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Sunday, May 12, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Poetry that's music to the ears of millions


By LEZA LOWITZ
POEMS OF THE GOAT, by Chuya Nakahara, translated by Ry Beville. American Book Company, Richmond, VA, 2002, 77 pp., $15/2500 yen (paper)

Why do some writers get translated and others -- better, more deserving -- remain obscure? This is a question that Ry Beville, a young Virginia native, asked himself seven years ago when studying literature at Nanzan University in Nagoya.

Beville, now 28, was attempting to translate Kenzaburo Oe when a professor shared with him an article he'd written about the poet Chuya Nakahara. The article quoted a line from Chuya's "The Cicada": "Utsura-utsura to boku wa suru." The rhythm and music of the line resonated with Beville, who had always admired the more "musical" English poets of the last century like Yeats, Auden and Frost. He went straight to the bookstore and bought a collection of Chuya's poems in Japanese; there was no English version on the shelves.

"In Japanese bookstores," Beville said, " It's common to find translations of rather ordinary authors in the English-speaking world, and yet Japanese writers who far excel them in talent and accomplishment remain untranslated and obscure." Beville felt it was almost a "crime" that a poet as extraordinary as Chuya -- not to mention as admired among the Japanese -- was not only unavailable in English, but also unknown to many Western scholars of Japanese literature. "I undertook this project in part to correct that balance, if only a little. But more importantly, I wanted to let the English-speaking world know that there is a poet with a style as diverse and accomplished as some of the greatest modern writers in the West."

In the beginning, Beville's aim was admittedly less ambitious. He began translating Chuya's poems to better understand them. That in itself is no small feat and required an enormous commitment. In addition to the obvious difficulties involved in reading Japanese, in Chuya's case subtle difficulties also abound. Aside from the musicality of his verse, which Beville says often has haikulike syllabic phrasing, Chuya was the first modern poet to use slang, dialect, vernacular and childlike words in his poetry. And while it's almost impossible to capture the music and subtle rhythmic play of Chuya's Japanese in English, Beville seemed to relish the challenge.

Chuya was born in 1907 in Yuda Onsen, Yamaguchi, to an army doctor and his wife. Though the family moved to Hiroshima and Kanazawa, they returned to Yamaguchi in 1914. As a child, Chuya wrote poetry and tanka, but as a teenager he discovered alcohol and the distance between him and his family grew. He was sent away to a fancy private school in Kyoto, where he was later introduced to Dadaism and French Symbolism, and fell in love with an older woman actress. By 1926, he met the critic Hideo Kobayashi and devoted himself to poetry, leaving his family and small town far behind.

In 1931, Chuya enrolled in Tokyo University's foreign-language school and began compiling "Poems of the Goat," but the manuscript had a hard time finding publication. By age 26, he entered into an arranged marriage, and was publishing poetry and writing lyrics. Living a somewhat profligate life in the city, Chuya was the prodigal son and did not return home for his father's funeral -- something almost unheard of at the time. "Poems of the Goat" was the only book Chuya saw published during his lifetime. In 1938 he died of tuberculosis, aged 30. Shortly before that, he gave another manuscript, "Poems of Bygone Days," to Kobayashi. It was published posthumously and Beville is now translating it.

Chuya matured in a time of immense social change, with industrialism, modernism and the dark shadow of war impacting the social and political landscape, and his poems, and being, embodied that flux. Much like Auden, Chuya wrote many personal quests of self-discovery against an ever-darkening backdrop. His poems are elegies to lost times and places, sad celebrations of the shabby underbelly of existence, both inner and outer -- the circus, a hangover, a sigh, cigarettes, a lover. They are suffused with a sense of longing, an innocent resignation, much like the pastoral goat after which they are named -- a gentle animal often used in sacrifice:

I'll embrace my fate at the hour of my death!
I'll lift this little chin of mine-lift it to the heavens.
Only now do I understand that this death
Is the consequence of all I was unable to feel.
Yes, I'll embrace my fate!
And then I'll finally know how it all feels!
(From "Poem of the Sheep")

For whatever reason, certain poets become spokespersons for their age. Chuya seems to have won that role, perhaps by being both in and of his era. A bohemian by nature, he was deeply impassioned about life, yet somehow alienated from the world, wavering between hopeful nostalgia and existential crisis. While he wrote about nature, it was always through the prism of a damaged, and human, psyche:

Little by little, the temple in the pasture reddens
The wheel of the horse-drawn wagon is dripping oil
If I make some kind of remark at this historical moment
I'm heckled -- heckled by the sky and mountains
(From "The Twilight of This Spring Day")

Chuya's somewhat wild persona -- drinking and smashing up places, even landing in jail -- has lent him a certain mystique. But it's always the musicality of his verse that sticks with people (many of his poems were, in fact, set to music):

Whatever becomes of this, whatever becomes of that
Is all the same in the end.
Whatever this may be, whatever that may be
Is more of the same in the end.
It behooves a man to have a sense of self!
(From "A Blind Man's Autumn")

A cultural icon whose poetry has attracted a wide range of Japanese readers, Chuya's appeal also cuts across the generations. "I am constantly amazed to find people in their 20s -- and these are not literary nerds but hip youth out in the bars and on the streets -- who love Chuya," says Beville. "With such a large and diverse readership, Chuya certainly seems like the kind of poet that Westerners interested in the Japanese -- not simply Japanese literature -- should read."

Now, thanks to Beville, they can.

"Poems of the Goat" is available at Maruzen. Ry Beville can be contacted at nakaharachuya@hotmail.com


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