Sawako Nakayasu’s wonderful translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, released earlier this year, was my first look at Sagawa’s work. Due to Sagawa’s untimely death, it is a slim volume, at 136 pages, but it’s definitive and is an excellent introduction to Sagawa’s work. Nakayasu includes an introduction to Sagawa’s life and work, and translates every poem and prose piece included in the 2010 Japanese edition of Sagawa’s Collected Works. Nakayasu’s introduction gives Sagawa’s basic biography and context for her work among her peers and cultural history. Not a complete biography, certainly, but is satisfying as an introduction to the work presented.
Chika Sagawa was born in 1911 in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which is “in the very far north of Japan, nestled between the mountains and the sea, buried in deep snow for much of the winter.” She moved to Tokyo in 1928 and was introduced to the literary community by her brother. She became an influential member of the avant garde and Modernist scene and began publishing poetry in 1930.
In 1935, Chika was diagnosed as being in the late stages of stomach cancer, and she succumbed to the disease in January 1936. Her very last publications were excerpts of diary entries from her stay in the hospital[.]
She was just 24, but her work has remained influential.
As Nakayasu tells us, Sagawa was writing in the period before World War II and shortly after “the radical art group MAVO was formed” in 1923. Forms like haiku and tanka dominate the Western view of Japanese poetry, but Sagawa’s work is not heavily formal and uses many of the avant garde impulses introduced to Japanese art by MAVO and others. Sagawa’s work is heavily image driven and often concise, a nod to the well-known forms, but happily blends urban and nature images, as in “One Other Thing:”
A thicket of asparagus
Dives into the dirty afternoon sun
Their stems cut off by glass
Blue blood streams down the window
And on the other side
Is the sound of a fern unfurling.
One of the most striking poems in the collection is “126.96.36.199.5.” a brief piece that sets up a surreal image before turning it on its head:
Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand.
Surprised by her plant-like skin, she looks, and eventually removes her
In just two lines, Sagawa slows time and focuses the reader’s attention on a few important details: the trees, the girl, and her hand. By waiting to reveal the gloves, the reader is as surprised as the girl by the color of her hand.
Interestingly, because of Sagawa’s early death, she was unable to choose final versions for some of her poems. The Japanese editors included variations of some poems, and Nakayasu follows their lead. The “Newly Collected” section includes a poem called “Flowers Between the Fingers” that features a section that ends:
Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand, calling someone. Looking in surprise at her plant-like skin, she eventually removes her gloves.
Elsewhere in the book, the poems “Beard of Death” and “Illusory Home” both open: “A chef clutches the blue sky. Four fingerprints are left.” Are these new poems or simply different drafts of the same work? Which was written first? Does it matter? By including these variations, Nakayasu gives us a glimpse at Sagawa’s process.
Anyone interested in Japanese poetry would do well to add The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa to his or her library. Nakayasu’s translations are sensitive and confident and her introduction serves its purpose well. I’m curious to see if more translations and more criticism of Sagawa’s life and work come out now that this fantastic collection brings her to a wider audience.
What are your favorite collections of translated poems?
Today I’m gazing out the window a great deal. My current view isn’t exceptionally striking, but we can change that with a few creative lines, yes? This week, let’s muse on some dramatic landscapes together.
Guy Catling, Peaks, 2011. Collage. Via flickr.
Milton Avery, Gaspé Pink Sky, 1940. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Timothy O’Sullivan, Iceberg Canyon, Colorado River, Looking Above, 1871-1873. Photograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York.
The Dig by Cynan Jones (Coffee House Press, U.S. Edition, 2015)
In keeping with my Coffee House Press theme this week (see my two part discussion with CHP publisher Chris Fischbach and independent curator Sarah Schultz here and here), I read one of their recent releases: The Dig. It’s a dark and raw book, powerful in its short novella format.
The Dig follows two men in the countryside of Wales, one of whom is unnamed, and the other is a sheep farmer named Daniel. Daniel is silently grieving the sudden and violent death of his wife, juxtaposed with new life as he cares for his growing flock of sheep during lambing season. The unnamed man is a brutish man, who makes his living baiting badgers who he then pits against dogs in viscous illegal betting fights. Their two seemingly separate worlds parallel until they slowly begin to veer towards each other for violent collision at the end.
Some of the themes (life, death, violence) can feel a bit heavy-handed at times, but Jones moves on with such confidence that one hardly notices. In a novella like this, the themes have to be a bit more obvious as there isn’t as much time to spend slowly developing them.
The Dig‘s brevity makes it quick to digest, also partially in thanks to the nicely timed pacing throughout. It’s a muscular book, tackling both the brutality and raw vulnerability of life without wincing. Other reviewers and the back panel of the book compare Jones’ writing to Cormac McCarthy, which is apt. His writing is direct and unflinching, but lingers when it needs to, and alternately attacks when it needs to. Jones can deftly move from violence to the most intimate of moments, such as this one with Daniel thinking about his deceased wife:
He sat on the bales and let his eyes go round the shed. The sheep shifted into new comforts under the rain but there was nothing doing. The new lamb was drinking. He wondered what sort of a mother she would have made. They had talked about it, were ready for it. He pushed the thought away.
The cat scuttled in out of the weather and rubbed itself on the bales then went into the corner and settled itself and he felt a quiet transfer of love for the cat. His eyes filled with tears. He looked at the cat and held back the tears and felt himself smile desperately. Oh God, he said. You were so good. It was so good to have you.
The cat came up and sat with him, and for a while they sat like that, in the comfortable sound of the rain, and the closeness of the cat was almost too much.
It’s almost jarring how easily Jones can switch over to the brutality of the other man. I won’t excerpt the most disturbing sections, but here’s a glimpse, as men are holding down the badger to prepare it to fight:
The man on its back had knelt hard on it while it struggled and grunted and humphed underneath him and he seemed to get something carnal and delicious from that. There was a steady buzz. There was a bloody smell in the room now.
In his author statement, Jones addresses how he can look at such brutality close up, but also keep from pushing the reader too far: “There is a difference between voyeurism and witness. Compassion was key in balancing the book.” And he’s right. Despite the wholly terrible nature of the unnamed man, we see a tiny glimpse of something close to compassion in his pride of his favorite dog, and the pleasure he gets from the success of his business. These are only small glimpses in a very dark portrait of the man, but they somehow are enough to keep us reading through the disgust at his actions. Daniel, too, has a few moments of uncharacteristic anger in his otherwise passive world. Through these tiny holes that deviate to prevent the characters from being too archetypal, we see the complexity and unpredictability of nature.
What advantages do you think the novella form offers writers? Are there other books you’ve read that have made you cringe, yet balanced it enough to keep you reading?
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