Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
Three Women Poets of Contemporary Japan:
Yoshihara Sachiko, Shinkawa Kazue, and Tada Chimako
Edward Lueders is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Utah and a faculty member of the Bread Loaf School of English. Best known among his books are The Clam Lake Papers (1977) and Writing Natural History (1989). Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, the poetry anthology he co-edited with Stephen Dunning and Hugh Smith in 1966, is now in its newly expanded and revised edition. Like Underground Water: The Poetry of Mid-20th Century Japan, his collaboration with Naoshi Koriyama, will be published this year by Copper Canyon Press.
Naoshi Koriyama is Professor of English at Toyo University in Tokyo, and the author of seven collections of poems. Among his translations into English is We Wrote These Poems, a collection of poems by mentally challenged Japanese children. His translations of modern Japanese poets in collaboration with Edward Lueders, Like Underground Water: The Poetry of Mid-20th Century Japan, will be published this year by Copper Canyon Press.
In an upper floor meeting room of a bustling department store in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, just beyond a public demonstration of flower arrangement, were gathered the members and guests of the Japanese women's poetry organization called La Mer. The occasion was a bilingual reading of poems by the group's two founders, Yoshihara Sachiko and Shinkawa Kazue. I use the traditional order of their Japanese names, family name first. Joining these two in the reading were Naoshi Koriyama and myself. We were not the only men in the gathering, but I was the only non-Japanese. On leave from the University of Utah, I was in Japan to work elbow-to-elbow with Professor Koriyama on a comprehensive collection of translations to be called The Poetry of Mid-20th Century Japan. That memorable reading in Tokyo was one of many unusual experiences the project had led me into.
My involvement with the project has a long history. In the 1950s Naoshi Koriyama was one of a small group of young Okinawans sent by the Department of the Army to the University of New Mexico for a year of study in the U.S. As a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the time, I was assigned to provide general orientation and advanced instruction in English for the group.
Three decades later, Naoshi Koriyama's career and my own had developed along parallel lines. After continuing his studies in the U.S. he returned to Japan as Professor of English at Toyo University in Tokyo. He also became a bilingual poet, publishing poems in English and achieving prominence in the Poetry Society of Japan.
I was not surprised when, ten years ago, he wrote me of his interest in contemporary Japanese poets and sent me some of his translations of their work into English. He would be most gratified, he said, if I would comment on his drafts and perhaps recommend changes to improve the idiom and poetic effectiveness of his English versions. I complied.
As our trans-Pacific exchanges continued, Naoshi grew more proficient and more ambitious. And indefatigable. Soon I was hooked. It was apparent that we were embarked on a virtually endless major translation project. Early in our collaboration I protested that while my responsibility for polishing Naoshi's drafts didn't call for mastery of Japanese, I should at least school myself in a rudimentary knowledge of the language, distinct as it is in almost every way from English. But Koriyama, secure in his own ability to check my emendations against the Japanese originals, preferred to keep me innocent. He countered wryly with advice lifted from our study of English literature together years earlier. "A little learning," he counseled me, "is a dangerous thing."
In any case, most of the self-conscious apprehension I brought to the bilingual reading at the Tokyo meeting of La Mer was quickly dispelled. I was met with the deference and graciousness—and ready English—I'd found customary wherever I was introduced among cultured Japanese. I'd developed a personal regard and admiration for the work of the women poets we had translated. I was in distinguished company. In 1983-84 Shinkawa Kazue had chaired the Japan Modern Poets Society, the first woman to hold that position. Her colleague, the vivacious Yoshihara Sachiko, was known for her intelligent, articulate treatment of love, betrayal, and suffering from a woman's point of view. I felt excited and privileged to meet and join with them in their own milieu. Further, I'd become familiar enough with the poems of both to feel comfortable reading our English versions and discussing their work along with that of many of their fellow modern poets. Among the disarming poems of Yoshihara Sachiko we read that day was her guileless, haunting "Air Raid," our English translation of which had been published in Poetry. And I had a special liking for the humane perceptions and shrewd feminism of Shinkawa Kazue's deft lyrics.
