Perigee Moon by Margaret Chula,
Reviewed by Jeanne Yu
Red Mountain Press, 2021, 89 pages, $22
Available at https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781952204074/perigee-moon.aspx
In her collection, Perígee Moon, Margaret Chula invites us closer into the luminous light of tanka, a poetic form rooted in the Japanese Heian era (790 –1180 A.D.) Tanka, meaning literally “short song,” has captured the imagination of lovers, warriors, and emperors over the centuries. Today tanka remains popular in weekly Japanese newspaper columns and as a mainstay in imperial family customs.
In the modern English form, the tanka structure has evolved to five lines. The first two often capture a moment in nature, followed by a third germane to the first two lines. Then the tanka culminates in a two-line illumination. Chula’s talent shines in her empowered pivot of this center line. Additionally, her attention to musicality, astute sense of observation, invitation to intimacy, and playfulness pay homage to the tanka tradition while pushing the boundaries to what tanka can be.
Paralleling tanka origins, Chula begins her collection with themes of love. In the first section, “All Those Words for Love,” Chula follows the trajectory of love: what it is and how it can transform, all the while accepting its messiness and reality.
and their sad cheeping
keep me awake
all those sweet nothings
I once thought were something
The musical sounds echo as peepers and cheeping pull you into this spring morning, but the sad hint followed by the keep me awake pivots and uncovers those sweet nothings that present interior emotions.
Chula approaches the tanka both as a stand-alone and as part of a larger group weaving song into an integrated story. The subsequent sections in the Perígee Moon, “Spots of Rust” and “Keepsakes,” carry the theme of the lived life, aging, and even memoir. Chula accomplishes this by stringing together tanka stanzas in conversation with one another as profundity is unraveled. In “Obon at the Portland Japanese Garden” ––Obon being a Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors––the tanka spirit guides you, poem by poem within a poem. For example, here are the first and last stanzas:
preparing to light
a commemorative candle
for my mother –
the unexpected giggle
when the wick comes out
walking on the path
through the silent garden
we pass stone lanterns
still holding the light
of those we’ve loved
The great influential Japanese poet, Fujiwara no Teika, once summarized a letter of the ten elements of tanka, among these being mystery and depth, clever treatment of conventional topics, and exquisite detail “so that it seems to glide as smoothly as a drop of water rolling down the length of a five-foot iris leaf.”  Chula does not disappoint as you experience all these elements and more in this collection. In the following tanka, Chula takes two Teika hallmark elements––well-chosen metaphors and the conviction of feeling–– and glides them seamlessly into the world:
the tireless squirrel
finally tips over the suet
peppered with chili –
those forbidden things that left
a bitter taste in my mouth
This bitter taste carries so much while leaving much unsaid said in this perfect balance. The tireless squirrel reinforces distraction and the lolling “l’s” of tireless, squirrel, finally, chili, stand in contrast to the other side of the tanka allowing the hard sounding peppered, forbidden, and bitter to carry these emotions in deeper meaning tuned to the troubles of heart.
Chula’s artful use of syntax on both sides of the tanka, along with her sense of humor, readily brings you into intimacy. In continuous familiarity, Chula’s playfulness extends to tanka that can also feel like simple fun that delights your senses and moods at once:
I walk the labyrinth
for the last time
resisting the urge
to pull up weed
Throughout this luminous collection, the musicality of cohesive sounds and beauty surface in Chula’s tanka images, permitting sentimentality that is so difficult to put words to. Instead, they find a way to rest on the pleasures of the tongue until the full meaning is landed.
just a few blooms
of white trillium
on the Wildwood Trail
how to hold back the blossoms
until you arrive
There is much to contemplate and enjoy in Perígee Moon. There is too much here to share, and there is too much here to give away. It is best that you just go there yourself, as close to the moon as you can. The tanka will hold back the blossoms/until you arrive.
 Reichhold, Jane. Ribbons, Journal of the Tanka Society of America 6:1 Spring 2010.
Jeanne Yu is a poet, environmentalist, mom, engineer, and coach, who is currently pursuing an MFA at Pacific University. She was a recently selected as a semi-finalist in Rattle’s 2021 poetry contest. Her inspiration is to “write from a place of my hope for the world.”