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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

Ferris Wheel: 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka
translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


ferris wheel,
go round and round!
memories last
one day for you
a lifetime for me

---Kyoko Kuriki

"This book was compiled with the purpose of introducing some modern and contemporary Japanese tanka (short poems) to the English-speaking world."

Kozue Uzawa

With all of the debate going on in English language poetry circles as to what is and isn't tanka poetry, this anthology of Japanese tanka, Ferris Wheel, is a breath of fresh air. Tanka, previously called waka, is a genre of poetry given to the world by Japan over a thousand years ago. Though an old, established form, it has not lost its value or popularity amongst Japanese citizens today. Tawara Machi's Salad Anniversary, alone, sold several million copies. From the late 20th century into the present, tanka is catching on with the rest of the world. Online forums, journals, books, and chapbooks have popularized this genre and it shows no sign of abating.

What is tanka? What isn't tanka? Almost everyday I hear these two questions asked, the subjects analyzed, perused, and scrutinized by scholars, wannabe scholars, students, and well-meaning poets. It's as if they are seeking to make tanka fit into a mold they can call their own; a homogenization of a genre that doesn't need further defining. The genre is well established and defined in Japan, and the adaption of the genre to the English language, equally established. Part of the confusion may be due to the lack of the availability of English language texts on the subject and quality of Japanese tanka. Fortunately, Keene, Carter, Ueda, Cranston, and other Western scholars have covered the subject well in texts they have authored, but few texts from Japanese scholars are available in English, as is also the case with quality Japanese tanka.

I say Ferris Wheel is a breath of fresh air because it further exposes the West to Japanese tanka, an exposure that will deepen our understanding of the genre and help us to see it from a perspective foreign to Western thought patterns. Tanka is more than a style of poetry; it is a path, a way of viewing and fathoming the world around us. True, we have our own cultural memories and social contexts in the West, and to mimic the Japanese mindset would be preposterous. What is missing in a lot of contemporary Western tanka is depth of feeling, a sense of rhythm, and commitment to the genre. Ferris Wheel, of course, is not a new concept. Makoto Ueda's anthology, Modern Japanese Tanka, was published in 1996. But through Ferris Wheel, we are further exposed to modern and contemporary Japanese tanka poets, most of whom have not been introduced to English language readers.

A few examples:

looking at
the Noh mask of a young woman
I feel white arrows
silently flowing
under the faraway ocean

--- Kimihiko Takano

The Noh mask is a wooden mask worn by actors in Japan's Noh Theatre tradition. Some are humorous, some can be frightening. White arrows are associated with good luck (fortune) and sold or given away at Buddhist shrines during Japanese New Year ceremonies. In this tanka, Takano gazes at a Noh mask of a beautiful woman. It appears to stir in him a longing to travel across the ocean, perhaps to visit a lover, or friend. It is there that he looks for blessing and good fortune. This is an intricate, emotive tanka that cannot but stir a reader's emotions.

one onion
left in the fridge
a life started
in the darkness

---Kozue Uzawa

In this gem, Uzawa finds inspiration from a single onion that has, perhaps, been in her refrigerator too long and is no longer edible. Onions, when they are ready to be harvested, are colorful and, depending upon the variety, can be, for lack of a better term, flashy. I am reminded by this tanka of the late Marilyn Monroe. She was tossed from home to home as a child and sometimes abused. From that dark upbringing rose a flamboyant persona. I doubt this is what the poet had in mind when she wrote this tanka, but one of the qualities inherent in a topnotch tanka is its ability to inspire and spark interpretations indigenous to one's personal experiences and social context.

my homeland lies
over the straits
if I don't long for it
it will disappear

---Satoko Kawano

Kawano is living away from home across a large body of water. She is homesick, her mind full of memories. The poet is afraid that she will lose those memories and the sense of self they have given her. It is a poignant tanka. Kawano is unafraid to share her emotions, something we in the West can learn from if we want our tanka to be as vital and memorable as those in Ferris Wheel.

after the storm
Uchinada Sea is
still wild
and roaring
like my girlhood

---Machi Tawara

Tawara Machi is a young Japanese poet who has captivated millions in Japan with her tanka, partly because her poetry addresses matters excerpted from everyday life; the good, the bad, and ugly. This poem is no exception. In it, Machi's looking out at the ocean after a storm has subsided. It is not a calm picture. The scene serves as a catalyst to remind her of a tempestuous youth. She becomes vulnerable here, giving readers a personal glimpse into her life and the influences that have molded her into the poet she has become.

from the police interrogation
I get home at midnight
my period starts
like rage

--- Motoko Michiura

Like many poets in this anthology, Michiura is willing to dig deep into her psyche. A police interrogation is no picnic. It can go on for hours without letting up. Trick questions, sleep deprivation, and constant pressure. When the interrogation is over, Michiura goes home, spent emotionally and physically. There her menstrual period commences, and it's not a gentle one: painful cramps, a heavy flow, and the weakness that goes with a loss of blood. It's as if her body had gone into a tirade to protest what she had gone through during the interrogation. The juxtaposition here is second to none. It brings home to her readers her feelings at the time and, like all good tanka, cuts to the heart of the matter like a swift but carefully executed brush stroke.

of a narcissus
rises softly ---
I could say you are
someone like that

--- Masayuki Yabe

Ferris Wheel would not be an important anthology if it were poorly translated nor would it be if its ability to transfer the poem into a form palatable to English readers were marred. Says Makoto Ueda, "Translation means a transference of thought and feeling from one linguistic convention to another; since each convention is different, there is necessarily a limit on the number of conventional devices that can be carried over." The translator balances his or her conception of the genre under translation with his sense of English language usage and poetic construction. Fortunately for us, Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden are two of the world's finest translators of Japanese tanka. The differences between the Japanese and English languages are vast, intricate, and oftentimes confusing for those without a thorough knowledge of the genre and the two languages. There are translations on the market that are poor, misleading, and sometimes laughable, unless, of course, you are the poet the translators are translating. Some translations fail to accurately relate the message of the poetry translated, while at the same time retaining its lyricism and metre. Thus, it is important that those translating an anthology like Ferris Wheel be working poets and adept in the tools of transferring printed matter from one language to another. Uzawa and Fielden are both established poets with an in depth understanding of both languages. In addition, they understand the nuances, cultural memories, and social context integral to each poem.

"Tanka in Japanese are composed using 31 Japanese syllables. Although we use the term syllable, a Japanese syllable is completely different from an English syllable. For example, 'desk' in English is one syllable, but when this word is imported into the Japanese language system as a loan word, it is Japanized --- i.e., a vowel is inserted after each consonant. English 'desk' becomes 'desuku' in Japanese, which has three syllables. Therefore, if we write a tanka in English using 31 syllables, it sounds too long." Kozue Uzawa

after dark
my dog comes home ---
shaking himself
he scatters sand
from a distant desert

---Tamiko Ohnishi

Ferris Wheel: 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka
Translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden
Cheng & Tsui Company, Inc. (2006)
ISBN 13: 978-0-88727-494-7