by Terry Ann Carter
The possibility of mentorship is a golden opportunity. It is a silver opportunity. It is, as Yeats once described, “the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.”
My golden and silver apples arrived with Canadian haiku and tanka poet, Marianne Bluger. We met through the League of Canadian Poets in the early 80’s, and lived in the same city — Ottawa, Ontario.
From the get go, Marianne encouraged me to read the “Japanese classics” and try my hand. Often we would meet by the fireplace in her small cozy home and pore over books, share writing challenges and read poems out loud together. Here’s a little bit about Marianne:
Marianne Bluger loved to wear high leather boots and berets; her favourite colour was chartreuse. She once told me one of the best moments in her life happened in Montreal when a young man mistook her for a prostitute. Marianne loved to laugh, even in her illness. South African Marula (creamed) was her favourite liquor. She loved Larry Neily. She loved birds. She loved to read her haiku and then ring a small bell, or strike a crystal glass with a spoon.
Marianna Sasha Bluger was born in Ottawa, Ontario, at the Grace Hospital on Wellington Street to Walter Vladimir Bluger (a Holocaust survivor) and Ruth Anna Mallory, on August 28th, 1945. The eldest of four children, she lived most of her early years within one block of her first home on Helena Street. She attended Elmdale Elementary School, Connaught Middle School, then Fisher Park High School; she later attended McGill University in Montreal in the late sixties where she met and maintained a lifelong connection to Jeremy Walker and Louis Dudek. After graduating summa cum laude, she received a scholarship to medical school but turned it down in order to marry an itinerant Buddhist monk who was lecturing in the religious studies department. Soon a son was born. Marianne traveled to NYU to study Korean and Buddhism and a daughter was born in New York City. Upon their return to Canada, the marriage dissolved and Marianne raised her children on her own.
In the early 80s Marianne began her tenure with the Canadian Writers’ Foundation (a position she held for twenty five years) and the publishing of longer lyric poetry beginning with The Thumbless Man Is at the Piano (Three Trees Press, 1981) followed by On Nights Like This (Brick Books, 1984), Gathering Wild (Brick Books, 1987) and Summer Grass (Brick Books, 1992).
Marianne met her second husband — Larry Neily — birder, conservationist, and web master for several national and international birding sites, at the Britannia Conservation Area on Oct. 28th, 1989. Together they pursued an interest in nature that became an integral component to their relationship. In 1992, a breast cancer diagnosis resulted in surgery which seemed to put her illness on hold. She returned to her poetry with a vengeance to “record each word in its proper place.” Whether it was illness, or her own spiritual reading, Marianne turned to eastern thought and literary forms. She read Suzuki and Blythe and other traditional and contemporary haiku and tanka poets. She began her own “haikai path” eventually winning national and international awards.
In 1996, with award winning photographer, Rudi Haas, Marianne published haiku in Tamarack & Clearcut with Carleton University Press. The title encapsulates the positive and negative aspects of nature and human kind. The collection is divided into four sections (each reflecting a season): leafsmoke, winter dusk, loam, and early evening pieces. In her review of the book Elizabeth St. Jacques explains that “these haiku lead us in a renga-like exploration along the straight, ascending, descending, and curved paths which add a pleasing balance to the collection. On these paths we share Marianne’s world in and around Ottawa, as well as surrounding pastoral areas.” Here are a few examples:
with the tip of her cane
touching fresh snow
New Year’s morning
only the shadows
Marianne was also aware of the darker realities:
the sleeping child’s
on frost curled leaves
a fawn’s corpse
Some of her haiku give us a murmur of hope amid devastation, the sense that life continues:
a moth at the porch light
I grip a cold key
in a dark window
Dad’s pale face
watching our bonfire
In 1999 she published Gusts with Penumbra Press, the first woman to publish tanka in Canada. Of her work in this collection, Christopher Wiseman wrote, “I have really enjoyed this book. It’s the images and the depth and the modesty and the dignity and insight and sheer humanity that distinguish Bluger.” The first publication of the newly organized Tanka Canada was named Gusts by (then) editors, Angela Leuck and Kozue Usawa, as tribute to Marianne’s contribution to Canadian tanka. In 2000, Scissor, Paper, Woman appeared with Penumbra Press, followed in 2003, by Early Evening Pieces (Buschekbooks). In her review for Modern Haiku, Cherie Hunter Day wrote,
“Early Evening Pieces is the eighth book by Canadian poet Marianne Bluger in a writing career that spans over two decades. She is also known as an award winning tanka poet and imagist lyric poet. Her new collection features a selection of 211 of her new and previously published haiku . . . [there is a] sensitivity to the measure of light and darkness at the close of the day, for example:
the last ember dies
a chill takes the house
in this unravelling mist
wind in the trees
tonight by one bare bulb
I pack the shadows
Naturalists will delight in Bluger’s specificity. A veteran birder, she depends on her readers’ familiarity with eiders, gannets, bitterns, and kingfishers, to elicit an appropriate response.”
It was shortly after the publication of Gusts that Marianne’s cancer returned, but she was eager to start up a haiku group in the city and we founded Ottawa KaDo together, for poets in the area, interested in Japanese literary forms. The group met seasonally to share haiku, resources, discussion, and friendship. KaDo launched a broadsheet of haiku each year at the Japanese Embassy, thanks to the encouragement of Mr. Toshi Yonehara, who retired in 2013 after forty years of service to the Embassy’s cultural programs. KaDo Ottawa continues to meet under the direction of Pearl Pirie, and Claudia Coutu Radmore.
Marianne’s good friend Dorothy Howard chose these poems as a tribute in the Nov. ’05 issue of RAW NerVZ:
having missed the bus
the marigolds bunt back
ah these soft spring nights
full of bawling cats
all down the road
escaped from her garden
Dorothy composed this haiku commemorating Marianne’s love of horticulture and gardening:
haiku poets gather
to the bloom of
Red Moon Press honoured Marianne Bluger with the postscript volume faint notes (2008), including some of her signature poems:
wind in the long grass
a leaf floats in the gorge
where a boxcar rusts
stopped cold in housewares
Sanford Goldstein, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University, and an internationally awarded tanka poet and confidante to Marianne wrote
“Her passionate concern for the language and for poetic theory and even the rage to get it right, all these Marianne has. Her intensity may be due to her long illness, which has forced on her the need to get things down and to get them down with exactitude.” (Gusts: Contemporary Tanka, winter 2005)
Marianne was a genuine poet. Sadly, she passed away on October, 29th, 2005. Her mentorship to me was invaluable. I will always remember her words, “Terry Ann, three lines do not necessarily a haiku make. Read. Read. Read.” I think Marianne would be pleased with the evolution of haikai poetry in Canada; her small bells ready to chime a new poem. I think of her golden and silver apples. I am grateful.