Sunday, March 04, 2007

Review: Ferris Wheel

Ferris Wheel, 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka
Kozue Uzawa, editor
translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden
copyright 2006

Cheng & Tsui Company
$19.95 USD
8.25” x 5.25” 132 pps

Ferris Wheel, 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka, edited by Kozue Uzawa and translated by Uzawa and Amelia Fielden. In her preface, Uzawa describes how she has kept a notebook for more than ten years in which she had jotted down poems which have particularly struck her interest. This collection was further edited to provide 101 tanka that illustrate the broad range of modern and contemporary tanka by both well known and emerging poets.

Most short tanka books tend to present ‘more of the same,’ but Ferris Wheel shows about as much variety as it is possible to do in 101 poems. Yet, the book is also coherent; this is no random jumble. From the opening to the closing verse there are invisible strands that tie the poems together and make the collection innately readable.

The anthology opens with:

like a child
making fresh, crispy sounds
you crunch celery sticks
I don’t need a reason
to adore you

—Yukitsuna Sasaki

It is accompanied by both romaji and kana versions so that readers who know a little (or a lot) of Japanese can read them as they originally appeared. This is an excellent device and permits the poems to be used as a learning aid by students of the language. Having the three versions together on the same page is very convenient, and is appreciated over those books which omit the originals entirely or else tuck them away in fine print in notes at the back of the book.

The use of the single line kana to divide the English and romaji versions makes for an attractive graphic element while underscoring that the Japanese originals are not five line poems like their English counterparts. This is mentioned by Uzawa in her preface where she also points out that the 5-7-5-7-7 syllables generally considered as definitive of the Japanese form by English speakers is subject to variation.

“However, Japanese poets often use techniques such as ku-matagari (fused phrase) or ku-ware (split phrase) in their tanka composition. For instance, a certain tanka may have a 5-7-5-10-4 syllable sequence, if such techniques are employed.” (p xiii) She also points out that due to differences in the languages, English language tanka generally need to be shorter than their Japanese counterparts to achieve the same effect.

As might be expected, the treatment of Japanese motifs by Japanese poets is very different from the treatment of the same motifs by Western poets. For a Japanese poet, Japanese things do not represent an exotic ‘Other,’ to be plumbed for sensual or spiritual truths. Instead, such motifs are signposts of the self and carry very different meanings.

looking at
the Noh mask of a young woman
I feel white arrows
silently flowing
under the faraway ocean

—Kimihiko Takano

Such a poem may very well be obscure to the reader unfamiliar with Japanese culture, yet it contains interesting images out of which the reader can construct his or her own meaning. Should the reader know something about Japan, then the meanings and images will shift like the parts of a kaleidoscope. Every interpretation is valid; it is the strength of good tanka to not only permit, but to embrace the multiplicity of the audience. The poet does not tell the reader how to feel, but lets each reader construct the poetic experience for themselves.

my homeland lies
over the straits—
if I don’t long for it
it will disappear

—Satoko Kawano

Some poems are wide open. There are no hidden meanings here; the expression of homesickness and longing is one that will be familiar to most readers. The culture gap is bridged in a flash of recognition and disappears. Yet there is something more at work in this poem. It is no simple nostalgia here, but an awareness of the dangers that beset a beloved place and the poet’s determination to resist it. Are the dangers those of the material world, in which development, pollution, and overcrowding encroach upon a small town? or are they the psychological dangers in the loss of innocence of the poet herself? Once again, tanka demonstrates the controlled ambiguity that allows a short poem to magnify itself by operating on many levels.

The final poem of the book sums up itself, the anthology, and the tanka genre:

dear brother
don’t forget this—
flying through the sky
have heavy entrails

—Kazuhiko Ito


Review by M. Kei
10 February 2007
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA

1 comment:

  1. Kei's review of 'Ferris Wheel' is very enlightening. I enjoyed reading it. The editor seems to have done an excellent job.
    May i also take this opportunity to invite friends to visit my blogs:
    and comment on my tanka, haiku and other poems.
    All the best