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Sunday, Oct. 13, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

MODERN TANKA

Confessions over a cup of coffee


By LEZA LOWITZ
ON TSUKUBA PEAK: Tanka by Hatsue Kawamura. Five Islands Press: Wollongong, Australia, z2002, 93 pp., $20/1,500 yen (paper) MEMORIES OF A WOMAN: Tanka by Harue Aoki. Mura Press, Tokyo, 2001, 204 pp., 1,800 yen (paper)

Women poets have a long and industrious history in Japan, where they have been writing tanka for over 1,000 years, appearing in the first Imperial anthologies and in the oldest novel in the world, Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji." While many aspects of the tanka form, such as the 31-syllable count and seasonal words have lasted through the ages, other time-bound traditions have fallen by the wayside. Chief among them are the use of tanka as a form of courtship between lovers. No longer set in the rarified realm of aristocratic romance, modern tanka reflect the changes in women's social status and the myriad lives they lead.

One thing that is immediately evident in these volumes is the way in which world travel has shaped the experiences of both poets, giving them a perspective outside of their own culture. Hatsue Kawamura is one of Japan's foremost tanka writers, with four books to her credit. This is her first in English, skillfully translated by Australian Amelia Fielden. While these tanka, divided into 25 sections, capture the fullness of family and the difficulties of aging, they also contain many images of travel and globalization.

Kawamura edits the acclaimed Tanka Journal, and translates tanka as well. While many tanka poets endlessly debate the form's viability in other languages and cultures, Kawamura's journal publishes tanka from all around the world in many different languages. "All human beings, irrespective of nationality or race, sing of the same emotions of joy and sorrow. Tanka is an ancient Japanese form, but we Japanese do not have a monopoly on it," she writes.

Some of the best poems in the volume address the difficulties of translation and the distance translation can bring to one's own words:

My poem
translated into English
is newly
obscured and begins
drifting away from me.

On the difficulties of cross-culturalism, she writes:

Tongue-tied
in Japanese,
wracking their brains
for strategies--
poor exchange students!

Spanning the globe, Kawamura's tanka deftly capture world events amid the cycles of the seasons, reflecting the impermanence of life.

Luxuriantly
blooms the peony --
in Yugoslavia
refugees inundate the land
on the midday news.

Many other tanka explore the seasons of the poet's emotional life as the years go by and the poet observes the changes in her own immediate world. Closer to home, even as her husband is diagnosed with cancer, the poet casts a keen eye on life in the present moment:

You've got cancer --
my husband
once shown the limits
of his existence
looks full of life.

These days, e-mail is as likely to be found as a motif in a modern tanka as a tear-stained sleeve was in the Heian Period. After her husband's death, the poet immerses herself in art, often at the computer:

Indescribably
lonesome, the evenings,
so I try
putting the screws on loneliness
pounding my word processor.

Looking out at nature while working on a translation and makes her feel more keenly her "Japaneseness." Through all of life's twists and turns, the changes in nature, like the mountain that serves as an anchor for this book, remain constant:

Softly, softly
the susuki grasses
are stirring
viewing the autumn mountain,
how Japanese I feel.

The tanka form, steeped in the traditional rites of Japanese customs and nature, provides an interesting structure for these modern, international revelations, and Kawamura is one of its most active and committed proponents. The tanka world should celebrate "On Tsukuba Peak" as a kind of elegant daybook of the life of a modern woman of letters, charting world travels, family changes, the joys and challenges of writing and translating, and the satisfaction of forging global connections through this ancient Japanese form.

In "Memories of A Woman," Harue Aoki look back on the scenes of her life, reflected through the prism of age, through 200 tanka. She began writing at age 30, with a brief cessation while she lived abroad in Germany for three years, though many of her tanka chart her travels. Keenly aware of her environment and sensitive to the cycles of nature, Aoki's tanka are sometimes emotional and even sentimental, but it's hard not to be swayed by the universality of these everyday moments.

Many various ships
ply the River Elbe
My boys are guessing
their countries' names
from the ships' flags.

Upon returning to Japan, she faces cultural collision:

Two months have passed
since we returned to Japan
Both my children and I
view our native land
through the eyes of foreigners.

Often, these tanka seem to spring more from the modernist stream of Akiko Yosano than the lush verse of the court poets like Murasaki Shikibu, and Aoki's honesty is refreshing and new. In one tanka, the homage is direct, but Aoki is not writing about a lover. Instead, the poet writes of her children:

A lovely night in spring
looking in the mirror
my tangled, wet hair
I'm a woman of thirty years
with two sweet offspring.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is the freedom with which Aoki writes about emotions typically kept to oneself. Raising children was a source of joy and comfort, but when they begin grow up, Aoki's point of view changes and her dissatisfaction surfaces.

My two boys are breast-fed
I gave them my full breasts
You are already grown up
Do you begin
to neglect your young mother?

Her marriage is also called into question.

Looking at Inokashira Park
dimly in the rain
I think of my two boys
and worry about their futures
A mother but a lonely, loveless wife.

Aoki's dissatisfaction with her marriage and her doubts about the future are the subjects of many of the most compelling tanka. And when the poet combines the seasonal element with the emotional ache, the poems work best:

The nuts of a paulownia
hang from the branch
under the tree
I'm regretting my marriage
hurting deeply inside.

Though Aoki the wife and mother continues to tend to her household duties and uphold her role, it is the poet who turns to art, seeking solace therein.

My sons are grown up
my husband is in a foreign land
there is no conversation
during this night
I'm enjoying Cezanne alone.

Aoki translated these poems herself, helped by a colleague. At her own admission, she takes liberties in rendering her poems into English, adding lines as she wishes. The English translations are sometimes wordy or stilted, and would have benefited from more precise punctuation, but they are mostly effective. The beauty of these tanka is that they speak with a sense of dignified bravery, as if the poet is conversing with the reader over coffee, frank and uncensored. Some are almost like confessions.

"On Tsukuba Peak" can be ordered from Ron Pretty, kpretty@uow.edu.au. "Memories of a Woman" can be ordered from the Mure Literature Society, c/o Kaneko, 3-24-4 Inokashira, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181.


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