Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2

Doorway To The Sky
by Noriko Tanaka
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


. . . it is indeed the relationship between light and shade that is the universal truth.

Noriko Tanaka

Noriko Tanaka is an unknown entity outside the archipelago island nation of Japan and most likely would remain so were it not for Amelia Fielden's desire to introduce to the Occidental world the works of great Japanese poets. Fielden, the winner of the Columbia University prize for literary translation, sponsored by the Donald Keene Foundation in 2007, co-translated Noriko Tanaka's Doorway to the Sky with fellow Australian Seako Ogi, a teacher of Japanese language for over 25 years, and co-translator with Fielden of two previous books.

at midnight
with moonlight beaming
deep inside me
I think fondly
of the fish called 'solitude'

Tanaka's walk is a journey into a world as incomprehensible as Alice's Wonderland to those who read her tanka with concrete eyes and a mindset that can't see beyond their own backyard. Can "moonlight beam deep inside" a person and influence their thoughts? Of course not. She's speaking figuratively. The poet is watching moonlight, probably during a full or near full moon, the soft glow of its rays, how they interact with trees, dance on water; shadow paints a scene she views with a cloudless mind free of conceptions. In this meditational state where nothing exists except for her and the moon's beams, a sense of gratefulness overwhelms her, that she can be alone to enjoy such beauty.

One day in May, Tanaka came across the gnarled, twisted trunk of a cypress tree, probably along a windy shoreline. A good tanka poet sees things many take for granted. Instead of whisking past the beauty of nature to reach a point of destination, she took the time to observe and commune with nature the same way children do before their minds replace the magic of naivety, curiosity, and receptivity with what is taught to be sophistication. The great artist Glee discovered the creative purity of a young child's mind and produced famous paintings borrowed from the aforementioned mindset. Looking at the twisted tree trunk reminded Noriko Tanaka of the complexity of her young brother's love. When I teach creative writing to students I take them for a walk and ask them to focus on a particular object and write down in their notebooks what the object reminded them of besides the obvious; to see it from a child's mind the same way a child does when looking at billowing cumulus clouds. Taken to a deeper level, the tree trunk reminded her of the nature of her younger brother's love.

in May
the twisted trunk
of that cypress tree
was shaped like
my younger brother's love

A good tanka is one that connects with a reader the opposite way a Hallmark card short verse does. Readers are invited to complete, via interpretation, the poem the poet has created. In the following poem, Tanaka makes excellent use of figurative language to ask a philosophical question:

is this the place
where birds
with compasses in their bodies
should die,
this deep sky?

To someone with little imagination living in the black and white world of Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver, the poem would sound like the rantings of a mad woman: "birds with compasses in their bodies". There is no bird on earth that has a compass in their body. And they call this poetry?

Again, Noriko Tanaka shows readers the effectiveness of using figurative language in a tanka to evoke yugen, makoto, and other aesthetic embodiments in a way suitable to poetry using an economy of words.

Most birds are born with a migratory instinct, a genetic time clock that tells them when and where to migrate. Tanaka ponders:

is this the place
where birds
with compasses in their bodies
should die,
this deep sky?

Tanaka's tanka is figurative, allows room for interpretation and has wonderful meter, possessing wonder, mystery, and the unspoken with her use of the fifth line which she feels is the most important part of a tanka. After the fifth verse, the stage is set for ma, dreaming room—her reader drawn into the heart of the poem.

Writes Saeko Ogi in the book's preface:

"Ms Tanaka has discovered her own special path through the casual scenery of everyday life, and that which she displays to the reader is her individualized world spread out at the end of that path."

there in a flood
of moonlight
was my mother,
she had given birth

Tanaka's mother was a sensitive woman burdened with the responsibility of raising her children. She did the plumbing, cooking, sewing, and hardly ever had time of her own to pursue the things she wanted to do, her station in life decided at the time she gave birth to her first child. She was not a stable woman emotionally, having many fears, her lot as a mother at times overwhelming

This is a sad poem. How could a mother regret giving birth to children. There are two choices here: to interpret the poem through your own familial spirit and cultural memory or to go deeper into the poem:

my mother
with her random fears,
as vulnerable
as a foetus
before it leaves the womb

A fetus at the last term, waiting to exit the womb, is vulnerable and dependent on others, earthbound and above. There is the danger of a breach birth, an infection, the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby's neck, the baby herself not fully formed, used to floating in a dark womb and fed via an umbilical cord. A woman this vulnerable is emotionally drained, suffering from post partum depression at a time when anti-depressants weren't readily available.

