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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1999

Ghostly tanka with a steely brightness


HEAVENLY MAIDEN: Tanka, by Akiko Baba, translated by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. AHA Books, 1999; 115 pp., $10.

More expressive than the briefer haiku, tanka can more easily incorporate the flow of events and thoughts that make up ordinary life:

months and days go by things which appear painful seem to pile up a scarred old apple tree is scattering white flowers

Here, the juxtaposition of accumulated pain within the poet's consciousness and the impersonal beauty of the flowering tree outside it balance one another nicely.

This poem begins darkly and heavily, but achieves an unexpected, hopeful brightness at the end. Its movement and structure are typical of tanka. Formally, this type of poem consists of 31 syllables, and five phrases (5-7-5-7-7), printed without spaces. As poems, tanka can be both lyrical and realistic, often simultaneously. Much the same can of course be said of the shorter lyric forms in Western poetry.

The specificity of the tanka depends perhaps on its length and on the procedures dictated by a tradition stretching back over 1,000 years. Akiko Baba (1928-) draws very much on this long tradition, which she gradually extends. This is the first time that her work, which has been widely praised in the original, has appeared in English. Her elegant vision of the world deserves to be better-known.

The cover of "Heavenly Maiden," in blue and white, shows a masked figure from a noh play. The biographical note at the end of the book tells us that the poet has written and lectured about noh and written one play herself. Some of the titles of her tanka collections reflect this interest, which lends an ethereal quality to many of the poems in the present volume. There are 100 poems altogether, chosen from 17 previous collections.

The action of a noh play, as other writers have observed, seems not to take place at the moment of high drama, but a long time afterward. This accounts for its ghostly quality, and makes it, for those who are able to appreciate it, a spiritual experience. The refined inner quality of noh, as opposed to the noisy outer one of other kinds of drama, requires quiet contemplation. It is something like this that Akiko Baba brings to her work, and requires of the reader too.

Here is an example, near the beginning of the book:

my grandmother died long, long ago in my hometown when I shut my eyes snow is always falling

The author was born in Tokyo, but evokes here something far away and long ago. The falling snow obscures the distant images from sight, reducing them to inactivity and silence. Five poems in the book refer to snow, and at least five times that number -- a quarter of the contents -- deal with something white (an egg, a cloud, lilies, peaches, squid and so on). And even that figure does not include references to the moon and stars.

This is a classical sensibility, born of an ancient Japanese aesthetic. Beyond the omnipresent whiteness lies the darkness from which everything emerges:

coming from afar from another galaxy some souls are faintly white dogwood flowers

There are other colors, even occasionally a rainbow, but in general bright hues are avoided.

Is this because vivid colors represent strong feelings, passion, even danger?

in August at the catsup farm for the harvest tomatoes become balls of flame rolling about

But the heat of August is communicated by this too.

As so often with tanka, one can read a certain amount of the poet's life into the work. Baba records the deaths of her father and stepmother, but few other deeply personal moments. Mostly she is a contemplative onlooker:

I don't plant as I do not plow nor have a baby only by seeing everything do I garner my life

Her act of witness is tranquil and composed.

One accepts, admires and enjoys the delicate mood of Baba's writing, thus coming to understand what she means, poetically, when she states in the latter part of one poem:

by women's hands nothing has been destroyed true since ancient times

But the thinking mind knows also that this isn't true. There are, after all, women's prisons. And even in the noh ("Dojoji," for example), there are destructive women.

Both the translators are poets themselves, and deeply interested in the tanka. This is their second collaborative translation and a valuable contribution to the field. The poems are presented one to a page, in English, and underneath in Japanese in roman letters. The originals are collected at the end of the book for reference. Since the English versions generally follow the sense of the original phrase by phrase, the book will be of as much interest to students as it will be to readers of poetry in general.



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