At first, I wasn’t going to review Dawn Manning’s book of poetry, Postcards from the Dead Letter Office. After all, I don’t consider myself a poet. I don’t read much poetry. What would I have to say about her book? Certainly nothing intelligent.
But then I read the book, and I fell in love with it. I decided to review it (even though I might not say anything intelligent) because I want other people to discover this beautiful little book and fall in love with it, too.
One reason I’m so intent on sharing is that the poems in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office are accessible. You don’t have to be a literary scholar or have a degree in poetry to understand and appreciate them. And that, to me, is so wonderfully refreshing. These poems remind me that poetry isn’t supposed to make me feel stupid. Poetry is supposed to make me feel. And these poems do.
Most of the poems in the collection are tanka, a form of Japanese poetry similar to haiku. When writing in English, Manning explains in the introduction, you can think of tanka “as a five-line poem that can be said in about two breaths.” What’s most important about the form, however, is that there is a pivot within the poem in which one image or idea turns into another:
Don’t you just love it? A row of gravestones becomes the teeth of a zipper that joins together heaven and earth. There’s so much to love in those five little lines. The image, the surprising metaphor, the feeling — both simple and complex — that this poem evokes. But I gush…
Manning’s tanka are bite-sized, able to be consumed in about two breaths. And yet they pack such an emotional punch. I have been reading a handful of her tankas each morning and feeling satiated all day.
Postcards to the Dead Letter Office is broken up into themed sections: tankas for each season and tankas for the various places the globe-trotting Manning has visited: Mexico, Venice, Scotland, and China to name a few. Interspersed among the tanka poetry are a few longer poems, though (to my short-attention-spanned-delight) none longer than twelve lines. The organization of Postcards as a whole was neat and beautiful, and when I finished reading the last poem, I felt complete; as if I had traveled the world in a single year and come home satisfied:
Though the tankas are short (tweet-able, even), they say so much. Some explore beautiful images. Others take on personal topics. Occasionally, Manning mentions high-brow ideas like Ezra Pound or Monet paintings, but she kindly explains the references in her Notes section of the back of the book – she wants us to understand. But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is Manning’s cleverness, her quiet humor:
Before reading Manning’s poetry, I had never heard of tanka. Now, I find myself so enamored with it I even tried writing some tanka of my own. It’s a fun form to dabble with, even for a self-proclaimed non-poet like myself.
Any poetry book that inspires me to write my own poetry must be good. And any poetry book I can read and enjoy from cover to cover… well, let’s just say, that doesn’t happen often. Postcards from the Dead Letter Office is a collection I know I will come back to. Read and reread, savoring each deliciously dense poem. I can travel the world from the comfort of my living room, as Manning’s careful images bloom and turn in my mind.