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Sunday, March 20, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

KISABURO KONOSHIMA

Native soul drifts back home


By IKUYO YOSHIMURA
HUDSON: A Collection of Tanka, by Kisaburo Konoshima, translated by David Callner, text in English and Japanese. Tokyo: The Japan Times, 2004, 135 pp., 2,500 yen (paper).

It was 34 years ago, in 1970, that the Meiji Era-born Japanese-American Kisaburo Konoshima (1893-1984) published "Hudson" (Tokyo, 1970), a selection of Japanese language tanka poetry. "Hudson," which was published as part of Konoshima's kiju celebration (a traditional celebration of longevity in concurrence with an individual's 77th birthday), was Konoshima's first and only published work. For the past six years, Konoshima's grandson, David Kei Callner, has been diligently translating Konoshima's tanka poetry into English. The intergenerational bonds within the Konoshima family are what have made the present English language publication of "Hudson" possible.

Konoshima's tanka poetry, which simultaneously reveals the nostalgia and homesickness for his homeland while focusing on the bonds of family, is his autobiography as a Japanese-American.

In 1950, Konoshima joined the Kamakura based Cho-on poetry society and began sending them his Japanese language tanka verses from the United States. The 699 tankas that make up "Hudson," taken from 1951-1970, describe Konoshima's experiences of farming in California, the intergenerational differences in opinion and ideas between him and his American-born children, the love for his wife, the sense of loss he faced after the premature, accident-related death of his beloved grandchildren, and the common feelings shared by many Japanese who live as immigrants in a foreign country. The use of condensed verselets is uniquely fitting for expressing Konoshima's emotions in their purest form.

O I am delighted to hear it was presented to my native country Japan the dogwood is our state flower ("A State Flower") Desiring to make a life of the soil and sweat I left for America but with no ties to the soil I grow old in New York Without a single neighbor to say good-bye I leave the apartment where I've lived twenty years There is a means to change nationalities legally how should one the heart's affiliation? Leaving our native country and through hardships together forty years deeply I press my sleeping aged wife's hand Though Konoshima moved to Hawaii to live with his daughter in the last years of his life, he spent more than 20 years living with his wife in a New York apartment close to the Hudson River, the inspiration for the title of his book. He wrote of his life through his impressions of the Hudson River, and the mountains and rivers in homeland Japan that were always alive in him.

Floating ice that covers the Hudson reflects the sun and gradually flows backward as though with a mind of its own Beaten with rain flung darkly by a wind the Hudson rages waves bite at the banks Near the source of the Nagara River whose depths are azure and rapids crested white is the village where I was born (My ancestral home Mino) Deep torrents of the Nagara River at the foot of mountains luxuriant with broad-leafed horse chestnut -- my home village

Yamato-machi, Gujo, in Gifu Prefecture where Konoshima was born, has a tradition of Waka (Japanese poetry). In his postscript, Konoshima noted his experiences as a child, observing his family members and neighbors gathering around the irori (the sunken hearth), to recite the works of master poets Saigyo, Ryoukan, and Ono No Komachi. Even now, Yamato-machi initiates its people into the esoteric points of Kokin-Waka-Shu (a collection of poems, ancient and modern). Konoshima left his birthplace at the young age of 15, but Yamato-machi continued to inspire his poetry (or influenced his writing), as is the case in the following poem that he wrote when he was around 12 years old and still living there.

In the distance beyond ten ri of wind-swept verdure white snow can be seen -- Mount Haku of Kaga

In 1972, Konoshima created a scholarship fund for children of Yamato-machi. To this day, the Konoshima Kisaburo Scholarship continues to support the academic pursuits of Yamato-machi's youth.

In the Yamato-machi town hall, a letter written by Konoshima expressing his satisfaction with the success of the scholarship fund is displayed. Konoshima's poetry and generous acts reveal the strong love he felt for his homeland, even after immigrating to the United States and becoming a naturalized citizen there.

Along with "May Sky" (compiled, translated, and prefaced by Violet Kazue de Cristoforo, Sun & Moon Press, 1997), "Hudson" will most likely attract the attention of those who are interested in learning of the life experiences of Meiji-born Japanese immigrants. In addition, "Hudson" will undoubtedly influence the relatively nascent field of English language tanka that is fast expanding to many parts of the world.

A major feature of the poetry in "Hudson" and the unique contribution that the work makes to the field of English language tanka is the adoption of a novel two-line poem format. Finally, the charming layout with its beautiful inner binding in Konoshima's traditional family crest of Gosan no Kiri, plus some exquisitely printed photographs of the poet and his family, will surely appeal to many readers.

Time and distance are traversed when my soul drifts back to my native village at the smell of fresh grass



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