Noriko Tanaka was a painter before beginning her journey as a tanka poet. She learned as a painter during her days in high school the value of white space, how sparsity speaks what a busy, cluttered canvas cannot. Ma in every form of Japanese art is essential: its heart, the embodiment and source of kokoro (feeling, emotion), the building block of yugen (mystery and depth). As a painter she also discovered what would later greatly influence her tanka, "the relationship between light and shade." A painter doesn't just paint single layers on a canvas to create delicate effects like shadow, variances in light, darkness, etc. The process requires an understanding of color, shading, and multiple uses of layers, coupled with the ability to determine the degree of transparency to create an effect. A painting's not a photograph but an illusion. As a poet, Tanaka understands layering, gentle variance, and figurative language (metaphoric illusion used to describe life).

peeling off his shadow
on a moonlit night
my uncle
for the other world

The beauty and delicate tones of Noriko's style of tanka . . . her use of figurative language is much more interesting to read than a tanka painting a realistic photograph without illusion and kokoro, as in:

my uncle
on a moonlit
night, died
and went to the
spirit world

In Tanaka's poem, the imagery of "peeling off his shadow" to symbolize death is beautiful, song-like, and stimulates thinking past the obvious, unlike the one I penned above to draw the comparison. As one author/teacher wrote decades ago, "a rose isn't a rose but the smell of the rose."

Many people underestimate the value of a translator.

in the depths of night
when our bodies
change into wild beasts,
he tells me
not to write love letters

Some think translating a poem from one language to another is an easy task, necessitating prowess with a multi-lingual dictionary. Once I conversed with a woman translating a huge body of work who upon her admission that she didn't read or write Japanese, admitted, "I can assure you I wore the pages of my Japanese/English dictionary ragged!"

Translating a poem from Japanese into English is a tedious task and is an art form in itself. Relying on a dictionary alone is preposterous and does a poet's poetry great injustice. There are several other factors relevant to the process as well: knowledge of the grammar; similarities and differences between the two languages; fidelity to the original text; and, says Amelia Fielden, "the desire and ability to reproduce, as closely as possible, the emotions and atmosphere of each individual tanka lyric." The translator balances his or her conception of the genre under translation with his sense of English language usage and poetic construction. Since the languages are so very different in nature, this is no small task. According to Doorway To Heaven's co-translator, Saeko Ogi, "It is virtually impossible to produce an exact echo of the Japanese tanka rhythm in its English translation." If a translating team literally translated and wrote down the definition of every word in a verse in the order they found it, the result would be a confusing jumble of words hard to understand, let alone appreciate from a poetic standpoint.

The differences between Japanese and English are vast.

1. Qualifying phrases come before their subject in Japanese and after their subject in English.

2. In Japanese, especially in the area of poetry, subjects, pronouns, and objects are often omitted. In English, specifiers are essential.

3. Verb usage is different in application, structure, intonation, and length. One syllabic word in English, for example, can have three separate intonations in Japanese.

4. The Japanese use no punctuation, opting for cutting words. There are no cutting words in the English language—only punctuation.

These are just a few of the differences. Successful translation also depends on the depth of one's understanding of the poet, dialects, time period, use of archaic or new linguistics, and the cultural memory of the poet's biosphere.

Working with a living poet is easier, of course, because you have direct access to the poet.

Amelia Fielden and Saeko Ogi worked closely with Noriko Tanaka, forming a team, each wanting the translation to clearly represent the poetry as it was meant to be understood, and to as closely as possible, maintain a semblance of each tanka's meter within the confines of accurate translation. Says Ogi in the book's preface regarding the procedure of translation," Amelia would convey to me problematic points in English, then I would add questions of my own, and send both our queries to Ms. Tanaka, including those having to do with nuances and intended meanings. This process often necessitated a succession of drafts, until all involved were in agreement that the translation was faithful to the original.

Translating a book of Japanese short form poetry is dependent upon the skills and knowledge of the translators. A poor, inaccurate translation can ruin the public's receptivity of the book translated and do a great disservice to the poet. It's not a job for amateurs using English/Japanese dictionaries.

The end result of the teamwork between Amelia Fielden, Saeko Ogi, and the poet, Noriko Tanaka, speaks for itself.

my brand new parasol,
I walk the town . . .
it's a chilled seabed
made noisy by the dead


Doorway To The Sky
By Noriko Tanaka
Translated by Amelia Fielden and Saeko Ogi
Published by Nagarami Shobo, Japan
ISBN 978-4-86023-554-3 2008
The book is available from Noriko Tanaka at
$25,including postage, for USA