldstein tanka contest, and most recently, the Fleeting Words tanka contest. Her most recent collection is keeping score: Angry Tanka.

At first, keeping score seems like a typical tanka collection. As with most English Language Tanka, the poems are in five lines, and are dependent on tight, compact imagery and revealing juxtapositions. For example:

tug of war—
when will you
my vagina
doesn’t belong to you

This works as a tanka, certainly. The imagery is there, as well as the emotional resonance that one expects from the form. It’s certainly angry, as the title of the collection would suggest, but the passive reader might not see it as horror, per se.

However, closer reading reveals a darker character in the speaker, one much more violent and murderous. While the tanka themselves explore the horrors of a woman in the 21st century surviving emotional and patriarchal abuse, the content gets very dark very quickly. What makes Burch such a talented poet is the subtlety which she brings to her work, subtlety that connotes something horrific without actually stating it directly. For example:

a pin cushion
full of pins—
I don’t  want to know
her name
this time

The phrasing of this poem is so subtle and poignant, as the best tanka are. The last three lines allude to an affair, one of multiple affairs even, while the first two lines add a domesticity to the scene. However, the choice of image — the pin and pin cushion — clearly point to a darker violence. There’s no explicit statement of torture or even voodoo, but the connotations of violence and the angry, vengeful tone are readily apparent, enough that a reader is forced to make a much more horrific connection than what is explicitly stated.

This vengeful violence can be seen in other poems in this collection. For example:

the recoil
from a shotgun—
don’t act like
it was hard for you
to leave me

Here the violence is more explicit. The first two lines, while not directly stating a murder, certainly allude to a murderous attempt with a specific weapon. The last three lines, again, connote a less than amicable parting, possibly even another affair when paired with other poems in the collection. The rage the speaker feels is palpable here, echoed in the kinesthetic image of the first two lines. This leads to a homicidal violence that, based on the actions of the “you” figure in these poems, might easily be justified by an empathetic reader.

At its best, a good tanka will use its imagery and tone to invoke a mood in the reader. As stated in the title of this collection, keeping score: Angry Tanka will invoke moods of rage in the reader. And while there is no directly stated horror or gore in these pages, the implied violence connoted by the images and strong juxtapositions creates scary scenarios in the mind of the reader, which is much more haunting and longer lasting. Overall, any fan of poetry should thoroughly enjoy reading keeping score: Angry Tanka by Susan Burch. 

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