July 3, 2020

Kenny Tanemura


She said sex was a skill, not just something
you do. I fumbled with whips and leashes,
mistaking oddness for art.
No, you have to be creative, she said,
and I thought of Henry James’ line

about how a work of art needs a central force
to hold attention. I used bananas,
massage oils, Greek yogurt,
mistaking experimentation for
imaginative truth. Don’t you see,

she said, you must respond
to my body by sensing how I feel.
You do something to me out of inspiration,
and I respond, you react, a series
of creative acts which are the steps

to slowly climbing the mountain together, she said.
But I couldn’t see beyond the fact
of caress and thrust, like a novelist
who gives only descriptions and nothing
of the mystery of living. Then,

after months, I found that pleasure was so
simple, it could easily get lost
in gimmicks. That the climax should not ensue
until the lover is completely satisfied.
She could spot a mechanical move

from a mile away and knew when a body acted out of
unbearable instinct, or the smaller tincture
of thought. Don’t think, I told myself, just do,
but my body, aging with something
less than grace, wants less to act and more

to ponder. How sex is an art we can learn well
or not, like cooking or the complication
of tango. I want to learn and I don’t.
Marveling as I do at the ordinary, even the expected,
from which surprise always comes.

from Rattle #67, Spring 2020


Kenny Tanemura: “Classical Japanese poets sparked my interest in poetry, and I find myself responding to Japanese poetry from Japanese aesthetics to experimentation with haiku by poets and writers from Richard Wright to Rainer Maria Rilke.”

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June 15, 2015

Kenny Tanemura


I asked people at souvenir shops, bakeries, at Circle Ks for directions to Konpukuji Temple, but no one had heard of it, and they could only give me vague directions after I circled the temple on the map. I was surprised because the temple was in their neighborhood, and Japan’s greatest poet, Matsuo Basho, had lived there, and written one of his most famous haiku:

Even in Kyoto
hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto

I decided to write my own haiku in response:

Dusk falling in Kyoto
I long for the freshness
of morning in Kyoto

By the time we’d reached Konpukuji Temple, we were soaked in sweat and rain and frustration. Finally, after we found ourselves passing the Kyoto University of Art & Design, a super-stylish campus—we were wandering uphill through residential neighborhoods. We usually don’t approach local Japanese who aren’t working in some capacity, but upon seeing a man walking in the rain with two small boys, I couldn’t help calling out “Sumimasen.” Luckily the man stopped and said that he would take us to the temple. Evidently one of the small boys was visiting from America and knew English. He wanted the boy to practice English with us, but like many Japanese children, he was too shy. The man asked the boy to ask us where we are from, but the boy shook his rain-soaked head and said no.

We walked up a flight of stone stairs in the middle of a residential neighborhood and found the temple we would never have found without the kind help of the stranger. An old man sat behind a counter, looking surprised to see us. It was raining out, and late for Kyoto, about 4 p.m. A lot of things close around 5 p.m. in Kyoto.

I was surprised to find out that Yosa Buson’s grave was also on the property. It seemed fitting that Buson, as Japan’s second greatest haiku poet, should have his grave in the yard of Basho’s house, since Basho is generally regarded as Japan’s greatest poet.

Sitting on the tatami in the hut where Basho lived and wrote haiku hundreds of years ago, I felt humbled. I couldn’t read anything in the little museum down the hill from the hut, no scrolls or signs, but it was magical nonetheless. I wanted to stay there for the rest of the evening and write haiku about the summer rain. Few things inspired me in Japan, not my visit to long-lost relatives in Taga, not my travels through Tokyo and Yokohama, but Basho’s old hut was inspiring for me. I dashed off seven haiku:

the sound of rain …
pages turning

Another visitor come
to visit Basho’s hut …
garden stillness

Basho your
neighbors don’t know you—
summer rain

Summer rain
falls into the well
Basho drank from

Kyoshi wrote poems
of the view from here—
today clouds, rain …

In Basho’s hut
don’t want to move
an inch

Stretch my aching
legs in Basho’s hut—
already at home!

