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Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Fitting farewells for the poet James Kirkup


CHU-I/MESSAGE FROM BUTTERFLY, by Michio Nakahara. Translated by James Kirkup and Makoto Tamaki. Yuushorin, 2009, 250 pp., ¥3,000 (hardcover) THE LAST BUTTERFLY, by James Kirkup. Red Moon Press, 2009, 20 pp., $7 (paper)

The coincidence between the titles of these two volumes is accidental, but nonetheless fortuitous, for together they serve to memorialize the English poet James Kirkup (1918-2009), who died on May 10 last year.

Let us begin with the translated volume, which carries the legend, in both Japanese and English, "Kirkup's last work." Michio Nakahara (b. 1951) is a leading contemporary haiku poet and heads a group called Ginka, or "iridescence." He began as a disciple of another poet, won prizes for his work, and eventually formed his own group, which publishes a journal.

As far as I am aware, this is the first time his work has been translated into English, but the publication of this book is unique in being a collection by an important poet complete with English translation on its first appearance. There have been a number of anthologies of translated modern haiku, and collected or complete editions of classic poets. There have also been a number of privately circulated volumes in which the same poet has gathered his or her own work in both Japanese and English, or tried to provide a parallel translation. But I do not think there has ever been a new collection like this one, which carries a full translation by another poet, albeit assisted by a Japanese collaborator.

"Chu-I," or "Message from Butterfly," contains 430 verses seasonally arranged, and this enables the reader to see how the volume was formed and presented originally in Japanese. Nakahara is a witty and urbane poet, but traditional in his observation of the seasons and in general form. He begins with New Year, the perplexing fifth season, which was moved to winter following the adoption of the solar calendar, whereas it used to mark the beginning of spring. Even in spring, though, Nakahara registers the modern age:

Sending me haiku

of early-blossoming plum

by facsimile

A similar verse helps to introduce spring, the burden of the book:

Butterfly born from a scrap of paper — Kakio's anniversary

The anniversary marked is that of Kakio Tomizawa (1902-1962), who died March 7, 2009, and whose most famous haiku describes a frozen butterfly "falling with a clatter in an age of ice." With this allusion, Nakahara begins a series of verses about butterflies, among which we find the message of the title:

"Come out now and then to the field" — the butterfly sent me this message

Along with this splendid silk-bound collection, its jacket carrying an illustration of a 17th-century painting, comes a separate memorial to the poet Kirkup — a small selection of his own poems, appearing as a limited edition in the beautiful Postscripts series from Red Moon Press. "The Last Butterfly" contains mostly three-line verses from different publications, finely typeset with endpapers of natural material. There is one poem on each page, and they begin in spring:

Springtime suddenly comes like a traveling fair to the bombed village

They pass on through, and even beyond, the seasons:

In atomic rain Buddha goes on smiling at the last butterfly

Its publication is an excellent tribute to the talented, quirky and prolific poet and translator.



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