The Unspeakable Body

Edited by M. Kei
As soon as the call for submissions for ‘The Unspeakable Body’ went out, it attracted attention. Several poets expressed hope and approval. They felt tanka needed an injection of realism and were eager to stretch themselves. Then there were the negative emails. I was told I was inviting dross and that I would receive pornography and other vulgar trash. Worse, I was told that by even daring to mention rape in the call for submissions, I was aiding and abetting rapists and glorifying rape. Apparently, the complainer has never read tanka by poets who describe surviving sexual assault, child molestation, or domestic violence. For that matter, they apparently have not read tanka poets in which they confess committing such deeds.

I have. One of the best known tanka poets writing in English, Sanford Goldstein, has written a tanka I admire greatly. Not that I approve of hitting children, but I appreciate the incredible honesty of a parent admitting his shortcomings. In spite of the autobiographical bent of tanka in English, it is exceptionally rare for tanka poets to depict such things.

For that matter, given that it is poetry, we cannot really be sure the poet actually did what he describes. That in turn imposes a level of complexity in interpreting the poem. Is it poetic license? True confession? How much truth does the poet owe to the reader? Is a poem ‘true’ if it is not factual? Don’t ‘fictional truths’ tell us important things about ourselves? How can a mere fifteen syllables do justice to a problem like child abuse? Dare we even talk about it in our poetry? Or does the fear of being branded a monster silence us?

like an assassin
I too
aim for the head
my kid

Sanford Goldstein, Four Decades on My Tanka Road.

I do not condone child abuse, but I admire the courage of a man putting his own imperfections into print. To bear witness—even to our own wrongdoing—is not ‘glorifying’ anything. The best literature is honest literature; it doesn’t allow us to escape into prettiness. It hits us in the face and makes us see what is right in front of us.

The visual arts are full of such images. Goya’s ‘Uranus Devouring His Sons’ is a gruesome vision of a decapitated, naked body being consumed by a monster in the shape of a man. Putatively, it is a painting of a myth, a story of something that never really happened. Yet like all myths, it tells us a profound truth: a child suffering at the hands of his father feels like he is being devoured by a monster.

Can tanka even begin to touch the power of a large and vivid canvas?

I think that it can. I have seen tanka about the Holocaust, terrorist bombings, and the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear fallout that swept Japan. If tanka can grapple with such large and horrific events, nothing is beyond its reach.

Yet somehow, it was easier for poets to confront the enormity of disaster than the intimate details that mark ordinary human lives. Who would think that goiters or pimples or sexually transmitted diseases are fit subjects for poetry, let alone tanka with its thousand year legacy of courtly beauty? A mole, an age spot, a fart—how can these compare with the sublime artistry of the past?

But why should they? We do not live the silk-clad life of a courtier immured in her paper palace. Our poetry should not either. Our own lives are meaningful and our bodies are valuable, even if they are imperfect, impoverished, or vulgar. Yes, vulgar. Why should reality be banned from poetry, or rendered only with the misty vision of rose-colored glasses?

Several of the tanka found below address bodily orifices and their biological functions with earthy humor. They are more properly kyoka because they break the taboos of tanka aesthetics to engage directly with ‘unfit’ subjects and treatments. They appear cheek by jowl with more serious works, some of which are painfully beautiful in their depiction of loss, flaw, or judgment.

I have deliberately avoided sentimental poems, easy poems, and aspirational poems. I picked poems that depict aspects of the human body rarely covered in contemporary English-language tanka. I did so to encourage tanka poets to step outside the boundaries of convention and to see that everything, absolutely everything, is poetry.

1) Andrew Riutta

her third eye
her brown eye . . .
some days
it’s impossible to tell
one from the other

2) Autumn Noelle Hall

a burnt offering
to appease these sterile gods 
of industry:
her placenta on its way
to the incinerator

3) Bob Lucky

the spring in my dick
slightly sprung with age,
but the mind is hardy
and good at playing tricks

4) Chen-ou Liu

a man and his dogs
stand by the gated entrance:
under a coat of white paint
as storm clouds approach

Niggerhead is the name of a secluded West Texas hunting camp.

5) Christina Nguyen

his hands
search my body
for the time
I cannot
give him

6) Ernesto P. Santiago

what a best meal 
for sleepless nights
I am reaching
down, down into
your wet tundra

7) Gerry Jacobson

man in a yoga class
by breasts and hips and bums
I close my eyes

8) Jeanne Lupton

outside the cafe
a young couple kisses good-bye
he stops
to pick a pimple on her nose
then kiss kiss kiss and they part

9) Joy McCall

my fingers
stroking the new tattoo
on my old stump—
wanting the snake to wake,
uncoil and reach for the ground

10) Kath Abela Wilson

at our Catholic family meals
banned by the priests
my favorite
we never had avocados
ahuacuatl the testicle tree

11) Kirsten Cliff

I feel like
a walking pharmacy
most days . . .
the seasons change, and yet
my drug regime stays the same

1). M. Kei

how to explain?
the snow-covered wheelchair ramp,
the locked handicap entrance,
and the bus driver who doesn’t know
how to operate the lift

13) Matthew Caretti

she rests
her weary head—
old goiter
now refuge
and woe

14) Melissa Allen

you have to tell
all your partners
the doctor says
outside everything
beginning to buzz

15) Nu Quang

left to die
covered with bloodstains . . .
did he not have a human face,
a heart and mind
just like every one of us?

