Holding Hands With a Stranger

By Margaret Van Every
Librophilia, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9845025-3-0
120 pages
180 Mexican pesos
Reviewed by James Tipton


holding-hands-with-a-strangerFor decades Lake Chapala has seduced many accomplished writers to her sunny shores. Some say the communities on the north shore are really the center of serious expatriate writing in Mexico. Fortunately for those of us who have settled in these communities, it is here that the talented and lovely Margaret Van Every makes her home.

Margaret’s first two collections of poetry were pored over, praised, and celebrated. The first, A Pillow Stuffed with Diamonds (bilingual edition 2011) is a collection of “Tanka on La Vida Mexicana”. One woman recently told me she had purchased over 20 copies of that book to give as gifts. Margaret’s second book, Saying Her Name (2012), is “not so much about me as it was a tribute to my mother, that her death in 1951 [when Margaret was ten] was in fact the beginning of my birth.” In Saying Her Name, Margaret insists on living her own life—no longer being defined by old notions that others have forced upon us—relentlessly giving birth to her deepest (and most beloved) self.

Her new bookcontinues this theme. One of the strangers she is holding hands with is you, as you read these poems. But another stranger she is holding hands with is “the bad girl” inside of her:

after 70 years

the bad girl emerges

from the closet

where the lady clothes

are hung

Like A Pillow Stuffed with Diamonds, Margaret’s new book is a collection of tanka, 100 of them. What is a tanka? Thirteen hundred years ago, ladies in the Japanese Imperial Court developed this five-line unrhymed form to send secret messages to lovers, or potential ones, and then used the form to comment upon the initial joys and the subsequent development of and conclusion of the affair. They can be poignant, witty, erotic, angry, desperate, reflective, and, yes, even loving. The tanka, historically, is about relationships and about seeing them clearly. The first three lines generally “set the scene,” followed by two lines that bring into focus, or bring to conclusion, or comment upon the first three lines, often with a deft, and sometimes a dark, humor.

Here are a few tanka from the book:

she used to think


had something to do with promise;

now she knows

it´s all about mortality


after fifty years

she confesses she married him

for sex;

now she asks herself for what else

would she marry


their marriage

a train with two engines

straining  in opposite directions,

each saying

I think I can

Can you identify with any of these tanka? If so, pick up her book locally at Diane Pearl’s Colecciones in Ajijic (Colon #1). Margaret’s own poetic vision fits in well to the tanka form; and I suspect Margaret herself would fit in well wearing a deep red kimono covered with cherry blossoms while she sips jasmine tea with those bad girls of ancient Japan.


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