Probably the most challenging of the Japanese women poets we have translated is Tada Chimako. Often characterized as an "intellectual" poet, she is the award-winning author of 17 volumes of poetry and essays as well as translator of Claude Levi-Strauss, Marguerite Yourcenar, Antonin Artaud, and Saint-John Perse. She moves easily from the world of Homeric Greece to contemplative Buddhism. In her essay "The Mirror of Velasquez" she writes that the successful poem satisfies "not only the senses and the emotions but also the brain's capacity for performing intellectually delicate work. And when to that satisfaction is added the poetic impact of glimpses of the utterly unexpected….the resulting pleasure can approach that bliss which is among the most sublime experiences available to humans."
With Professor Koriyama I visited Tada Chimako at her home in Kobe. She is a slight, sedately attractive woman of great delicacy and presence of mind. Dauntless in her car, she drove us up winding roads to a natural park site where we could look out over the city to its modern port complex extending out on enormous landfill, and to the ocean beyond. Tada was as much at home driving through the heavy traffic and strolling outdoors with us on the windswept prominence of the park as she had been in her living room piled high with journals and books.
Unlike most of modern Japan's women poets, whose work, except for scattered and fugitive translations, has yet to be available in English, a good number of Tada Chimako's poems appear in English translation in A Play of Mirrors—Eight Major Poets of Modern Japan (1987). Among them are our translations, in slightly different versions than appear here, of "Me," "Dead Sun," "Calendar Poem." Her selected poems and prose have been published also in Moonstone Woman (1990). Both are by Katydid Books, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan.
Naoshi Koriyama and Edward Lueders collaborated on the translation of the poems following:
Of Bread and Roses
Don't get me wrong.
It's not because I have bread
that I talk of roses
instead of bread.
It's because I am indiscreet
and have this morbid impulse to eat roses,
and because I have more roses
When I am starved
I eat bread.
Until the day before I am starved
I eat roses.
I wait longer before eating bread
than anyone else.
Don't blame me, please, for having bread.
Blame me, if you must, for eating roses.
If the gravity of the moon
can pull such a huge ocean as this
a person must weigh a little bit less
on a moonlit night.
That big red ball on the horizon
a while ago was not the moon;
it was the setting sun.
The real moon, with its pale, smaller face,
is hiding somewhere in the back
and we cannot see it now.
The phosphorescent organisms gleaming like stars
in the shadow of the rocks here
are certainly not reflections of the moon.
Nevertheless I feel myself slowly ebbing
from the tips of my feet,
pulled by the invisible moon,
drawing my heart into the starlit water
in the darkening night,
as if I were devoid of internal organs,
as if I were devoid of flesh and blood.
I was just about to remember
some very important word
when at the left edge of my sight,
quite suddenly I saw
a white peony fall, sadly,
as if unable to bear its own weight.
And when I looked back
the word was gone
together with the petals of the flower.
Precious things always disappear
in this manner—
things like love depart
and beautiful moments go,
concealing their secrets.
Since their spies are at work
everywhere I look,
I begin to devise a new code again,
disguising the dead bodies of my words.
Time, give back to me
the smiles I gave to you,
the kisses I gave to you.
Eaten away by you,
I have lost everything,
and I had a lot of things to lose.
I had a glint in my eye that didn't know about tears.
I had lemonade that bubbled like my heart.
I had a whistle that could make high, shrill sounds.
I had love that knew no weariness.
But now I have left only this tombstone:
—HERE SLEEP THE DAYS OF MY YOUTH—
When people were being killed
how could the sky have been so beautiful?
I had never seen such a gorgeous sunset.
Even the clouds were going up in flames.
When I crawled out of the shelter
a fragment of the night sky hissed obliquely by my ears.
Overwhelming light flared in eight glass windows,
one color fighting against another,
all reflected sumptuously as on a screen
the red struggling to redeem
the blue of day from the black sky,
purple looming, green dashing, orange flowing,
colors of all kinds mixing, shrieking
was it the southern part of the city
that was bathing in golden rain
falling brightly, God knows from where?
Was it an alien world enclosed within the glass?