16) Old Lady

how, when did this happen?
brown spots, red rashes
this is not my arm!
nearly 80 years of sun, neglect
has consequences

17) Patricia Prime

a stranger
shows me on her smart phone
an image
a cyber-troll has sent her
of a defaced Jewish cemetery

18) Paul Mercken

Papa dear,
why do they call this
a hot dog?
That, my love,
is a metaphor.

19) Ram Krishna Singh

a tress of hair
she drops over the mole
on her forehead
thinking it’s ugly and
hides her own gazelle eyes

20) richard the third

older now
I may be no longer
hung like a horse
but my rod, my staff,
it comforts me

21) Seren Fargo

she smoked
a pack a day—
those little white sticks
not the only things
burning down

22) Sonam Chhoki

a figure in red 
beckons at the bedroom door
I wake up
soaked in the blood
of my emptied womb

23) Stuart Sandz

at the library
the university student finds
Gone With the Wind—
laughing, he recalls his music teacher’s
farts that were just like that

24) Terri L. French

the scent of
my menstruating sister
after all these months
a spot of blood
in my white panties

25) William Cullen Jr

drawn on the sidewalk
in chalk as gray as the sky
a body’s outline
washes away in the rain
a rose left where the heart was


Andrew Riutta lives in northern Michigan with his daughter, Issabella. His essay, “The Myths of Manhood,” was recently featured on Public Radio International.

As a child, Autumn Noelle Hall once dissected a bluegill’s eye to reveal its clear sphere of a lens; she’s looked through it ever since. Possessed of a curiosity and love for nature as spiritual as scientific, Autumn continues to reverence the 3D world through inquiry, art and poetry. Her Short Form work and photography can be found online and in many modern journals, and her footprints can be followed on the foothills of Pikes Peak. 

Bob Lucky lives in Ethiopia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlas Poetica, Modern Haiku, The Prose-Poem Project, Rattle and other journals. He enjoys making noise on ukuleles and traveling, sometimes simultaneously.

Born in Taipei, Taiwan Chen-ou Liu, emigrated to Canada in 2002 and settled in Ajax, a suburb of Toronto, where he continues to struggle with a life in transition and translation. He is the author of three books, and his tanka and haiku have been honored with many awards. Read more of his poems at Poetry in the Moment at

Christina Nguyen is a Minnesota copywriter and mom by day and a poet by night (and every moment in between). She likes to play around in Facebook groups including NaHaiWriMo, Senryu & Kyoka, and Tanka Poets on Site. Her poetry blog, “A wish for the sky…” is at

Ernesto P. Santiago, born 1967, is a Filipino who enjoys exploring the poetic myth of his senses, and has recently become interested in the study of haiku and its related forms. He lives with his wife Nitz in Athens, Greece.

Gerry Jacobson lives in suburban Canberra, Australia, and travels to see beloved grandchildren in Sydney and in Stockholm. He is a retired geologist, now obsessed with tanka. His tanka and tanka prose are published in Ribbons, Gusts, Atlas Poetica and Haibun Today.

Jeanne Lupton hosts a poetry reading series, leads writing groups, and serves on the editorial board of Poetalk in the San Francisco Bay area. She loves writing tanka and has self-published several booklets and a collection, but then you danced.

Joy McCall has written poetry, mostly tanka, for 50 years, publishing occasionally here and there. She lives on the edge of the old walled city of Norwich, UK. She is a paraplegic amputee following a motorcycle crash. She is married to Andy and has two grown daughters. The poets she reads most often are Ryokan, Langston Hughes, M. Kei, Frances Cornford, TuFu, Sanford Goldstein, and Rumi.

Kath Abela Wilson is the creator and leader of Tanka Poets on Site in Pasadena, CA. Poets explore natural exhibits and gardens and return to perform on the sites of their inspiration. Her tanka and other poems have been published in A Hundred Gourds, Atlas Poetica, Red Lights, Moonbathing, Kokako, Gusts, Eucalypt, Take Five, and other Atlas Poetica Special Features, and other journals and anthologies online and in print.

Kirsten Cliff wonders why people always ask the question, ‘What do you do?’ If you want to know someone, ask them what they love to do, what they are passionate about, what they are good at. Until she’s asked a better question, her answer will remain, ‘I write.’ Kirsten’s haikai are regularly published in print and online journals. She is the haikai editor of a fine line, The Magazine of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

M. Kei is a tall ship sailor and award-winning poet. He is the editor-in-chief of Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, and the author of Slow Motion : The Log of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack (Recommend Reading by the Chesapeake Bay Project). He is the editor of Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka and compiler of the Bibliography of English-Language Tanka. He has published over 1400 tanka poems. He also published a gay Age of Sail series of novels, Pirates of the Narrow Seas.

