Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: On This Same Star

On This Same Star, selections from the tanka poetry collection WILL
by Mariko Kitakubo
translated by Amelia Fielden
copyright 2006

Kadogawa Gakugei Shuppan Ltd.
5-24-5, Hongo Bunkyo-ku
Tokyo, 113-0033 Japan
ISBN: 4-04-651667-4
$15.00 USD
8” x 5” 190 pps

On This Same Star is a bilingual Japanese/English edition of poems that were originally published (2005) in Japanese in the collection WILL by Mariko Kitakubo. Included in the selection are 263 tanka, out of the 330 tanka that make up the original. Kitakubo is one of the best known and most popular of the Japanese tanka poets working today; her translator Amelia Fielden is well known as both a translator and a tanka poet in her own right.

The works included in On This Same Star are arranged chronologically in sections. As Fielden states in the English introduction to the book, “contemporary tanka are customarily arranged in sections, under headings relating to one or more of the poems within the sections. I use that term, rather than ‘chapter,’ because there is no continuous narrative even within a section—albeit the overarching theme of the poetry here is Kitakubo’s life.”

Not explicitly stated in the introduction, but learned from the translator through private correspondence, the works are not strictly autobiographical. Although many are, some are fictional, or fictionalized. With a poet of Kitakubo’s stature there is no way to tell which are which, but the poems about her mother’s finally illness carry with them the unmistakable truth of authenticity.

ah, there’s nothing
in particular
I want to talk
with Mother about—
and yet, and yet

Having attended my own mother’s death bed, I know exactly what it feels like when there is nothing to be said, but you wish you could think of something to say.

For those readers who are used to modern English-language tanka that is heavily dependent upon nature imagery, Kitakubo’s work will be a challenge. Nature in her poems is frequently present, but treated far differently than the Romantic tradition that is a major topos in Western tanka.

through my hollow body
a breeze blows
gently shaking
my one frail altar
to the gods

the water
in the cistern
remains silent—
from my weary brain
a single bubble floats up

Not only are her images strong, they often feature striking juxtapositions and turns of phrase:

just like lips
storing hatred, then opening—
white lilies
come into bloom

in the hollow
of my palm
aromatic cashews
the shape of foetuses

Both poems are excellent examples of ‘controlled ambiguity.’ The cashew poem is anything but vague, yet it does not yield its meaning to the casual reader. Is the fetus-shaped cashew a metaphor of the beginning of life, as both nuts and fetuses are the seeds from which new beings grow? Or is it a metaphor for death, the cashew an aborted fetus? Or does it mean nothing at all, simply being one of those “things that make you go ‘hm’? “

While Fielden eschews calling the ‘sections’ sequences, they are indeed ‘sequences’, if by that term we mean autonomous tanka joined together by an invisible thread. ‘An Unfinished Letter’ contains the cashew poem mentioned above and is immediately followed by:

my ring finger
once showed that
being bound
and being loved
were one and the same

Each of the poems is a worthy poem by itself, but when juxtaposed with each other, the Labyrinth of the poems grows more complex. Like the Labyrinth of Greece, there are mysteries lurking here, and monsters too. That sets Kitakubo’s work apart from most Western tanka poets today; while many of her poems are beautiful, they are also disturbing and unique.


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

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