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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

My Tanka Diary
by Kawano Yuko, translated by Amelia Fielden
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


The poems in this book were first published in serial form in the monthly journal Tanka Forum as "My Tanka Diary - A Calendar of Daily Living" (February 2000 to January 2001).

Kawano Yuko is one of Japan's most well known tanka poets. And only a seasoned poet could accomplish what Kawano accomplished in writing this daily Diary of tanka. Tanka is not an easy form to master. Over a thousand years old, it is a genre deeply embedded in Japan's culture. The number of people writing tanka in Japan today is limitless. Schools and clubs of tanka are everywhere. Unlike in the Western world, books of tanka in Japan sell well. And because the Japanese people are exposed to quality tanka on a daily basis, they are particular about what they read and buy. How does one write a book consisting of 643 tanka (reduced to 396 for this book) without appearing mundane, boring, and overly familiar?

November 10th

the times when
he's with his wife
my son is taciturn -
he sits dangling his small son
on his knee

July 3rd

this child too
stands holding on,
trying to look up
from under the table
just like his father did

Kawano is prolific. Tanka is an important part of who she is. The author of ten books of tanka, she is one of Japan's premier postwar women poets. She teaches tanka at community colleges, is a popular speaker, and has penned books of criticism and essays. As a public figure, it would be easy for Kawano to put on a larger-than-life noh mask, and keep people from knowing the real her. But she is unafraid of revealing herself. A tanka poet, she values integrity, truth, and makoto. Fictional tanka is the antithesis of what tanka is and the path it takes one down. Kawano shares with readers her innermost self.

November 26th

the voice that was
abusing someone in a dream
sounds in my ears,
and I am disgusted
with myself

The poet Kituai says, "Despite personal tragedy, the birth of a grandchild, and her commitments to teaching, editing, TV programs, and literary occasions, Kawano wrote on. Had she not, this diary would not have offered its readers the opportunity to pause and consider the daily rhythm of existence and the wisdom of taking the time to do so."

September 10th (Kawano's husband, Nagata, is running a high fever)

I peer close
at his fevered face
seeing that
he has aged now,
sooner than I

October 18th

with the left
of the breast pair that
nurtured two children
now wounded, the right
gives encouragement

October 19th

Only my mother
must not get to know -
she will crumble
like the ashes from straw
and be lost to us

Says Kawano, "The tanka in this book were written as a diary; intermingled are some which are in the nature of memos or desultory jottings. Had I not made such trivial matters from my daily life into tanka, I might have forgotten them; and letting them become public in the form of my poetry shows that they really did matter to me."

November 7th (The beginning of Winter)

I've been sleeping
with the light on,
in a shape that shields
my body's left side

I highly recommend this poignant, skillfully written book of tanka. Kawano Yuko's tanka is the poetry people remember; the opposite of a Hallmark greeting card or cute motivational poster. Her tanka is deep, introspective, the work of a master poet--a canvas of heart and mind. She has something to say, thinks it through, and leaves readers wanting more. Her art is the product of hard work, study, decades of experience, and lots of practice. Good art isn't born overnight. We can learn from Kawano. She's paid her dues. And so must we.

My Tanka Diary
By Kawano Yuko
Translated by Amelia Fielden
Ginninderra Press, 2006
ISBN 1-74027-367-2