Poets of Franklin County

Carol Purington’s dreaming room

Is poetry fiction or nonfiction? Many people assume that poetry is autobiographical, and that a poem’s narrator is the poet.

Colrain poet Carol Purington, who poses this question in the foreword of her new collection of tanka, a Japanese form similar to haiku, thinks differently about it.

The book’s title, “Faces I Might Wear,” expresses Purington’s opinion, as does the opening poem from which the title was taken:

After heavy rain

enough puddles on my path

to flash back at me

all the faces

I might choose to wear

Some of Purington’s poems are “influenced by the days and dreams of other women in other generations who have shared my landscape,” she writes in her foreword. Others are sparked by memories or by stories her family brings in to her. Within the confines of the concise form she has chosen, Purington creates imagistic moments, shifting moods and, at times, mini-novellas that manage to hold more story than they actually tell.

As a form, tanka shares haiku’s quality of intense compression but tends to be longer, most often 31 syllables to haiku’s 17. Thematically, tanka allows the poet to move through time and to explore human relationships; haiku tends to observe one present moment in nature without commenting upon it.

Purington’s first exposure to tanka was “Tangled Hair,” a volume by Yosano Akiko, a Japanese poet who lived from 1878 to 1942. Purington described Akiko as “a rebel and a revolutionary poet.”

What impressed her most was Akiko’s ability to write in the personae of other women: “A simple maid in an inn, or someone in a more courtly atmosphere. And I thought, yes, I can do this, too.”

“I think I have wanted the freedom to write poems that are not limited by my disability,” Purington said.

Now 63, Purington contracted polio at the age of 6. She lives in one room at the farm on the top of Wilson Hill that generations of Puringtons have owned since the 1780s. She must lie flat on her back, has only limited use of one hand and needs equipment to help her breathe. But poetry has allowed her to wander what she calls “the byways of imagination.”

“Poets, as well as novelists, need the freedom to enter other people’s lives imaginatively, to speak from someone else’s perspective,” Purington insists.

Tanka, with its compression and what Purington referred to as its “dreaming room,” allows her to do that.

When writing tanka, “You don’t tell too much of the story,” she explained. “You leave space for the reader to dream around the bits and pieces and facts that you give them.”

I leaf through the book and choose a poem that strikes me as a good example:

Mud season —

in tux and stiletto heels

we admire

our convertible

stuck in moonlight.

Purington laughs. “No, that really happened! I could name you names,” she says, though she doesn’t.

“It was a very bad mud season,” she recalls. “My brother heard voices in the road and he looked out the window and it was an astonishing view.”

The story, though extremely short, is fully told, Purington points out.

I have to agree. “And that’s the best part of the story right there,” I say. “Nothing better can happen than that.”

We search for another example of tanka’s ability to create dreaming room:

Pussywillows in a jug without water so they’ll last

— the story my grandmother told only once.

Purington nods as I read the poem aloud and recalls the “shocked awareness” she and her sister had after hearing their grandmother’s “difficult story.”

I am not familiar with tanka and I struggle with the poem a bit.

“Is it that those specific plants remind you of your grandmother, or is it more the way they’re standing there silent?” I ask.

“It’s a little bit of both,” Purington replies. “But more that they’re silent and they’re not — They don’t blossom. They are what they are and you can look at them and think about them but you’re not going to get any more details out of them.”

Purington took great care in how she arranged the individual tanka into sequences, looking for ways that the poems “were in dialogue in some way … One poem is different because it’s on the same page with a second or third poem,” she says.

In addition, she asked her 17-year-old niece, Elizabeth Purington, a senior at The Academy at Charlemont, to collaborate by making six photographs to accompany the poems.

Working with black-and-white film, Elizabeth Purington set out not to illustrate the poems but to “enhance” them, a concept she and her aunt discussed at length before she began the project.

“If it’s a poem about a bird, it doesn’t have to be a picture of a bird,” Elizabeth Purington said.

In the photograph shown here, Elizabeth Purington posed her mother to create a character inspired by by her aunt’s poem.

“The hat was my mother’s — or even her mother’s,” she said. “My sister and I used to play dress-up with it. It’s a simple image. The face isn’t necessary,” she adds, a comment that makes me realize that her photographs, like her aunt’s tanka, create dreaming room.

“Faces I Might Wear,” published by Winifred Press of Colrain, is available locally at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield and at Boswell’s Books and Sawyer News in Shelburne Falls.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

I cannot highly recommend Carol Purlington's poetry collection enough. This writer is not only a favorite of mine, but her skill at the difficult art of tanka writing (think of half a sonnet) makes reading her work highly rewarding. As a teacher of tanka poetry this book is high on my list. warm regards, Alan, With Words

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