Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

As Things Are: Tanka Poetry by Kawano Yuko
Translated by Amelia Fielden and Uzawa Kozue
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


A small chapbook consisting of 35 pages, As Thing Are is a composite of 100 tanka written by the well known female Japanese tanka poet Kawano Yuko. Famous in her own country, Kawano's tanka is relatively unknown to the English speaking world. This is because a significant amount of her poetry has not been translated into English.

Kawano has won multiple awards in Japan. She is the author of books of essays and criticism, has lectured extensively on tanka poetics, and is a sought after lecturer.

Says translator Fielden, Kawano "stands in the forefront of post war born women tanka poets . . . and is an intensely personal writer who always enriches her poetry with happenings from her own life history."

The tanka in this book are second to none.

from my willingly
rain-beaten hair
comes a smell . . .
I belong to no one,
not then, not now

when I, become just a sac
enfolding a foetus,
go to sleep
the rainy night surrounds me
like an ocean

on nights when
you go off somewhere or other
I twirl
a rubber band
with the point of my pencil

Tanka (waka) poetry is a demanding art form. It is also the base from which all Japanese short form poetry has originated including haiku, senryu, and renga. Tanka is not a popular genre in the English speaking world, whereas haiku is. Perhaps it is because haiku is shorter, and therefore considered easier to teach and write, although most teachers do not teach haiku poetics correctly as evidenced by the insistence in academic circles that haiku adhere strictly to the 5/7/5 syllable formula indigenous to Japanese language haiku. Perhaps it is because some of those writing haiku today in English have strayed from the spiritual and emotional core from which tanka emanates. Says Fielden, "A Japanese tanka is a very short, mostly unpunctuated poem, which does not necessarily translate into a complete sentence. To quote the most famous (Japanese) female poet of modern times, Yosano Akiko, 'it is a poem with a middle only; its beginning lies in the poet's actual experience, and its end, if any, has to be sought in the reader's mind. It is a piece of life captured verbally.' " Adds the well known Japanese poet and friend of Yuko, Manaka Tomohisa, "As for Kawano Yuko's tanka, there are some which, even when we contemplate them in the original Japanese, cannot be read soley for their apparent meaning. Whilst they may be written in simple words, there is a certain weightiness, an expansiveness, about such tanka. This is not really due to the interweaving of multiple meanings, nor is it because a given topic may be employed as a symbol of something else. Rather it is the result of the complex emotions lying behind the tanka, which are often unexpressed in, even deliberately omitted from, the composed work. It may well be these unwritten feelings, rather than the overt content or the charming sound of Kawano's tanka, which have the power to fascinate the reader . . ."

Kawano's tanka is mesmerizing and evocative. Her poems are memorable and have the ability to cut to the chase in a lyrical manner. We are fortunate that Fielden and Kozue are skillful translators who worked closely with the poet to give us translations that are true to the poetry and inner rhythm of the words. Says Tomohisa, "We poets often wonder about the viability of translation. We wonder whether our words . . . our Japanese words . . . are accurately reflected in the phrases of a foreign language, whether the translations we read unerringly convey the intended meaning of the original text. And even if the literal meaning of a poem can be transposed, how about the rhythm and sounds? Another concern is that the cultural nuances of place names and other Japanese references may be lost in translation. . . I have been astonished and delighted to see how clearly Kawano's original words and feeling are mirrored. Amelia has demonstrated that it can be possible to achieve worthwhile translation of our poetry."

I can't give up in despair . . .
there is a tree
in my garden
with quiet eyes
and good ears

selecting tanka
I grow sleepy, but
when I go downstairs
there is someone else
busy selecting tanka

tomorrow my body
will be cut open, so
in a shallow bath
up to my chest
I'm warming myself

in this world
there is only the time
of this world . . .
wet flurries of snow
I come home after treatment

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

placing both hands
on top of the heat from
the three hundred and sixty
tanka I've sorted through,
I stood up

As Things Are: Tanka Poetry by Kawano Yuko
Translated by Amelia Fielden and Uzawa Kozue
Ginninderra Press
ISBN 1-74027-322-2