Matthew Caretti has lived abroad most of his adult life, using homes in Korea, Austria, Switzerland and South Africa to launch journeys to nearly fifty other countries. His practice of Zen Buddhism, a product of karma as well as the years in Asia, joins travel, cycling, his home in the woods and human folly (mostly his own) as a heavy influence on his work. He now teaches English and directs the Writing Center at a college preparatory school in Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Poetry Canada, Contemporary Haibun Volumes 11 & 12, Haibun Today, Sketchbook and Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, Vol. 4.

Melissa Allen lives in Madison, Wisconsin, works as a technical writer at a software company, and is finishing a degree in library science. She is still not sure what she wants to be when she grows up. She writes a blog called ‘Red Dragonfly’ at

Nu Quang, a Chinese Vietnamese, grew up during the war and lived under the Communist rule for ten years after Saigon fell. Now a naturalized US citizen, she writes from her background consisting of three cultures. She is a widely published tanka poet, whose poems have been published in both online and print journals. Her haiku and haibun have also received publication in several magazines.

Old Lady isn’t old every day; just mostly when it hurts to walk. She hasn’t written much lately and keeps promising to “do better”—Hah!

Patricia Prime has spent her working life as an early childhood teacher and now works part-time in this field. She is co-editor of Kokako, reviews/interviews editor of Haibun Today and writes reviews for the NZ journal Takahe and for Atlas Poetica. Several of her poems and reviews have appeared in the World Poetry Almanac (Mongolia), 2006-2012. An interview between herself and fellow poet, Catherine Mair, on their collaborative poetry is to appear on Lynx and her essay “Poet and Tanka” is published in the current issue of Ribbons. Currently she is one of the guest editors for the World Haiku Anthology, edited by Dr. Bruce Ross.

Paul Mercken (born 1934) is a retired professor of philosophy and medieval studies, living near Utrecht, from 2004 until 2011 secretary of the Nederlandse Haiku Kring (the Dutch Haiku Society). His nationality is Belgian. After his PhD in Leuven (Belgium) he did post-doctoral work in England and Italy and taught in the U.S.A and in the Netherlands. He has two daughters in their forties. He regards poetry and the art of translating as a powerful means of building bridges among people. 

Ram Krishna Singh, born, brought up and educated in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh, India), has been writing haiku and tanka for the last three decades. His published volumes include Above the Earth’s Green (1997), Every Stone Drop Pebbles (jointly with Catherine Mair and Patricia Prime, 1999), Pacem in Terris (jointly with Myriam Pierri and Giovanni, 2003), The River Returns: A Collection of Tanka and Haiku (2006), Sexless Solitude and Other Poems (2009), Sense and Silence: Collected Poems (2010), and New and Selected Poems Tanka and Haiku (2012). A professor of English, he has been teaching language skills to students of earth and mineral sciences at Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad (India since 1976).

richard the third is a musician and composer as well as a haiku and renku poet living in New England. He is a sexagenarian but in love with his life and his wife.

Seren Fargo, once a wildlife researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, now writes poetry, particularly Japanese-form poetry, which she finds satisfies both her creative side and her scientific side. In 2009, she founded the Bellingham Haiku Group, which she currently coordinates. Her work has won several awards and been published in many journals in the United States and internationally. She lives with her three cats, Badger, Princess Kita, and 20-year-old Neptune. 

Sonam Chhoki was born and raised in the eastern Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. She has been writing Japanese short forms of haiku, tanka and haibun for about 5 years. These forms resonate with her Tibetan Buddhist upbringing and provide the perfect medium for the exploration of her country’s rich ritual, social and cultural heritage. She is inspired by her father, Sonam Gyamtsho, the architect of Bhutan’s non-monastic modern education. Her works have been published in poetry journals and anthologies in Australia, Canada, Japan, UK and US and included in the Cultural Olympics 2012 Poetry Parnassus and BBC Radio Scotland Written Word programme.

Stuart Sandz has written poems for a decade. These are his first attempts at this type of body poem at deviant humor.

Terri L. French is the Southeast Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America. Her work has appeared in many online and print journals and anthologies. Terri also is a practicing Massage Therapist. She and her husband, Ray, a NASA engineer, live in Huntsville, Alabama. They have four grown children and two spoiled cats. After retirement the couple plans to sell their home, buy an RV, and indulge their wandering adventurous spirits.

William Cullen, Jr. is a veteran and works at a non-profit in Brooklyn, NY. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Camroc Press Review, Gulf Stream, Pirene’s Fountain, Red Poppy Review, Red River Review, Spillway, Wild Goose Poetry Review and Word Riot.

© 2012 by Keibooks. All rights reserved. See Educational Use Notice for policy governing use in an educational context. Copyright for the individual poems and prose remains with the contributors.