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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

On This Same Star
by Mariko Kitakubo
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


On This Same Star is an appropriate title for Mariko Kitakubo's new book of tanka, masterfully translated into English by Amelia Fielden of Australia. Kitakubo takes readers of her poetry into a world both personal and reflective.

I'll close both ears
and listen
to the ancient ocean's
within my body

Of course, the world she paints for us with her words would not be credible if her skill as a poet were run-of-the-mill. Her tanka poems call to mind Yosano Akiko and Fumiko Nakajo, two female Japanese poets whom I have the deepest admiration and respect for. And not because her poetry resembles theirs. It does not. But like the aforementioned poets, she speaks intimately about her feelings utilizing yugen, makoto, and good form.

Take the above tanka. When a person cups his hands over his ears, shutting out outside sound, he hears a sound mimicking ocean waves. Kitakubo is referring in her poem to meditation. Deep breathing, slowly, listening to one's body, shutting out the sensory world. Interesting is her use of the word, "tumult". It is a word that can be interpreted in more than one way. The poet hints, does not "say all", and invites readers to come into her world in an experiential way. The poet doesn't write tanka as a channel to become famous. She carefully, perhaps even spiritually, chooses her words, crafting a poem that leaves a reader wondering, and thinking. Aiding her in this is her use of lyricism, yugen (mystery and depth), respect for the genre, and a willingness to share her makoto (truth and beauty) in a personal, intimate manner.

trying to escape
memories of submersion
in the pale blue waters
of my mother's womb,
I blow big bubbles

I should have
asked for help . . .
I've been searching
for mother's face
in the mirror

with what am I
to protect myself . . . no way
the blade of a human
will cut through spirits
of mountains and rivers

Kitakubo's sense of rhythm is refreshing and worthy of study. Lyricism is essential to good tanka, yet many poets have strayed away from lyricism, especially those poets writing English language tanka. Says Kitakubo's translator, Amelia Fielden:

There are poetic stress accents in Japanese, so traditional poetry is given rhythm by writing to a pattern of 5/7/5/7/7 sound-unit phrases, with varying breath pauses being made when read aloud.

in this flesh of mine
what evil is there?
as the sun sets
numbers of fingerprints
floated in my mirror

Translating a poem from the Japanese into English is a monumental task, especially if the translator wants to retain the poem's lyricism while remaining true to the poem's intent in a manner that is as close to the original as possible. Says Kitakubo, ". . . tanka, because it is lyric poetry and so difficult to translate, has had a rather limited and half-hearted acceptance outside of Japan."

With this in mind, Kitakubo would not settle for just any translator. She wanted someone who would accurately convey the spirit of what she had written and still maintain the beauty of the lyrical form.

Kitakubo adds: "The translation of a tanka not only involves the accurate transmission of a poem's 'story' but must also show cognizance of that which lies behind the written words. . . Amelia (Fielden) is a poet with a deep understanding of Japanese culture and a linguistic expertise based on many years of study of Japanese literature. . . . I have become convinced of her ability to translate in a way which is both totally faithful to the original tanka, and also poetic in English."

Good translators are few and far between, especially when it comes to translating from the Eastern mindset into the Western mindset. Amelia Fielden is one of the best in the field. Working together, Kitakubo and Fielden have given the English speaking world a rare treat; poetry that is memorable, ethereal, lyrical, and worthy of study.

The tanka in Kitakubo's book is a selection of poetry from her third collection of tanka entitled, Will. The poet dedicated Will to the her mother who passed away in 2003. Many of the tanka in On This Same Star, therefore, are of an elegiac nature, and poignant . . . so much so that at times, I was moved to tears by the truth, spirit, and feeling emanating from these poems.

are they overflowing
with things she wishes
she could tell me . . .
my mother's tearful eyes
after more than ten day's sleep

my mother
has become
my beloved child
put to bed
in a pure white room

This is a special book. I recommend it with no reservations. Mariko Kitakubo is a star whose time has come.

when I contemplate
the copious blood-flow
of our world's peoples,
an avalanche begins its slide
in a part of myself

On This Same Star
by Mariko Kitakubo
Translated by Amelia Fielding
Kadokawa Shoten, 2006 ($15)
ISBN4-04-651667-4 C0092