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Summer 2008, vol 6 no 2

Tanka by Kisaburo Konoshima
newly translated by David Callner*

This is the eleventh in a series of new translations of selected tanka by Kisaburo Konoshima

Having entrusted my very life to others for twenty-five days
I check out from the hospital with all that I could not entrust
Bedridden I enjoy thinking of those who promised we would meet again
the faces of my aged friends in Japan
I set out a mandarin-duck shaped incense case by Ninsei
enjoying a winter day in convalescence alone

(Nonomura Seisuke, or as he is popularly called, Ninsei, was a celebrated 17th century potter. After WWII Konoshima began acquiring what was to become a significant collection of Japanese art and antiques from East-side antique shops in New York City - this collection is now part of the Herbert R. Johnson Museum at Cornell University. D.C.)
In the heart of ebullient spring verdure
maidenly and O so fair the dogwood blossoms
Sky and water blush scarlet - in the setting sun
the hills on the opposite shore spread blackly
Beneath the hills against the falling sun - a remarkable darkness
and a cluster of lights - boats must be spending the night
White plumes in the wind - little sparrows in pursuit
assiduously carry them to a garret
Diligently building their nest the sparrows grow in luster
frozen soil along the hedge thaws shining in the sun
The morning sky has rejected any speck of shading
a seagull glints with a flutter
A bracing early-summer wind crosses the river
white sails dot the Hudson
Miniskirted young ladies step sprightly
their shoes clacking loudly on the pavement
"A self-supported student" with pride and a touch of humility
earnest was I - a young man of Meiji
There are wounds deep in the heart that cannot be healed
talk of our lamented grandchildren is taboo for my wife and for me
A six-foot square plot will be this aged couple's grave
I lie back on the grass and gaze at the sky
In the stillness of a dark pale swamp jumps a fish
duckweed sways with expanding ripples
Pale hills brilliantly tinged
the midsummer sun is setting - thus ends this day too
Always on the move my filial devotion was weak
now I lovingly recall my parents as I near my seventy-seventh birthday
There are big-headed smug maniacs
and social order is thrown into disarray
Brats from the regime along with many notables
assemble in Atlanta - this is an election year
As I stroke my grandchild's wealth of hair
I pray over the impending severity of the atomic age
Summer ends today says the radio
I linger by my window to begrudge the setting sun
Does the summer's final sunset beckon me?
Will summer come again?
A balcony lined with pots of daikon greens
the best I can do for a garden - I who love the soil
Morning after morning the foot of the hill is veiled in fog
a single withered leaf lies glistening on the road
At play with cows and sheep - Indian children on a reservation
their faces resemble Japanese
Surrounding a lake the forest is veiled in color
a fish jumps and echoes across the water - then all is still
"The times are shameful" is the news of late
but news of the Expo becomes an excuse to visit Japan

(Perhaps the 1970 World's Fair, held in Osaka. D.C.)
Feigning concern
I urge my wife to winter in Honolulu

(Concern for his wife's health over the New York winter, while in truth travel itself was very hard on a frail Mrs. Konoshima - Konoshima simply wanted to visit Hawaii. D.C.)
Antique mirrors - swords - swordguards - and lacquerware
to each I acquire an affection as though to my children
"At long last I take you home"
with loving care I clean my treasured Kunitoshi

(Rai Kunitoshi was among the most famous swordsmiths of the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries - one sword in Konoshima's art collection was a Kunitoshi that Konoshima presented to a museum in Japan. D.C.)
Beyond the green-veiled town
reflecting the sun and shining dazzlingly - Waikiki beach
Shining in the sun like an enormous silver plate
the sea - a ship sails tinily in the offing
Before I know it a ship that seemed motionless
vanishes over the horizon - night falls on the sea
Limited to a single day of life
the rose of Sharon lovingly blossoms to its full
The plumeria - auspicious in color and fragrance
I hear its axillae are poison
I have gazed till my neck hurts
not a thing in the deep azure sky
After one month and tanned a somewhat Honolulu color
people tell me I look hale
From below there was black rain swirling
from above - nothing but white clouds all day
"Why don't I take you to someplace of note?" - offers my friend in poetry
indeed Toukeiji I press without hesitation

(Toukeiji, a temple in Kamakura, is nicknamed Kakekomidera - "The Run-For-Shelter Temple" - from the Kamakura period [1185-1382] when it served as a shelter for abused women. Toukeiji is also renowned for its beautiful cemetery where many famous poets, artists, and philosophers are interred. Mitsuko Shiga, poet and contemporary of Konoshima in the Kamakura poetry society Cho-On, is the "friend in poetry" D.C.)
Descending the steps from a visit to the cemetery
my heart full I support the aged poet by her arm
Tiny flowers blossoming amongst the weeds
stop me in my tracks - a path in my native village
I reach out the car window and break off some kerria
it scatters and drops with dew - a plank road in Kitano

(Konoshima's native village, Yamato-mura, was in an area called Kitano, in Gifu Prefecture. D.C.)
Kindergartners on a field trip red-cheeked plump and well-nourished
bless yourselves one day with love
Ten thousand miles from my native land
I find The Seven Herbs by the Hudson

(Commonly in Japan "The Seven Herbs of Spring" are turnip, shepherd's purse, daikon, chickweed, Japanese parsley, cudweed, and henbit, and "The Seven Herbs of Autumn" are bush clover, miscanthus, kudzu, large pink, yellow flowered valerian, boneset, and Chinese bellflower. D.C.)
Each fixed in its respective shape yet disheveled
weed spikes are resplendent
I snap off the offensive television and a feeling of pleasure arises
as if I had punched that prating mouth
Attaining Kiju in America I yearn for my native village
and the starry sky I once loved to watch with my mother

(One's seventy-seventh birthday, Kiju, is considered an auspicious event in Japan. D.C.)
Even the stars are roiled in the smoke and dust of the city
O this old man yearns for the starry brilliance he once loved to watch with his mother
The birches are ever whiter
as sunlight filters obliquely into the autumnal forest
Each tree glows with its own hue
the forest vaunting autumn's colory
Motionless treetops point to the heavens - shining on the frost
the white moon sits beyond a sparse wood at daybreak

*Readers who have enjoyed this series of tanka translations may now add them to their personal libraries in the perfect bound, 136 page book:

Hudson: A Collection of Tanka by Kisaburo Konoshima
Translated into English by David Callner
Tokyo, Japan: Japan Times, 2005.
ISBN 4-7890-1179-8


David Callner David Callner was born in 1956. His youth was spent in France, England, Italy, and America. Since 1978 he has lived in Japan. He has written four novels. He teaches English as an adjunct at Nagano University.