Lenard D. Moore: Long Rain (Wet Cement Press, 2021)

In an instant/ blue jays switch places/ on the powerline/ I listen to its humming/ as the sun goes down – the first of thirteen tanka from Long Rain reprinted, with permissions, in the Appendix to this article

If you are familiar with the following publishers: Carlton Press, North Carolina Haiku Society, St. Andrew College Press, Les Hombres Press, Red Moon Press, WorldTech Press, Mountains and Rivers Press (and Blair), Wet Cement Press, and Cuttlefish Books –, then you are likely to be the owner of all nine books and chapbooks of poetry published between 1982 and 2023 by North Carolinian Lenard D. Moore.

To this we could add another nine volumes of poetry edited or co-edited by Moore, most notable perhaps One Window’s Light: A Collection of Haiku (2017) and All the Songs We Sing: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective (2020).

Writing and experimenting with many literary genres, Moore (b. 1958) is probably best known for his work with (African) American versions of traditional Japanese forms, like haiku and tanka. And this year’s publication of A Million Shadows at Noon (Cuttlefish Books, 2023) – a haiku sequence commemorating the historic, if somewhat controversial, Million Man March of African American men on October 16, 1995, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. – marks 41 years of effort.

“Haiku is a way of life for me.” In more than one interview Lenard Moore, an army veteran who has served time in Germany, tells the following story of how he discovered haiku. Returning home after his service term ended, during the winter of January 1982 he ended up in bed with the flu.

“I noticed my textbook, which we used in a creative writing class at the University of Maryland, Global Campus, in Stuttgart, Germany.” Browsing the book, he came upon English translations of Japanese haiku, and he was changed from that moment. Initially he thought it would be easy to write haiku. Just three lines? He could do that. Eventually he found that “Making jazz swing in/ Seventeen syllables AIN’T/ No square poet’s job,” to quote a haiku by poet Etheridge Knight.

Haiku had become a way of life for him, a way to observe, to pay attention, to focus, to see and experience the world through the eyes of the medieval Japanese master poets: “Appreciate beauty. Discover meaning. Find harmony. Love nature – all this is what poetry teaches me,” Moore says. And he found that haiku writing enhanced his longer forms of poetry. Like his jazz poems.

“A long spell of rain.” Above we mention Lenard D. Moore’s publishers, like Wet Cement Press, in appreciation of the many small presses that sustain and nourish (African) American literature.

On the front cover of Long Rain there is the name of the author, the title, the word ‘Poetry’, and the ancient Japanese character (kanji) for “a long spell of rain.” And in a footnote to the introduction by the late author and critic Guy Davenport (1927-2005), Moore informs us that “the tanka poetic form dates from 7th century Japan and is sometimes compared, in spirit, with the English sonnet.”

We are also informed that an earlier version of this collection was first assembled in 1994.

In his introduction Davenport offers extensive commentary on just one of the book’s 105 tanka, the one on blue jays switching places on the powerline, (see the epigraph above), bringing both Henry David Thoreau (best known for his book Walden, 1854), and the poets Wallace Stevens (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” 1917, a poem inspired by haiku), and Ezra Pound into the picture.

“Ezra Pound in Pisa saw birds on power lines as musical notes on a stave,” Davenport writes, calling our attention to the importance of music (jazz and blues) and musicians to Moore’s poetry.

I like this one: “If the jays are male and female, they are courting; if male, disputing a territory.” And Davenport notes that in North Carolina folklore the jay is chthonic. “It is never seen on Fridays, as it is then in the underworld with messages about us.” A raucous bird, and belligerent.

Earth, Wind, Fire, Rain. Choosing 13 tanka for the Appendix I have selected poems from all four sections (named for the elements rather than the four seasons): Earth, Wind, Fire, and Rain. Each section is prefaced by a short prose piece of remembrance: Great-Grandma Fannie, the eerie In the Owl’s Claws, Cleaning the Attic (and finding 25 year old love letters), and Watery Tuesday, April 9, 1968 (a remembrance of their fourth-grade teacher, the only white teacher in his school, taking the class to a nearby cafeteria to watch Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.’s funeral on black and white TV).

I try to shift the scene from one tanka to the next (blue jays on the powerline > a black woman in a broom-swept yard singing “The Negro Anthem” > a beachbound couple waiting in the car for a tugboat to pass under the drawbridge, etc.) in these poems set in a southern landscape of rural and (sub)urban North Carolina, its culture, and its people and their lives bonded by the natural world.

As Guy Davenport’s ‘glossing’ of the tanka about the blue jays switching places on the humming powerline suggests, it will pay the reader to pay close attention to these deceptively simple poems.

THE THIRTEEN TANKA REPRINTED in the Appendix are in many ways the most import part of this article, and I am grateful to Lenard D. Moore and Wet Cement Press for permissions to reprint. I am enchanted by these poems. I find myself reading the 13 tanka I have selected over and over – and then the rest of the book to make sure I have picked the ‘right’ poems for my Appendix.

I am comforted by something Moore said in an interview. Asked to pick his favorite haiku, he refused (he does have favorites, though): “There is no way I could select just one of my haiku. I select all of my haiku! I think I’ll leave the selection of favorite haiku of mine to my readers.”

Lenard D. Moore, a founder of the above mentioned CAAWC, the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective, is generally recognized as one of the five or six major African American haiku writers (see the Reading Black article: Kalamu ya Salaam: Precise Tenderness: 100 Haiku). Among his many honors let us mention two: In 2008 and 2009, as the first African American, he served as president of the Haiku Society of America. More recently, he was appointed the 2020-2021 Honorary Curator of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento.

UFI | 09/21/2023

Thirteen tanka reprinted from Long Rain
(Wet Cement Press, 2021) with permission
from the author, Lenard D. Moore.
All rights reserved.

From Earth
In an instant
blue jays switch places
on the powerline
I listen to its humming
as the sun goes down     p. 18

washing a pan
in the broom-swept yard
a black woman at dawn;
she sings “The Negro Anthem”
as maple leaves rustle     p. 20

beachbound at noonday –
the drawbridge opens and
a tugboat passes through;
we wait in the car
until the bridge goes down     p. 27

evening chill
a white-haired woman
drinking sassafras tea
the nurse straightens a lithograph
on the pink wall     p. 39

From Wind
quiet before dawn
the salty wind slipping
into the cottage
her black panties drift backwards
on the rusty hanger     p. 46

just off the highway
small shabby house in the corn patch –
lasting overcast;
dust cloud behind the tractor
as a distant windmill turns     p. 52

From Fire
chips of pinewood
falling off the sunsplashed truck
that turns at the light;
a trail of black exhaust
coming toward my windshield     p. 70

sun in my side mirror
the rumps of brown horses
shimmer to the right
the sloping fence stretches
mile after sunny mile     p. 77

a black man bending
over the low cotton bush –
sunfire on his back;
the flap of a burlap sack
while blues hide in my throat     p. 84

noon over the cottage:
even the curves
of her body
filled with light,
the beads of sweat     p. 92

heading home –
dozens of planes roaring
in the night sky;
no wind pushing back
the suburban heat     p.94

From Rain
honeymoon night –
her gown on the bedpost
as the bedsprings creak
hour after hour spring rain
dripping down the window   p. 112

long rain –
a hawk settling
in the dead oak
how the umbrella trembles
in my bony hand     p. 121