Strip Club Tanka

*Special to asia!

Much-loved Singapore poet Robert Yeo shares a few of his own Japanese-style poems – and their sources of inspiration




Inspired by my reading of tanka in The Uta, translated by Arthur Waley, I tried my hand at writing some. The first few are what is sometimes, in translation parlance, described as imitations: they profess admiration for the poems (in this case Waley's translations ) and attempt to copy them.

I hope that in this case, the copies are not slavish.


My life has been as brief

As the refraction

Of the splintered moon

In the leaking cup

Of my withered palm.


When I gaze long

Into the old mirror

See new wrinkles branch--

Am I not right to ask

Whose crumpled face is that?


In the home you built for me

I scattered seeds.

Over the barren years

You were at war

How tall the trees have grown!


Though peering crowds

Marvel at kings and horsemen

In jewelled procession –

Riding my heart

Only my beloved!


I do not know 


How to pull myself

Away from your radiance

On the dining table.

When will we ever leave?


We meet in dream so hot

We melt to become one.

But when I awake

I grope to find

An empty bed.


On this cold night

When snow falls lightly

And makes little beds and pillows

In the garden white –

Ah, how can I sleep alone?


I will not comb 

This morning's hair


As the touch of my lord

Who pillowed me

May slip away.


The next few are tanka which has a contemporary take. They include descriptions of a train journey to Devon and Cornwall in England, fellow travellers and social commentary.


Rolling on an English train

And admiring her seascapes

In the height of autumn--

Indelible as Tintagel

Which will not fade.


Sometimes such encounters--

Like the red cliffs of Devon

Seen from a moving car.

But at the next bend

A foggy windscreen.


Exquisite Spanish blooms

All summer in the bus.

But if I may gaze

For but the hour of the journey,

Is this not a kind of withering?


Social criticism is not commonly found in the tanka form because it traditionally prefers themes like the above three tanka, about beauty and transience. Still, it seems to me worth trying. This is what I observed in a strip club:


The crucifix rocks

Atop her cleavage

As she peels nightly

to vinyl strains--

My eyes pop and hop.


I was attracted to an Australian student in my university days in London who had African friends. One day she leaned on her friend's shoulder and looked at me. Later I wrote this tanka.


On his African shoulder

Her Western eyes

Scanned my East.

I shrink and think.

'Why am i so slow? '





This is the second of Robert Yeo’s two-part series on the tanka, the ancient form of Japanese poetry. The first part can be found here

Robert is a Singaporean poet, playwright and novelist. He has published four poetry collections, a novel and six plays. Now 70, Yeo is currently working on his autobiography, Routes 1940-1975.


Image of two Japanese women: Kitagawa Utamaro, Women under Wisteria, ca. 1790s, Woodblock print, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Gift of Lenoir C. Wright, 1998