Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

Still Swimming
by Amelia Fielden
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Very few of the great translators write Japanese short form poetry. They are fluent in archaic and modern Japanese linguistics; possess great knowledge of the Japanese culture, and have studied meticulously Japanese poetics. Amelia Fielden is one of those exceptions.

Fielden is one of the foremost translators of Japanese poetry in the world. She is currently working with famed Japanese poet Tawara Machi, whose last book of tanka poetry sold over 4 million copies, in translating Machi's book into the English language. Fielden is in constant demand by Japan's top female tanka poets as her reputation as a translator broadens. One of the reasons for her success and popularity as a translator is her ability to write good tanka. As a poet, she feels empathy towards fellow poets and knows how important a poem is to its author. She handles the translation of each poem as if it were her own . . . and yet avoids the temptation to transform a tanka into a style complimenting her own.

Fielden herself is a world class tanka poet and is recognized the world over for her prowess as a poet. Her newest book, Still Swimming, is a collection of tanka composed between 2003 and 2005. Says the poet:

"More important than a specific number of syllables is the internal rhythm of tanka, the impact they make on the ears as well as the mind. And in content, contemporary tanka are unrestricted."

Fielden's sense of rhythm in Still Swimming is impeccable. Take, for instance:

fields of sunflowers
I lie awake . . .
do dreams accompany
your sleeping rhythm?

This poem adheres to the short/long/short/long/long pattern found in Japanese tanka and has a similar sense of rhythm. The pauses are natural, not reliant upon punctuation or a gimmicky placement of words. Read it out loud, pausing at the end of each line.

"Mind-painting" is a fresh, modern day English colloquialism that aptly sets up the stage for the gist of this tanka. The poet is wide-awake, unable to sleep, painting with her mind a vivid field of sunflowers . . . slowly, deliberately, and with an artist's sense of detail. But she doesn't just paint a picture of what she is doing. She concludes the tanka with a question:

do dreams accompany
your sleeping rhythm?

The poet would like to dream, to rest, but cannot, having an off kilter sleeping rhythm. She is wondering if she is the only one? This is a poem with yugen (mystery and depth) and makoto (true life).  It is not a fluffed up pile of fancy rhythmical words that say little but rather a tanka that allows for more than one interpretation, depending on who reads it.

The poet is unafraid of tackling challenges most writers would ward off, such as:

Basho's frog
his pond dip finished,
is drying off
in the perfumed heart
of a dappled camellia

Fielden is referring to Basho's famous:

the old pond . . .
a frog jumps in,
water's sound

(translated by Makoto Ueda)

In Basho's haiku, the frog jumps into the pond, leaving readers to interpret for themselves the meaning and symbolism therein. Although Ueda states in his book Basho And His Interpreters that it is not one of his better haiku, it has, nevertheless, become one of his most famous. Fielden, not wanting to simply rewrite or re-describe what Basho has already written, took an innovative path, writing instead about what she imagines the frog to do after it gets out of the pond, relying heavily upon her own cultural memory, social context, and insight into Japanese culture and religious beliefs.  The result is a totally innovative and beautiful tanka.

I will not eulogize Fielden, but I do think, as an author of English language tanka, she is as good as they come. She is a poet's poet whose poetry is worthy of study. Amelia Fielden knows what she is doing, is conscious of metre, respects the genre as handed down by the Japanese, and writes with an original, fresh voice. This is one book of tanka I recommend without reservation.

in scraped ground
beside a drain-pipe
white daisies
living like bright words
from a self-help book

two doors down
even the tiger-lilies
grow freer
than the labrador pup
kept in a parrot-cage

in dawn drizzle
bird after bird singing
me awake
from layered dreams
of yesterdays

Still Swimming
by Amelia Fielden
Ginninderra Press, 2005
ISBN 1-74027-325-7