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Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Poet reaches for a world beyond reality


By SAMUEL GROLMES
THE VILLAGE BEYOND, Poems of Nobuko Kimura, translated by Hiroaki Sato. Vermont: P.S., A Press, 2002, viii + 54 pp., $10 (paper)

Nobuko Kimura has published six volumes of poetry, the first, "Collected Poems of Kimura Nobuko" (Kimura Nobuko Shishu), in 1971, and the most recent, "Going Around the Day" (Himeguri), in 1996. Although clearly in the Surrealist camp -- she draws both from her dreams and her everyday life to create a world in which fantasy and reality intermix -- Kimura subscribes to no established poetic group or school, and has created and maintained a distinctive poetic voice.

Now, the well-known essayist, poet and translator Hiroaki Sato makes the work of Kimura available to readers in English. When assembling his forthcoming "White Dew, Dreams, & This World: An Anthology of Japanese Women Poets From Ancient to Modern Times," Sato found that he liked Kimura's work so much that he decided to translate a number of her poems into English and publish them as a separate book. The result, "The Village Beyond," contains 54 poems selected from Kimura's six books of poetry. Thus, in a single volume Sato has assembled a vivid summary of the poet's career, with the poems providing an emotional and imaginative autobiography of Kimura.

In his introduction, Sato quotes Kimura as saying that in the beginning, her poems were made by "faithfully recording [her] dreams" and that for her "a dream is not just a set of images but an actual experience." Later, she explains that if the poems did not seem right, she began to add elements of real-life experience, embellishing the poems with her inventive imagination. It is a compliment to her that the seam between dream and reality is invisible.

The title of the book is taken from a poem of the same name, in which we see the poet's imagination reaching for a world beyond reality:

I woke up from a nap and yawned and the yawn ended up being reflected in a rainbow and because the rainbow, exactly as it was, arched over the village beyond, too, in the village beyond that's unknown to me everyone knows about my yawn, I'm told. They compare my swollen eyelids and unkempt hair to funny things and there's even a folkloric legend about me, I'm told

Nonetheless no one in the village believes that I truly exist, I'm told

The choice of this poem as a title for the volume suggests a hidden allusion to the Japanese sense of "this world" (konoyo) and "that world" (anoyo). "This world," of course, is the everyday world we all are in, while "that world," the world beyond life, is like the world of dreams into which Kimura ventures to find her reality. A more pedestrian translation of the original Japanese title ("Mukoo no mura") might be rendered as "The Village on the Other Side," but Sato has produced a poetic translation that adds to our understanding of the poems.

In dreams, the limitations of everyday life are removed. The poet's need to transcend the mundaneness of the actual world transports her to a world beyond. This search for and appetite for the unknown populates the poet's dreams. She is transported on a rainbow to a village beyond.

The poems are surreal, but the surrealistic images can all be attributed to dreams or imaginative embellishments of dreams. A pervasive theme -- the sadness the poet feels at the death of her mother, an emotionally charged subject -- is treated without a trace of sentimentality. The first poem in the book, "Bones," introduces this theme:

Mother's bones remaining pink even after they were burnt, father's bones turning a withered color long ago, even so father doing his very best to live, my bones growing up pale blue and warped

The language is casual, at times almost self-mocking, and the tone of the original is captured exactly in Sato's translations. Incidentally, the theme offers a cultural lesson for Western readers. The poet's memory of and affection for her beautiful mother focus on the ashes and bones in the crematorium. This, to Western readers, is a startling association, yet in Japan the family's participation in the cremation of their loved ones is a very matter-of-fact experience.

This opening poem introduces motifs that recur throughout the book: the beautiful pink that the poet associates with her mother, the dullness of her father, and the sense of inadequacy she feels about herself. Kimura often speaks of applying cosmetics, rouge, to make herself more attrac tive, more conspicuous, and, by extension, achieve an identification with her dead mother. In "Quarrel" she writes:

In the dream I'm so beautiful, but my hell is that the real me is so ugly

This almost morose self-consciousness makes the dream world more attractive than reality. There, in a world of her own creation, she can be as beautiful as her mother, as lovely as the yawn reflected in the rainbow that carries her image to the village beyond.

"Woman Poet" is an imaginary conversation with her older brother. She almost screams:

Do I use too much rouge, you're saying? I know. Leave me alone. Someone like you, with no erudition, can't hope to see this. A poet must be conspicuous, you know. She must look pretty, you know. Look at yourself. You look terrible. I am a poet. Being a poet isn't easy. What are you saying! I'm saying, with a deliberately loud voice, I am a poet, I am a poet I want everybody to know I am a poet, you see.

To be beautiful, to be known, to be recognized, even in the village beyond, is her dream. And the record of her dreams, her feeling of inadequacy and the anguish which her own sense of herself forces upon her, turn her later poems to dreams of phobias, fear of censure, fear of attack, fear of exposure and abuse. In "The Hands," she dreams of a pair of hands groping her in her sleep,

Hands stretched from behind my back are trying to wrench my breasts off

This transition from the young girl's expressions of affection and envy for her mother, through her attempts to compensate for her feelings of being neglected, misunderstood, even assaulted, provide a capsule description of a life's career. Indeed, the collection does read as if her dreams are used to write her autobiography, which is a vivid and unembarrassed story of emotions laid bare. A thoroughly enjoyable poet.



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