Was it silent, dark, heated air
that whirled about, encircling
the dumbfounded little Nero?
How could a war have been
In My Garden
in my garden
sheds a leaf.
At that moment
somewhere, in some distant valley,
another dogwood also
sheds a leaf.
In that place, too, there may be
a human being,
a person who has
nothing to do with me.
We will never meet,
nor will any promises pass between us.
Only the trees
shedding their leaves
as if conspiring with each other,
in just the same way, at just the same time,
one on that person's shoulder,
one on mine,
without a sound.
From Poems About the Human Body
The palm holds a pen,
manipulates a kitchen knife,
holds the handles of a shopping bag,
turns a faucet,
plows the vegetable garden.
But when looked at deep in the night, the palm,
no matter which night I look,
is blank and empty.
I never ask for much.
If you could put
a portion of your true response in this palm,
please do it. Give it to me.
I hold out my palm in the empty darkness,
alone in the room—like the poor beggar I am.
From Poems About the Human Body
"Let me take a look at your sole
and I'll read your past and future,"
said an old professor at the party.
They say the path one has walked along
on one's sole and that the path one is to take
is also indicated there like a road map.
Ashamed I might be ticklish
I did not take off my shoes—
but that was just an excuse.
The truth is—I wanted to keep it a secret
like an old diary or something….
On my way home now
I mutter to myself, stepping down hard on my soles.
I have not always walked along sunny main streets.
Memories of the days when I stepped into dark alleys
or forbidden gardens now come back,
and these soles of mine secretly bleed.
A Distant Mirror
One wishes to reflect herself
in a lake she has never seen,
for the mirrors at hand only show
a distorted face now,
no matter which one you look in.
One hastily starts on a trip
without taking time to get ready,
for a voice more familiar
than those of parents, brothers, or sisters
is always calling in the distance.
One feels as if she had stood once before
by the shore of this lake.
It may have been, perhaps, before she was born,
when a cloud was a cloud
and a leaf on a tree was a leaf on a tree.
We often talked about death,
as if talking about sweet candy
or the new fashions.
We talked about a cousin just married
or the old man next door who loves to fish,
we would chat again about death,
quite cheerfully sometimes,
as if talking about plans for a short weekend trip.
Were we playing with death,
as if fingering a silk handkerchief or something?
Or was death toying with us with his cold fingers,
as if playing a game of chess?
Suddenly we looked in each other's eyes, silent,
as if frightened.
In the coffee shop
wearisome music was playing all the time
and the air was hot and stuffy,
but under the table
the tips of our pointed shoes
were cold as ever.
As happy as a cabbage,
I am planted in the earth.
When I carefully strip off the words
I am wearing,
my nonexistence is proven—
and the existence of my root as well….
In the gentle evening of the summer,
which is tired with the festival,
the water in the pond is clear
and the fish are at the bottom.
Holding leftover wreaths
in their languid arms,
The last bird has flown by,
holding a black sound
in its beak.
quicken your pace as you go….
Stars fall silently into the water.
Dripping glistening drops of light,
the child has crawled up
into a world not yet wrinkled.
The child turns a somersault.
The hourglass flips over.
New time begins to tick.
The child picks up stars and throws them like stones.
The ancient fish laughs, flipping its fins
and wetting the feet of God with the splash.
Soon the child grows up.
His world becomes heavy with memories
and filled with footprints.
the child goes away
with a dead sun stuck in his pocket.
I wait for myself.
I don't appear.
I turned a page of the sea again today
and threw away a tight-lipped dead clam.
The day has not quite dawned yet. The white beach.
The barren mother's body. A broken oar.
I wait for myself.
I don't appear.
I turned a page of the horizon again today
and threw away a snake's slough that was too light.
The day has not quite dawned yet. An unnecessary parasol.
A suspicious laugh. Cold fried food.
I wait for myself.
I don't appear.
I turned a page of the sky again today,
and wept all the sooty stars together and threw them away.
The day has not quite dawned yet. The tearful grass.
I leaf and leaf through the calendar,
but I don't appear.
I wait for myself.
A world of imaginary numbers. Love without arms.