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Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Simply extraordinary poetry

NOT A METAPHOR: Poems of Kazue Shinkawa. Translated by Hiroaki Sato. P.S., A Press, 1999, 116 pp., $12.

Once in a while it happens that, when you haven't seen an old friend for a long time, you come upon something that reminds you of them and suddenly realize what it was that made you friends in the first place. There is a sense of opening a window into someone else's heart, and realizing that you understand them quite well after all.

This is the feeling you get reading "Not A Metaphor," a collection of Kazue Shinkawa's poems that spans a lifetime of engagement with poetry. This elegantly presented selection of one of Japan's foremost modern poets has been arranged and translated by Hiroaki Sato, himself a gifted poet as well as acclaimed translator.

There have been numerous reworkings of "waka" and their younger, shorter descendants, haiku, in the 20th century, but these variations usually work by treating unorthodox subjects in the traditional metered syllables of those forms -- new sake in old cups, as it were.

I think it is more interesting to take up some of the traditional subjects, embedded as they are in Japanese literary culture, and treat them in unexpected ways.

Shinkawa's poems, for example, flow like conversation. I found myself looking, as I read the English renditions, for some sorts of signs that these poems were created by a sensibility that could be labeled Japanese. Many of them have none of that flavor, but occasionally I found hints. When I did, they were always done in a manner that took up traditional images in fresh and interesting ways.

Shinkawa sails her poems across the lake of tradition with complete confidence, dipping into it only now and then, and never in a conventional manner. For example, the image of scattering blossoms in the poem "The Remaining Summer" is not the hackneyed scattering of cherry blossoms, but instead the flowers of crepe myrtle that have been knocked down by the rain onto the roof of a car during the night. In the end the poet, "allowing the scattered red flowers, the last of this summer, to smudge both heart and eyes" remains standing, "thinking of the sadness of flowers that peel off the roof of a speeding car and are lost one after another."

In many of the poems we see a resonance between nature and emotion that harks back to the sensibilities of 10th-century women poets like Ono no Komachi. But Shinkawa takes her images further than the 32-syllable waka allowed.

The unwritten pillows of references that courtly poets could depend on their readers knowing are gone, so Shinkawa takes her readers the whole way. The first stanza of "The Snowy Morning" is all one would get in a waka. Here is the snow "that hadn't fallen for a long time even after winter came;" the snow that began "falling at midnight and turned the withered lawn and trees in the garden pure white;" the snow that "keeps falling."

But we read on to find that this snow has been held back by Heaven, and that something held back so long is more likely to be sorrow than joy. And the poet wonders, gazing out her glass door at the garden, if she let go her sorrow like this, would she be rewarded with something as pure and beautiful?

The sensibility in "Spring Cold" is also redolent of the poems of loneliness and longing so characteristic of the courtly age of the waka, 1,000 years ago.

A woman sleeps alone, waiting for a visit from her lover, and she falls into a fitful dream. In the end, the dream turns into the reality of cold fallen petals of peach blossoms. "The Ear's Autumn" takes the trope of "mushi no ne" (the sounds insects make) into a totally new dimension, imagining some "unknown heavenly body in the depth of the universe where insects are making these same sounds."

Much modern poetry is cranky, or it is like very hard nuts that you have to work at to extract meaning. Shinkawa's poems yield relatively easily. All you have to do is pay attention. "Because There's the Name Conger Eel" starts out as a rumination on names and things, but takes an unexpected twist, carrying you along, like a small adventure.

I have many favorites in this collection, but I especially like the poem "My Bedcover." It is an ode to the poet's bedspread, "made in India, which has flowers and birds embroidered in variously colored threads on simple, coarse, cotton fabric."

Through contemplating this bedcover she reaches a peaceful state of mind. "It must be because I feel, gently placed on my chest, the hands of an Indian lady which carefully moved a needle using hand-woven woolen threads, each hand-dyed, the hands of a woman who must have accepted silently, for many years, so many sorrows."

The immediacy of that connection between weaver and poet, a connection made through hand-dyed woolen threads and the needle of poetry, exemplifies Shinkawa's exquisitely personal approach to her poems. Yes, you think, I've felt things like this, too. I know exactly what she means.

Liza Dalby, a social anthropologist, is the author of "Geisha" and a forthcoming novel, "The Tale of Murasaki."

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