Reviewed by Rob Walker
Poetry Kanto 2010
Kanto Gakuin University
ISBN: 978-4-9902787-5-5 C3392
In his foreword to another Japanese collection, Fire Work Poems III (Kansai Poets’ Association), Hei-ichi Sugiyama wrote
Our language, partly due to its being the language of an isolated island nation, has developed its own particular style. The syntax, or morphology, is very unique, added to which is the fact that it can be notated in several different ways: in two systems of phonetic symbols known as hiragana and katakana, or by using Chinese characters. Our writing system also includes the possibility of writing vertically from right to left, or horizontally from left to right. Such peculiarities may prevent Japanese from becoming widely used or read outside Japan itself.
As such, I hope that this transposition of modern Japanese poetry into English helps make it more popular throughout the world.
In publishing a dual-language anthology Poetry Kanto (out of Kanto Gakuin University, Yokohama) may have a similar goal. As such it walks a tight-rope of producing a collection which reads well in both languages and satisfies two distinct cultural groups. But since when isn’t exploring cultural differences and commonalities a desirable thing? In the 2010 volume Poetry Kanto appears to be aiming at showcasing a diverse sample of Western poetry as well as well-regarded nihon-go verse.
The first section of the book is an historical look at three Japanese poets Kurahara Shinjirô, Ayukawa Nubuo (both deceased) and contemporary Kisaka Ryo. These are presented in a mixture of kanji and hiragana with an English translation.
The second part is a group of contemporary, mainly western (mainly US!) poets.
The works of the late poets are notable for their relevance; despite their age, these poems have a fresh, contemporary feel:
Robed in mysterious night when
one year ends and another begins
my soul is ailing
the red blood of the sinking sun
decays inside my bosom
Only a dream of lonely flight
props up my failing body
Sister! You still roam in thin air
having died 20 years ago already
Because no one is looking
and because the darkness is really deep…
“Beyond your Death”
January 3, 1950
One of the features of Japanese literature is that emotional expression is often expressed subtly. The trend in the West is often the demonstrative, breast-beating, hair-tearing ‘omigod’ variety. In Japanese verse the emphasis is often on the observation of details leaving the reader to place the feeling between the lines:
Mother rolled up the sleeves of her blouse,
pointed out the blemishes on one arm,
then the other, and said they were from
working on the family farm when she was young.
I wondered about the long toiling
on sun-soaked days, over years, how it had sown
those dark patches on her skin…
“Arms Bared. “
The same poet’s “A Painting” is tanka-like, with humour:
A water bird awoke
with a painterly air,
circling the pond,
its webbed feet
the water canvas
the bird stopped,
down in one corner,
I must say that I enjoy the Western poets most when their work has a kind of natural, seasonal “Asian” quality:
… for when an August sun massages me
when I bathe in my sweat, when the rasp
of cicadas rises and lifts me like a swimmer
easily floating beyond where the surf breaks
my mind is a cervix
I can imagine anything
A series of ghazals (which the poet calls ‘gacela’ a la Lorca) was my introduction to J P Dancing Bear. I assume he has an indigenous american background; certainly there’s a sharp eye for the details and rhythms of the natural world. The ghazal sequence is perfectly suited to this – and very sympathetic to Japanese sensibilities as well. A sample:
The silhouettes of skylines break apart, little
pieces of the land, fluttering skyward, land
becoming night, the dark matter of space.
You hear them calling out hungry, hungry
for the bright insect wings of the stars. Each bat
scissors and zigzags the sky into smaller, smaller
pieces. You can hear the tattered twilight
flap and flutter, flags of sky spiraling, falling
beneath the bat night rising.
“Gacela of Twilight Bats”
J P Dancing Bear
This ghazal technique of repeating the theme or re-stating it from various points of view is a common – and effective – one with many poets in this selection. For Katherine Riegel it is the idea of “need” in “Afternoon.” For Bill Wolak it is “watching” in “To let the dream work.”
Perhaps my favorite American poet in Poetry Kanto 2010 is Ginger Murchison. As a sometime contributor to The Cortland Review (she’s the editor), I was already familiar with her precise style. It seems to me that her work embodies the very best of poetry – brevity, conciseness and multiple layers of meaning. Take “Whitman’s Hermit Thrush, a poem about the mournful cry of a bird and perhaps redolent of grief or loss:
one piece of clean, cold metal scraping another
like hunger, a train with its brakes on.
That tiny shy bird looks like nothing out there, but that one clear
of song on and on is the screech of a screen door–
or someone coming home.
Murchison also demonstrates that deep questions can be addressed without resorting to lengthy lines or verbosity:
The Pear Tree
that, for years, flowered
home to the borers,
for not only the fruit,
but the flesh of the tree.
Hard to say
what we look like to them,
worming our way through these rooms,
our hungers fatal, too.
It seems that traditional Japanese poetic genres such as haiku, tanka, haiga and haibun bear much in common with present-day global modes. Brevity and imagist impressions of nature are universal and don’t date. When I first looked at this book I thought “Why put all these modern western poets in a Japanese collection?” But on reflection I think that good poetry is universal. Japanese poets want their work to be recognized throughout the world – but they also want the world to inform their own work.
One aspect of the Kansai Poets’ Fire Works III (mentioned earlier) that I like is the way the English translations ‘begin’ the book and the Japanese versions ‘end’ it (from a western perspective), so that the book really begins at both ends and ends in the middle, thus accommodating both traditional formats, texts and reading direction. I think Poetry Kanto could benefit from this layout; it would also translate the eigo writers into kanji/ hiragana for native Japanese speakers.
Poetry Kanto’s motto is “A bridge between” and this journal succeeds in this endeavour, building a scaffold between Japanese and western world-views and the best poetry of both.
About the reviewer: Rob Walker is a South Australian poet and writer who divides his time between Adelaide, South Australia and Himeji, Japan.