I had visited the Keats Shelley House in Rome last summer, but my experience of wandering around the house where Keats spent his last days, while stunning, doesn’t compare to my experience of sitting in Basho’s thatched hut. His haiku made such a deep impression on me as a teenager when my parents took me to Tokyo’s Maruzen Bookstore and I bought a handful of translations of Basho’s poetry. I didn’t care about the trend of the moment that was being sported on the streets of the Ginza, I just cared about the essences that Basho captured so well. These days, I’ve gone far from my youthful idealization of essences and more toward the trivia of the moment. I want to return again to my deep, if lost, love for the core of things that Basho was always aiming for, both in his life and poetry.

Buson also influenced me greatly. In front of Buson’s grave, I put my hands together in the rain, closed my eyes and bowed. I remembered one of my favorite haiku by Buson:

I leave,
you stay—
two autumns

I used to wonder at the meaning of this poem. Were there two autumns because each individual had a different experience of autumn? Or was autumn doubly autumnal—solemn and lonely, because the other had gone? Of course autumn in Japan is famously beautiful, a time of leaves turning color. So was this poem then an ode to autumn’s beauty? Or is autumn personified here—the “you” is not a friend but autumn itself. When autumn leaves and turns to winter, Buson is left to grieve the loss of this beautiful season. But what about “two autumns?” Doesn’t that suggest that Buson himself is autumn? Is it possible for the autumn in autumn to leave and the autumn in Buson to stay autumnal despite autumn being over? He carries the season he loves within him. This doesn’t seem improbable for a Japanese poet who loved few things more than seasons and their various characteristics and changes. I left a poem for Buson:

Buson fixed up your hut
found in ruin

from Rattle #47, Spring 2015
Tribute to Japanese Forms


Kenny Tanemura: “I became interested in Japanese poetry through J.D. Salinger’s stories. On a trip to Tokyo shortly after graduating from high-school, I visited the Maruzen bookstore in the Ginza and took home as many translations of Japanese poetry as were available, an armful.”

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January 1, 2015

Kenny Tanemura


It was the summer
short shorts came back,
even in Kyoto women wore them,
they came back like a first love
returns in a dream,

back to the hometown
that hasn’t changed
in her absence.
Like all good things,
I got used to

short shorts
being gone for seasons
& seasons
& forgot anyone ever wore them
until that year summer broke loose

from spring’s gunshot
like a horse galloping into a sprint
& short shorts
blossomed everywhere—
in denim,

in pink & lavender & scarlet
in sky
blue & women with light skin
& dark skin
wore them, women

with long legs
short legs small legs
thin legs
beach-tanned legs
European cruise-tanned legs

& pale city legs
wore them
even on days when it never
got too hot
never sizzled

never baked the dogs
making their tongues hang
out in the heat
dying for a taste
of water—

because it was the thing
to wear that summer
& it was enough
to pack June
make July eventful

& August a festival
without going anywhere
like Paris or London or Tokyo
or Beijing,
a festival of swiveling lights

of studying the play of light
like Monet
& the play of shadow
like Hiroshige
& the play

of playful couture
& one day I imagine
there will come the summer
of soulful eyes
for the first time on earth

the soulful eyes of women and men
ablaze on the street
telling the story
of the inner life as
it’s always been lived—

but I won’t forget that summer
of thigh-muscle flexing
of the powerful ankle
of hands smoothing imaginary
satin against the skin

hands unused to baring
and brushing against so much—
of not wanting to be a Buddha
of shooting the Buddha in the back
of adding fuel

to the volcano
& letting it get out
of control—
those calligraphic lines
behind the knee

were characters
in my ancestor’s language
& their spirits had returned
that summer
we celebrated even the dead

from Rattle #44, Summer 2014


Kenny Tanemura: “I became interested in poems when I found some translations of classical Japanese haiku at the Maruzen bookstore in Tokyo. I was there on a family trip and Tokyo is also my mother’s hometown. Years later, I was awarded a Monbudaijin certificate from Japan’s Minister of Education for a contest held in honor of the 300th anniversary of Matsuo Basho’s death. This past summer, I visited the hut where Basho lived in Kyoto. No one has successfully written Japanese forms in English, including me. But these forms brought me to the desire to write.”

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